Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

The Price of Progress

Overview: The Price of Progress

The idea of change was among one of the earliest ideals in the settling and colonizing of America. But the prolific change that occurred during colonization forced leaving traditions behind and that prevented people from practicing their religious beliefs, establishing their own ways of working, and building a better life. The idea that the early Republic could build something new and innovative meant that tradition was a burden to progress.

Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson seated, left profile, reading a book.

Allen & Rowell, Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ca. 1860, albumen print. | Photographs, Huntington Digital Library

Many of the writers and thinkers of the early Republic, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were strong proponents of the present and future as the hope and promise of American life. Both Emerson and Thoreau urged that we live by principles instead of traditions. In many ways we were trying to define our country as something that was distinctly different from America's European origins. Some of those principles and values focusing on progress are many of the characteristics that are still associated with what it means to be an American:

  • Being optimistic
  • Placing an emphasis on the future rather than the past
  • Taking risks

As America began to grow and develop, technological changes in the later part of the nineteenth century became more pronounced and influenced ways of working and living. Manufacturing and the ability to produce goods more cheaply and quickly meant that the old ways of the artisan and craftsman became obsolete. It is important to recognize that progress in certain aspects of life affected groups of people in different ways. Progress also resulted in changes in the environment, culture, and social structure.

By the 1920s, there was a huge renewal in American history and all things that represented the American spirit and ideal. That shift back to thinking about the importance of tradition was spurred by World War I and the increasing need for our country to demonstrate that it did have a history of its own and that we were not without our own culture and traditions.

Each generation in the United States struggles not only with the opportunity to be a part of change and innovation, but also to honor the past and our predecessors. What would society be like if all of our traditions disappeared? Humans from the beginning of time have grappled with decisions about when innovation and change is positive and when things should stay the same.

Objects and activities in this unit will help you and your students explore the tensions between tradition and change. Investigating each object’s origin, use, and symbolic meaning will give you new insight into America’s fascination with innovation and its struggle with the loss of traditions that come with it.

Essential Questions That Frame This Unit

  • When is innovation worth the loss of tradition?
  • What traditions are worth preserving?
  • In what circumstances do you value innovation over tradition?
  • Why do some craft traditions die while others survive?
  • What technologies helped to change and enhance life in early America?

Student Understandings

  • Americans as a whole have often valued newness over historic tradition.
  • Technological innovation creates cultural change that is often unexpected.
  • Innovation in America has been linked to both creative expression and an entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Change inevitably leads to a loss of tradition. Some traditions are worth losing, others are not.
  • In some cases, innovation can incorporate tradition in meaningful ways.
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