Book Review: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln

By December 15, 2009

Building off of Christopher’s recent review of Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street, I though I would post a recent review I’ve written on an important historical text that, while not directly addressing Mormonism, offers intriguing questions and approaches that we can apply to Mormon history. The first section is my review of Howe’s fascinating volume, while the second section provides a few paragraphs on how we can relate it to Mormon studies.

[Although this review may appear negative, please note that it is because I ended up removing much of the praise for the book due to length for this post; this is really an exceptional book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the period.  I decided to keep my critiques rather than my praise primarily because they deal the the issues I would rather discuss.]

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Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Recently republished in paperback edition, Daniel Walker Howe’s Making the American Self is an important contribution to early American intellectual and cultural history. Covering the century leading up to the Civil War, Howe demonstrates how the idea of “faculty psychology”—even if he uses the term in a very liberal sense—saturated much of early American discourse. From evangelicalism’s “new birth” to Lincoln’s egalitarianism, from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and even from the defenders of the Constitution to Frederick Douglass’s “Self-Made Men,” the concept of self-improvement through the regulation of human faculties was a dominant theme in the early republic. While notion is also common throughout many civilizations, Howe’s treatment persuasively demonstrates that the American climate was especially fertile for the concept.

While there are many intriguing aspects of the text, two specific themes stood out as significant to me and touched on important issues. The first is the idea of an “American Self,” or how citizens of the new republic understood themselves. Second is Howe’s presentation of American interpretations and adaptations of foreign sources and ideologies, especially the influence of Scottish common sense philosophy.

Though Howe’s title seems to imply that the text would look at various ways Americans understood their own identity, the narrative focused primarily on intellectual elites and, more specifically, intellectual elites with a northeastern accent. However, even if the book fails to consider differing ideologies in the profusely heterogeneous early republic, it does raise interesting and important questions. When at his best, Howe demonstrates that it was a mixture of Enlightenment philosophy and self-reliant rhetoric that worked to balance the passions with reason and conscience. To be American, Howe claims, was to pursue happiness through self-improvement. Further, Americans were defined, according to the author, by their self-identification more than larger communal associations (see, especially, chapter 4).

This latter idea is especially interesting to me, yet I fear that he is forcing this intellectual shift too early into American history. In his defense, Howe invokes Henry David Thoreau’s famous statement that the nation was turning its attention from the “res publica” to the “res privata” (108); Howe also points to individualist figures like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to support his claim. Yet, an important question to ask is whether these few voices were speaking representatively of or truculently against their larger culture. Given that a majority of early republic citizens were swept away by the growing evangelical movement that, while emphasizing the notion of personal choice, still depended largely on denominational affiliation, it seems presumptuous to claim that a majority of Americans did not feel a strong desire of affiliation with larger groups or communities. I feel that a more pressing issue is how antebellum thinkers worked out issues like individuality within these significant tensions of religious association within the theological marketplace.

Further, I think that Howe failed to deliver what the book’s ambitious title seemed to promise: what was so “American” about their conception of “Self”? Beyond acknowledging the intellectual borrowing from European, especially Scottish, philosophies, Howe does not explain how Americans either understood or explained their ideology when compared to the larger Atlantic culture. Many question are worth asking here, yet it is particularly interesting to explore how citizens of the early republic constructed their thought as unique in comparison to the European nations they were intellectually pitted against. Ideological boundaries are best understood when placed within a larger context, most often because those boundaries were constructed with the larger culture in mind, yet Howe’s book is not as interested in asking questions about the “American Self” in a comparative sense as I would have liked it to be.

Connected to this last point is the book’s second theme I find most interesting: the use and influence of foreign sources. Howe specifically singles out Scottish common sense philosophy as an important contribution to American thought, even if the specifics and mode of that contribution are still somewhat unclear. This idea reminds the reader that the early American republic was created and raised within a larger intellectual marketplace where ideas were shared, adopted, rejected, and dissipated; that most national identities came as a result of various ideological answers all trying to respond to many of the same compelling questions. While intellectual genealogies are almost impossible to decipher in a climate hinging on give and take, it does place added emphasis and necessity on context, context, and context. Acknowledging the role of foreign sources not only provides better light for the larger transatlantic environment, it also promises a better understanding of American thought within that environment.

Beyond identifying the Scottish influence, however, my questions extend further than the answers Howe provides. For one, the Scottish enlightenment was not a model of homogeneity; indeed, the answers and approaches by common sense philosophy were as diverse as they were numerous. Which approaches, for example, were Americans most interested in adapting, which approaches were ignored all together, and what does this reveal about early American thought? As ideas are only as useful as they can be adapted to the interpreter’s worldview, how did Americans accommodate these ideologies to fit their agendas and make them uniquely “American” (even if their notion of “American” is merely their own construction)? In short, I am not as interested in where these intellectual influences came from as I am in what they did with the ideas once they got them.

And finally, I fear that Howe’s desire to find a unifying theme with “faculty psychology” throughout American thought threatens to overshadow the overwhelming diversity that was early America. While overlapping ideas can be found, especially when the parameters for an idea are so encompassing, early American thought was composed of the manifold ideologies that the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, suggested. Beyond understanding the larger Atlantic intellectual marketplace America took part in, we need to also better understand the domestic intellectual marketplace America created.

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You will note that several of the ideas I presented here, especially the last paragraph, echo what I’ve been writing on JI lately. (See here and here.) I think the most important questions that this book raises concern how individuals in the early American republic understood themselves. For Mormonism, we are now (rightly) so enamored with trying to place the early Saints within the larger American culture that we sometimes overlook the importance of how the early Saints themselves situated Mormonism. How did they understand their own belief within the context of their national surroundings? Two previous and competing frameworks–Klaus Hansen’s Quest for Empire (where Mormonism is seeking dominion and power that matches the opportunistic agendas of their contemporaries) and Marvin Hill’s Quest for Refuge (where Mormonism sought distance from the disastrously pluralistic environment of democratized America)–have been deemed too extreme and unable to to withstand a more nuanced reading. We know that early Mormons were paradoxical in that they held constitutional zeal on the one hand and governmental angst on the other, but how did they understand that position within the context of early American citizenship when many worshipped the revolution but were hesitant toward Jacksonian democracy?

In both national and religious matters, we like to understand the early Saints as in the “us vs. them” mode, yet such an approach is as simplified as it is problematic. I was recently reading Christopher’s thesis on Methodist influence on Mormonism, and he paints a wonderful picture of identification dichotomies: the LDS leaders would emphasize the apostate status of competing religions, while lay members were much more nuanced and held that their previously religious association was still authentic, if incomplete. Especially as we get to the peripheries of Mormonism, how did the saints in Philadelphia, who did not have constant contact with the larger body, understand their balance of Mormonism on the one hand and patriotic Americans on the other? How did converts in the south during the late 19th century, whose worship patterns differed drastically from Utah, situate their religious and American experience?

In short, how did Mormons take part in, or act in reaction to, the making of the “American Self”?

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History


Comments

  1. Yeah, complicated. What I found in Philadelphia…. There is a really strong idea that upon conversion the converts have set themselves apart, have stepped into sacred space, are no longer gentiles. The main point I’m presenting my would-be book is that the ultimate way to do this was to leave for Nauvoo, where they would be out of the world (this, of course, was problematic, but still a dominating idea). I however deal with those who hadn’t left yet and thus found themselves “in the world” when the wanted to be “out.” This created tensions that I’m trying to elaborate.

    It seems to me that in the early Mormon’s mind both the themes that Hansen and Hill note were occurring. The early saints often did seem to speak in extremes.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 15, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  2. Good post, Ben, and thanks for the shout-out. I think Steve’s last couple of sentences hit the nail on the head.

    Comment by Christopher — December 16, 2009 @ 2:38 pm


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