What does it mean to be an American, and how have individual Americans consciously endeavored to create their own identity? "Self-improvement," "self-culture," "self-made man," to "make something of oneself"all are terms that were used from colonial to Victorian times. The particular language that framed the quest has fallen out of fashion, but it was a powerful cultural imperative for hundreds of years. The quest, in all its "post" guises, continues. Daniel Howe considers the ideas Americans once had about a proper construction of the self. Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Bushnell, Horace Mann, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, among others, engaged in discussion about the composition of human nature, the motivation of human behavior, and what can be done about the social problems these create. They shared a common model of human psychology, in which powerful but base passions must be mastered by reason in the service of virtue. How to accomplish this was often itself a subject of passionate controversy.
The story reveals that Americans both distrusted individual autonomy and were enthusiastic about it; passions, reason, and moral sense collided on how to manage it. Howe is empathetic to all the questsfor elites and artisans, blacks and womenseeing in them a basic pursuit of identity. The author demonstrates that aspirations for "self-control" and "self-discipline," grounded in conservatism and evangelical Christianity, also shaped movements that branched leftward to promote social welfare, feminism, and civil rights.
In this intellectual history, Howe (American history, Oxford Univ.) explores how Americans have developed their individualism or, as Jefferson phrased it, their "pursuit of happiness." Howe covers the entire 18th century and the first half of the 19th. In addition to Jefferson, he discusses figures like Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Margaret Fuller. Howe demonstrates that all these individuals agreed that human passions must be controlled by reason and that individualism should retain a sense of virtue and a respect for the community. In the early 19th century, the quest for dignity and self-fulfillment expanded slowly to include blacks and women. An erudite study; recommended for academic and large public libraries.Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., N.Y.