The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War secured political independence for America over the course of a few years; the struggle for literary independence, begun in previous centuries, would take much longer. In 1783 (the year of the Treaty of Paris, which established the legal status of the new nation) Noah Webster, the great champion of literary independence, published an educational manual whose title emphasized the overweening power of English models, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language Designed for the use of English Schools in America, even as its first installment, “American Spellings,” strove to assert independence. American spellings, perhaps, but “English Schools in America,” not American schools. The struggle to establish an American literature in the late eighteenth century was fought on two fronts, essentially: through texts that directly and explicitly address the politics of republicanism and/or the distinctive qualities of the American wilderness, such as: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; the Federalist; the letters of John and Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784-5); or Philip Freneau’s poetry; and through works, which, as Cathy Davidson and Jane Tompkins note, critique and redefine the social and cultural order of things, such as the novels of Susanna Rowson, Charles Brockden Brown and Washington Irving. Common to both types of works, however, are uncertainties, tensions and contradictions. America is a nation founded on reason; both its society and its natural setting can be explained rationally, as in the Federalist and Jefferson’s Notes. Or, America, like the Old World, is a place where chaos can and does break out at any time, as for example, murder, mayhem and disease do in Brockden Brown’s novels Ormond and Wieland, the former of which paints a horrific portrait of the yellow fever epidemics which ravaged Philadelphia (killing 10% of the population of that birthplace of liberty) in 1793 and New York in 1798. Of course, such works contain internal dissensions as well. For example, social and natural chaos are also present (if repressed) in The Federalist (1778-88) and the Notes, while the rationalism of the Enlightenment penetrates Ormond (1799) and Wieland (1799). The literary discourse of this era represents America as being continuously threatened both from within and without. Poets like Joel Barlow feared “The Conspiracy of Kings” (1792), while prose writers from Alexander Hamilton to St. Jean de Crévecoeur were wary of the diversity and divisiveness of America. It does not seem accidental that satire was a major form of literary expression in the post-Revolutionary era; it is a genre which not only reveals stupidity, venality, false pride, etc., but its gestures are also gestures of control of such evils, as the poetry of Barlow, the fiction of Hugh Henry Brackenridge and the drama of Royall Tyler indicate.
One of the hopeful signs that America would develop an indigenous literature was the fact that all of the major genres made promising beginnings during this period: poetry, drama, nonfiction prose and fiction.