In 2016, Congress created the United States Semi-Quincentennial Commission “to plan and orchestrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.” In response, the Commission has launched America250, which asks all Americans to “take stock of where we have been and look ahead to the future.”

The themes of America250 bear resemblance to the fundamental question that Noah Webster put to his fellow American citizens following the Revolution, and would continue to help define throughout his lifetime: “What does it mean to be an American?”

The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is proud to celebrate this initiative by offering America250-themed programming beginning in 2024 with “The Original Promise of America,” a three-part lecture series… featuring Gene Leach, Professor of History & American Studies, Emeritus, Trinity College. See below for more information!

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“The Original Promise of America”

Click here to reserve tickets now!

2024 Lecture Series

July 18 ~ September 19 ~ November 21

6:30-7:30pm

OVERVIEW

This series of lectures will explore how the Revolutionary generation—Noah Webster’s generation—defined the purposes and prospects of their new nation.  Noah will make occasional appearances; he played a considerable part in creating a distinctive national culture. But the talks won’t foreground him, nor will they bask in nostalgia for a simpler, more hopeful age.  Studies of the past inevitably reflect the present; they can also illuminate paths into the future.  While focusing on Revolutionary Americans’ thinking about the promise of the United States in its childhood, we will consider as well how much of their vision has survived, how much ought to be preserved, and why.

THE ORIGINAL PROMISE OF AMERICA: “THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS”

July 18, 2024 

Many Puritans settled in New England and many Quakers settled in Pennsylvania seeking salvation—eternal happiness in the next world.  But these religious folks sought to improve their lives in this world too, as did all other voluntary migrants to British America.  Colonists and then Americans avidly pursued the earthly happiness of ensuring they always got enough to eat, of rising in society, above all of owning fertile land in a continent so lavishly stocked with it.   Their America was “a place wher [sic] they might have libertie and live comfortably.”

THE ORIGINAL PROMISE OF AMERICA: “LIBERTY

September 19, 2024

Early Americans universally celebrated liberty.  The white men among them probably enjoyed more of it than any other people of their time.  Yet even they distrusted liberty so much that they seldom allowed the word to go around unchaperoned.  Orators, writers, politicians, and clergymen typically assigned “liberty” an adjectival minder: “ordered liberty,” “rational liberty,” “Christian liberty,” “temperate liberty.”  The liberty Americans lauded had no resemblance to individualism, and it had absolutely nothing to do with license.  The right kind of liberty was really self-government, “a freedom within bounds” set by laws, founded on property ownership, and ideally guided by virtue.  Washington and Franklin, towering model citizens, personified American liberty as it should be.

THE ORIGINAL PROMISE OF AMERICA: “ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL” 

November 21, 2024

A few idealists claimed the American republic stood for the equal rights of all humankind.  So did a few Revolutionary propagandists, among them the author of the Declaration of Independence.

The truth was otherwise.  White men claimed the lion’s share of all that America offered, with little left over for the rest of humanity.

People of color fared the worst.  Native Americans received nothing but broken pledges.  The new nations promised only bondage to the vast majority of its black residents.  By the time of the Revolution, slaves made up 20% of the colonial population.   Jefferson and Washington each enslaved hundreds of Black people; even Franklin owned several servants.  Nor did any of these great men “remember the ladies” when laying the nation’s foundations, as Abigail Adams famously urged her husband John to do.

But women and Black people knew America was very young and growing fast, a country of the future.  From the beginning they claimed larger shares of American promises than their white male masters had ever dreamed of offering them.

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Reserve your spot now!

*Doors open to the presentation at 6:00pm, and seating is on a first come-first served basis.  Seating is limited to 50 guests.

About the Presenter: Gene Leach is a long-time resident of West Hartford and taught United States history and American Studies at Trinity College in Hartford until his retirement in 2012. Gene came to Trinity College in 1975 with degrees from Harvard, Michigan, and Yale; at various points in his long tenure, he directed the American Studies Program, chaired the History Department, and directed the graduate programs in both fields. His scholarship has centered on American social thought and this country’s working class. Leach has written, lectured, and served on governing boards for several organizations devoted to Connecticut history and culture—including the West Hartford Historical Society!