HISTORY 101 Lecture Notes - Lecture 1: Christian Fundamentalism, Henry David Thoreau, Sigmund Freud

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Published on 30 Sep 2017
Essay Question #2
A defining quality of the American character is the perpetual desire to reinvigorate
elements of the past. The theoretical underpinning of this Agrarian Myth is the desire for
progress without change. Interestingly, the Agrarian Myth morphs over time and adjusts to
reflect the evolving American character, repackaging itself to fit the new narrative. The narrative
of the Agrarian Myth takes on many different faces throughout history including that of
Jefferson’s small farmer, the Protestant fundamentalist, the average American, Ronald Reagan,
and now Donald Trump. These changing faces demonstrate its flexibility and durability. Further,
it seems that the Agrarian Myth follows a similar trajectory throughout history. It is most often
when Americans find themselves disillusioned by war, crisis, or great change that they seek
refuge in the Agrarian Myth.
The end of the Victorian era marked a paradigm shift in American society. The emerging
Modern Era represented a departure from a deep faith in absolute reason to the realization of the
power of the irrational, which Sigmund Freud helped to popularize. In tandem, a transition from
a personal moral code to an impersonal one occurred. This general movement in cultural thought
bridged the end of the Victorian era to the Modern era. More importantly, it signified the
reconfiguration of the American identity. In light of the atrocities of World War I, Americans
were disillusioned and had misgivings about progress and change. Quoting Henry David
Thoreau, Albert Einstein encapsulates this uncertainty that so well defines the American
character of the time: “Our inventions are an improved means to an unimproved end.” Einstein
suggests that progress can in some ways cause society to regress in its actions, morals and
values; it is worth noting that Einstein was likely speaking in reference to the atomic bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a genocide for which he is in large part culpable. As for the
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narrative of the time, Einstein’s quote sheds light on the reemerging Agrarian Myth and the
aversion some individuals had toward change. The lingering disillusionment from World War I
contributed to sentiments that would help give full rise to the Agrarian Myth in the near future.
Protestant fundamentalists of the rural South also opposed progress, fearing the changes
that came along with urbanization. Tension between the urban cities and rural South represented
a clash in ideals. While northern cities began to industrialize with the development of factories
and heavily commercialized goods, Protestant fundamentalists recognized the threat posed by the
progress sweeping through cities. As industrialism gave birth to the agribusiness, the South
refused to evolve in its agricultural practices. Rather, it sought to reassert Jefferson’s agrarian
values, championing the virtuous farmer which Jefferson referred to as “the simple tiller of the
land.” Further, social and cultural changes in the early twentieth century posed another threat to
Protestant fundamentalist values. For instance, the status of women changed with the
implementation of the Nineteenth Amendment; the role of women also changed during World
War I as they transitioned from homemaker to breadwinner, and even further in the 1920s with
“flappers” and the invention of birth control. An increasing black presence in the political sphere
also developed following the Great Migration and during the Harlem Renaissance while revolt
against Victorian morals and sexuality emerged as well. These fundamentalists were entrenched
in their traditional values and saw these changes as a threat to those values.
Protestant fundamentalists realized that the only way to halt the rapid change was through
legislation. For example, these fundamentalists were largely involved in the prohibition
movement as they believed that alcohol was the source of their problems and the cause of the
Civil War. They spearheaded “The Noble Experiment” in order to achieve prohibition
legislation, playing an instrumental role in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. This is a
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