Jason M. Opal is an associate professor of history at McGill University, where he teaches a range of courses on early American history. His most recent classes have been about slavery and antislavery in the revolutionary period (1760s–1820s) and about the history of American families. He is most interested in social and cultural history and in the debates of the postrevolutionary period over what kind of nation or society the United States should be. His first book, Beyond the Farm: National Ambitions in Rural New England (2008), was about ambition among New England farm families. His current book project, Avenging the People: Andrew Jackson, the Rule of Law, and the American Nation (2017) centers on the problem of vengeance—extra-legal violence and punishment—and a man who built his life around its pursuit: Andrew Jackson.
The family farm--small, self-sufficient, and hard-working--holds a special place in the American imagination. It also figured prominently in early American political thought, most especially in Thomas Jefferson's famous description of farmers as the "chosen people of God." But the family farm also came under direct and explicit criticism in the early republican age, not so much from any major political figures as from a broad array of liberal pastors, school reformers, and family theorists. They argued that American society should cultivate "ambition," or the desire to escape the narrow bounds of farm and family and seek fame (not just fortune) in the wider world. This lecture explores this process by using little-known sources from mostly New English village boosters and school teachers, along with the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of those who grew up debating their own ambitions.