In his inaugural address of 1961, President John F. Kennedy concluded his speech with this memorable exhortation to all Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy is clearly encouraging us to practice self-sacrifice, devotion to the community and dedication to others. But by virtual of his having to make this statement, he is foregrounding the fact that Americans are deeply self-interested and motivated to make the best choice they can for themselves. This tension between self-interest and dedication to America and its ideals has revealed itself in our literature from its beginnings through the middle of the nineteenth century.
Americans have always been divided on the grounds of what they find important. This distinction is made between interests of the community and interests of the individual. For a majority, the community does not have any interests as its activities and needs are dictated by its rulers. Hence, it is only the individuals who possess interests and concern. Americans held the belief that the individual has the freedom to possess self-interest and that once the individual did well, the community benefited and therefore did well too. However, there were political supporters for the interests of the community who believed that the community needed to be managed by elites. For them, it was debatable whether individuals have the moral and intellectual ability to live without the management of these elites. The liberals perceived themselves as the elites while the conservatives were looked at as the freedom traditionalists (Barham).
Writers have examined the view of whether the community interests are more important or the individual interests hold that docket. People who pursue their self-interests without being confined to the box often are beneficial to the community as Barham states in ‘The roots of freedom and tyranny’. Contrastingly, interests of the community when managed by a few elites end up in misery. While Frederick Bastiat believed in the individual interests, Auguste Comte opposed his view. He believed in the community and saw the individual as an abstraction. He says that the individual has no right to do as they please. While he says that the individual interests improve the community, he is quick to add that the community shapes the individual. America however proves that having the freedom to do as one pleased results in the community’s prosperity and growth of the nation.
Barham looks at the reason why America with a population of only 5% of the world has a quarter of the wealth in that world. He goes on to explain that Americans enjoy their freedom and are not dictated by the authority of their rulers. Clay says that a third of the people of America is happy with their progress and is interested in sharing with the world on the ideas that made this nation what it is. It is the people who were concerned about their own interests that made America what it is today. By going after their own interests, they contributed to the uplifting of the interests of the community and hence its growth which eventually led to the growth of the nation.
Franklin writes on the savages of North America. The white race of North America thinks that the Indians are not worth as they do not share the same manners with them. The whites think that their ways are civilized and others are not. The Indians also believe that they are also civilized. Franklin argues that if America could be impartial at judging other races, they would discover that all races share the same kind of behavior and civilization, only it is portrayed in different manners. While Americans hold high their self-interests, Indians are free and have no artificial needs. They do not need to labor so much so as to have a comfortable life. Instead, their interest is in the conservation of their lives which is the means to their growth. On the other hand, Americans’ self-interests dictate that they live laborious lives.
Franklin writes on the treaty of Lancaster in 1744 which was held in Pennsylvania to illustrate the self-interest of Americans and their efforts to make the best choices for themselves. The treaty was between America and the six nations. The commissioners brought to the attention of Indians the availability of a fund that was aimed at educating the Indian youth. America wanted the six nations to send a number of young men to the college where they would be provided for and taught in the ways of the whites. The Indians were appreciative but they did not fail to notice the Americans wanted to impart their own concepts and ideas into the Indians. The Indian had their own way of life but Americans were ignorant of this. They tried to asset that their own education was more valuable. The Indians rejected this offer on the grounds that this education ruined their own by setting them apart from their way of life. They instead offered to train some American youth in their own education and make men of them.
Franklin further illustrates his ideas in the example of missionaries. The Americans would love to assert their religion in Indians as they belief it is the best. Indians listen attentively as the origin of religion is preached to them. However, they have their own version of the story which they believe in. When they try to preach the same to Americans, the latter term it fiction and false. This illustrates that American want their views to be believed as gospel truth while they will not believe in the religion of others.
The idea of egotism is also seen in the treatment of Americans to visitors. When they visit other communities, they want to be treated with a lot of respect and reverence. They do not believe this should be reciprocated though. This sets them apart as holding the idea that they are masters and others are slaves as is illustrated by the works of Franklin. The same is seen in business. Americans believe that the prices they set for products are fair to them but never mind the sellers. The narrator in Franklin’s ‘Remarks concerning the savages of North America says that hospitality is a virtue held by the people whom the civilized call barbaric and the best bet should only be a benefit for the former.
Through his work, Franklin brings out the contempt with which other races view the assertive nature and selfish interests of Americans. The Indians in this case are use. They try to bring to the notice of Americans the fact that they too have a life and it is this life that has they have practiced for centuries. This means that they have survived through their barbarism and the Americans should consider respecting other people’s way of life.
Wheatley talks about slavery in ‘On being brought from Africa to America’. Being one of the founders of African- American literature, Wheatley illustrates the opinion of Americans on other races in this poem. She talks of being brought from pagan land and being made to understand to understand that there is a God. The poet is quick to pint out that she had no prior knowledge of redemption but the whites drove religion into her. Americans were ignorant of the fact that the black race had a life and beliefs of their own and instead want it known that the god they believe in should be the God of all races. Her mention of pagan land is satirical as this is how Americans look at the black race. Asked to embrace the religion of other communities, they would probably cry foul and set out on a race fight. This is how selfish they are brought out.
Bradstreet illustrates in her poem ‘Prologue’ that white people find it difficult to believe in the ability of black people to be so intelligent as to compose poems. Through her words, it is clear that whites think that their poetry and history supersedes the compositions of blacks and other races. She uses sarcasm to tell these chauvinists that her poetry can not ruin the superiority of their works. She says that she is simple but she does not care what the Bartas do. The Bartas here are a symbol of Americans or the white race.
Bradstreet says that nature can not be changed. She is appreciative of whom she is and intends to communicate this to the selfish civilized. It is they who believe that the likes of the poet are only suited for the needle, which in this case is the unskilled work. It is especially unusual for a female to compose, least of all a black. If one does, it is either luck or the work is stolen. This implies that Africans can not achieve what the whites can and they do not deserve it. If they do, they are lucky or worse thieves. The poem is a protestation of this perception.
The same views are demonstrated in Edward’s sermon. John Edward divides America into two. One part is the small group of elites who see themselves as superior to the rest f the population. His second group is that which demands that he and his group of elites care for them. Americans think of themselves as progressive but they think it is their own doing. Hey care so much about their own lives that they do not see God’s doing in any of their developments. The same developments are also a contribution of blacks and if the latter were to withdraw their services from the state, there would be probability of a downfall which the Americans in their self-exultation are blind to (Edwards).
Barham, Clay. The roots of freedom and tyranny: What divides America? 12th January,
2009 < http://www.claysamerica.com/
Bradstreet, Anne (1612-1672). ‘Prologue’
Edwards, Jonathan. Sinners in the hands of an angry God. July 18, 1741. 12th January,
Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790). “Remarks concerning the savages of North-America”.
In Franklin Benjamin. The Bagatelles from Passy. Ed. Lopez, Claude A. New York: Eakins Press. 1967.
Wheatley, Phillis (1753-1784). “On being brought from Africa to America”. 12th January
2009 < http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/2273.html>