The Search for an American Identity

The American Revolution is often perceived as a societal rite of passage, a period of “social separation, grueling trial, and triumphal reemergence.”[1] For most of the pre and post-war period, the American people were stuck in a stage of transitional emptiness in which they were neither one thing nor the other, searching to establish their identity as a nation. They worked hard to separate themselves as much as they could from the British but struggled in the process. Since they had long identified with British traditions and customs, they had to find out what it meant to be American. They started borrowing and mixing from existing cultures and practices to create something new and organic, something that was unique to them. The clothing worn both pre and post revolution acts as visualization of this period of transition and liminality.

This political cartoon that was included in our reading is an example of how the American colonies were often viewed by the British, savage and uncivilized similar to an Indian.

Indians were typically identified as the “savage other”[2] and often used as a symbol of the American colonies in representation of them being uncivilized and in need of rule by an outside force.  This identification was a European concept. In order for the British to justify to the rest of Europe their control of the colonies, they compared them to the Indians who, for the Europeans, had no marks of civility.  In the years leading up to the revolution, though, Americans wished to imagine themselves as having established customs and of being an actual part of the history of the continent. Establishing an identity that denies a history with the British helped to further their goals of revolution and separation. As the colonists grew farther away from Britain, they began to accept being associated with the Indian and used this image as a tool of revolution, acting “out their political and economic discontent in Indian disguise.”[3] They didn’t value the Indians as much as the idea that through them they could imagine themselves as an actual part of the continent’s ancient history and having no connection to England. Indians still remained the “savage Other while at the same time representing an American Self.”[4] Through the image of the Indian, the colonists created a revolutionary identity that was based upon the stereotypes associated with Indians. A loyal colonist wouldn’t go against the crown but an Indian savage definitely would.

On May Day, part of the celebration involved the dancing around the maypole (as seen in the picture on the left), which symbolized the unity of the old king with whoever would be his successor.

The identification with Indians and their position as the symbol of the American self slowly came about through two different forms of British rituals and misrule. In the years leading up to the revolution, the colonists would express their political and economic discontent through protests in Indians disguise, and were often referred to as “white Indians.”[5] They envisioned themselves as both British citizens and as rightful Americans who were protecting the customs of their nation. Most of these protests against the established British practices took the shape of traditional European methods of protest but done in Indian dress. One traditional form of European protest was carnivalesque holidays and festivals. These events acted as the beginning and end of a cycle and would end with the ritualistic burning of a royal figure who represented “the past year, the older generation, and the accumulate evil.”[6] The burning of the old king symbolized revolution and an overthrow of the old method of rule. Similar to the phoenix, fire and ash symbolized the connection between death and a new life. In the colonies, Tammany societies would create May Day rites that would be similar to this European tradition. Tammany was an Indian chief who acted as the mythic counterpart of the May fertility king in colonial American rituals. The death of Tammany symbolized the disappearance of the Indian people and the emergence of an era ruled by Americans. Though this seems against the idea that the colonists welcomed their connection to the Indians, the rebirth of Tammany actually suggested that Americans, as successors, were another version of Tammany and actually shared his identity.   The re-born Indian-Americans would, in turn, continue to question the identity that the British expected of them. The revelry created by this practice helped to establish a sense of revolution directed specifically at the king. Philip Deloria, in Playing the Indian, states that “these festivals, however, meant little without the figure of the Indian,”[7] the growing symbol of the revolution. The Indian was something new, with no connection to England, that had cultural ties to the land they were calling home. The colonists began to further associate themselves with the figure of the Indian as they continually grew farther away from the British Empire. Nationalism also grew as a result of these celebrations by the Tammany society. It acted as something that the colonists could rally around as a strong identifying factor and helped further the dividing line between the insiders (colonists and Indians) and the outsiders (British Empire). A different type of protest occurred in the Puritan New England area where carnivalesque celebrations were outlawed. This form of protest originated from masked or black faced misrule in Europe. The purpose of this was to disguise ones identity and become someone who would carry out revolutionary protests against the ruling body, a kind of “moral detachment.”[8]  Example of this are the Mast

The Boston tea party is an example of how the colonists used misrule and Indian identities to carryout protest against the British Empire.

Tree Revolts that took place in New Hampshire.  In 1705, an act was passed that reserved the largest of New England’s towering pines for the Kings Navy.  David Dunbar, the King’s Surveyor General, zealously enforced the Mast Tree Laws and sent men to Exeter to make sure that the laws were executed.  The men, though, met attack by resentful colonists dressed as Indians.  This was the first recorded incidence of the meeting of New England’s white Indians but certainly not the last. Just like the Tammany celebrations, misrule grew from English roots and evolved into a tool of the revolution through the figure of the Indian. These events of misrule were tightly controlled and carefully plotted. Participation had become largely disengaged from the common man and focused more on the political agenda and activity being portrayed by elites who wanted to avoid mob mentality. Even though the common crowd did not directly participate, what these events did do was foster and grow their support of the motivations behind the actions that were carried out. Since these events were done in Indian garb, the presentation of an Indian became almost like a mascot for the revolution, a symbol for which people could rally behind and connect. Clothing has historically been used as a way transform oneself. Whether it involved dressing above one’s class or wearing the costume of another gender, clothing allowed a person to create their own identity and decide for him or herself who they wanted to be often in the face of extreme consequences. The Indian did this for the American colonies. In searching for their independent identity, American colonists found that “playing the Indian” allowed them to disassociate themselves from Britain and become someone who could rebel against authority. This was the perfect solution until they were no longer stuck in a limbo between who they used to be and who they wanted to become in the future. Carnivelesque rituals and misrule through the adoption of the Indian as a second identity were not the only forms of protest exercised by the colonies during this time period. Prior to the war, British rule had gone to great measures to exercise control and make sure the colonies were dependent upon them for buying and selling goods. The colonies, as a result, protested through the boycott of British goods. This meant, though, that they were forced go to great lengths to devise what exactly was American taste, style, and everyday life. What came out of this search for self was the homespun movement; clothing that embodied the image of reserved and simple elegance. This design was chosen specifically to convey a specific political meaning. The colonists wished to be separate form the ostentatious elegance that was Europe during this time period. Following the revolution there was still much confusion about who the American people were separate from Britain, and this confusion could be seen within clothing. Some were still embracing the homespun that had become popular during the revolution while others were returning to the elegance associated with Great

Pictured below is an example of a homespun gown from the period of the American Revolution.

Britain. Adams expressed this identity confusion through his belief that “the Contagion of European Manners, and that excessive Influx of Commerce Luxury and Inhabitants from abroad, which will soon embarrass Us.”[9] Adams feared the association of elegant manners and fine objects with royalist politics, and dreaded that this in turn would overrun America. He even considered bringing back sumptuary laws that would “forever banish and exclude

Women’s importance in the creation of homespun gave them a definable political position during the revolution. The important quality of Homespun was that it was indeed made at home. It holds a double meaning of course of being a literal home and a political home (made in the colonies instead of in England).

from America, all Gold, silver, precious stones, Alabaster, Marble, Silk, Velvet and Lace.”[10] It was ironic that the nation that had just won independence from England would go back to becoming dependent on the same ruling body regarding matters of taste and style. Whenever there was a void in their American culture, they would turn to Europe’s customs, and it was a fear, especially by Adams, that the new world would be made over in the image of the old. The colonists struggled to find an identity that was adequate enough for their newly independent reality. The pride for their country that was still strong following the end of the revolution was what unified the nation during this post war time period, helping them to establish their own culture based on the “equality, freedom, and democracy-that emerged from the American Revolution.”[11] It helped them work towards establishing a nation that was the opposite of English luxury and decadence but instead was an embodiment of American simplicity and elegance. Deloria perfectly summarizes the colonists search for an American Identity by stating that “Liminality is a frozen moment of unpredictable potential in the midst of a process of change…Evocative, creative, and often frightening, it is critical to an individual’s (or a society’s) final reemergence as something new.”[12] The search for the American identity took place for most of the pre and post war period. Americans wanted to become an independent nation culturally but struggled with separating themselves from the British customs they had so long associated with. The clothing they wore symbolized both their fight for independence and their struggle to find who they were as a nation. This struggle, though, was pertinent for them to be able to emerge from this time period as a new, self-determining nation.   If you’re still confused about what the American Revolution was or are just looking for something to do, below are links two videos for your listening and learning enjoyment: one is made by schoolhouse rock and the other is set to the song apologize.     [1]Deloria, Philip Joseph. “Patriotic Indians and Identities of Revolution.” Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print: 35 [2] Deloria, 32 [3] Deloria, 12 [4] Deloria, 32 [5] Deloria, 34 [6] Deloria, 16 [7] Deloria, 20 [8]Auslander, Leora. “The Politics of Silk and Homespun.” Cultural Revolutions: Everyday Life and Politics in Britain, North America, and France. Berkeley: U of California, 2009. Print: 26 [9] Auslander, 99 [10] Auslander, 99 [11] Auslander, 108 [12] Deloria, 35   Picture Sources: