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Making the American Self

What does it mean to be an American in the new millennium? Do we believe, as the Founding Fathers did, that there is a direct connection between the manner in which we cultivate personal identity and the formation of our identity as citizens? How do modern Americans define identity as individuals and as citizens in a society that emphasizes entitlement over individual responsibility? By extension, do Americans appreciate that the rights of citizenship are accompanied by corresponding duties to act responsibly in the civic arena and to make informed decisions about the democratic process? Do Americans continue to believe, as earlier generations have, that character and self-reliance lie at the heart of our national identity and that both contribute to the ethical functioning of a free and ordered society?

These are the kinds of probing questions that Daniel Walker Howe, Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University, inspires in his eloquent book, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.

Americans have grappled with the question of identity since the founding of the republic. Interpretations about the essential elements required to define identity have altered over the last two centuries as various philosophical or cultural priorities have prevailed. Howe suggests that there is a common language in American history that was framed to define and treat identity—a language rooted in eighteenth-century discussion about individual self-construction or self-improvement. This language was powerful in nature, emphasizing the transcendent virtues of common sense and morality that bridged ethnic and social divides. Proceeding from roots in classical republican political theory and Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy, the language focused on “proper construction of the self,” or the cultivation of a balanced character, to obviate weaknesses in human nature that might create social problems. Howe is to be applauded for placing his discussion in historical context, although this methodology runs contrary to current academic fashion. In so doing, he provides a rich discussion about Americans’ enthusiasm for individual autonomy and the problems intellectuals faced particularly in the nineteenth century, when individualism clashed with accepted patterns of moral conduct.

Howe describes the genesis of America’s language of identity by examining the works of a variety of thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dorothea Dix, and Margaret Fuller. We learn that each treated identity by considering such issues as the relationship of the individual to society and the extent to which individuals are capable of self-construction.

In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson extolled the Enlightenment virtues of self-construction and self-discipline as the best means for cultivating a steady personal character, which, in turn, underscored model citizenship. Howe reminds readers that the realities of human weaknesses suggested that few might actually achieve the highest levels of virtuous citizenship, and the Enlightenment model was later criticized for its perceived exclusivity. Nevertheless, the emphasis on common virtues and the ability to realize human potential was consistent with the Constitutional Framers’ acceptance of a diversity of interests in the American nation, which they treated as a source of national strength rather than division. Their close contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, the greatest American Puritan evangelist, stressed religious elements in identity by pointing to grace and conscience as central to the human equation. Howe suggests that it was out of a synthesis of Enlightenment virtues and Protestantism to form a “faculty of psychology”—using terminology favored in Scottish moral philosophy—that Americans found the normative model for their language of identity.

Howe continues by pointing out that in the early nineteenth century the use of such terms as self-made man or self-construction dropped dramatically as intellectuals came to regard them as “platitudinous expressions of an obsolete individualism.” There was a movement to democratize the ideal of self-improvement as American society expanded geographically and economically, becoming more fluid in the process. This enterprise of democratization was not uncommon in societies being modernized, as in the case of Victorian Britain.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Howe suggests, Abraham Lincoln revived a more positive interpretation of self-construction when he discussed the “purposeful reconstruction of the nation” using metaphors drawn from individual experience. Later, in the nineteenth century, Emerson and the Transcendentalists drew on New England Unitarianism and Neoplatonic ideas to create a mystical aspect to American identity that was metaphysical and emotive. The Transcendentalists relied more heavily on German Romanticism than Enlightenment thought, but the Enlightenment’s concern with the practical application of ideas to daily life remained embedded in the national psyche.

Howe concludes by discussing Henry David Thoreau, whom he calls the “most radical exemplar of self-construction” because Thoreau subordinated all of society’s requirements to the “individual’s pursuit of moral perfection.” Thoreau had a millennial vision of America in which self-improvement was a right and a duty. He believed each person had a conscience, and that conscience led to understanding of an objective moral order, out of which a community’s identity emerged.

Howe navigates the intricacies of the philosophical and historical influences on American identity with an admirable deftness that should provoke continued discussion. He anticipates the idea addressed most recently by his fellow historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, that America is at a crossroads in its cultural history and in its understanding of identity. Some argue that in our multicultural age, many are uncomfortable with “being American.” The fractionalization of national identity into subsets determined by ethnic or cultural heritage resulting often from politicized considerations seems to suggest a societal uneasiness with one national identity. Howe believes Americans have lost a “normative rationale for self-construction” that in the eighteenth century was not only valued as expedient but also considered a matter of high principle. “We live in a world,” Howe concludes, “that has become much more cynical. Today the prevailing orthodoxies teach us to discount the chances for self-improvement. They teach us that our identities are determined by the social matrix in which all are embedded.” Because the need for human autonomy and individual conscience is still valued, Howe wonders if we will rebuild a “functioning democracy on habits of personal responsibility, civility, and self-discipline.”