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Allen C. Guelzo


The surprising connection between American political theory and cognitive psychology.

In 1855, the Rock Island Railroad and its subsidiary, the Rock Island Bridge Company, built a bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. A year later, the steamboat Effie Afton collided with one of the bridge piers, and the boat's owners promptly filed suit in federal court against the bridge company, asking for compensatory damages and the removal of the bridge as a hazard to navigation.

More was here, though, than met the eye: the bridge represented the first reach of the northern railroad system across the Mississippi, and the Effie Afton's Saint Louis owners saw this as a direct threat to the grasp that the river and the slave-holding South held on midwestern agriculture. At the trial, the bridge company's chief counsel charged that the boat had been deliberately wrecked as a political gesture, with the owners of the Afton attempting to break up the Northern railroads in just the same way that Southern politicians were threatening "a dissolution of the Union" in order to shore up the slipping hegemony of slavery. But then, he added, the wreck of the Afton was also a psychological gesture. The pilot of the Afton had been driven, not just by the politics, but by "passion"—by a mad, unreasonable urge to wreck what could not be controlled—when, if reason had been in charge, "the chances are that he would have had no disaster at all." The jury listened to both arguments, and then deadlocked, nine to three, in favor of the bridge company.

The chief counsel for the bridge company was Abraham Lincoln.

It does not come as a great surprise to find that Lincoln in 1857 would discover a political analogy between Southern threats to disrupt the railroads and Southern threats to disrupt the Union. Lincoln was a successful railroad lawyer in Illinois throughout the 1850s and had "always been an anti-slavery man," and the Effie Afton suit presented an irresistible convergence of the two.

What strikes us as peculiar was why Lincoln followed his political explanation for the wreck of the Afton with that strange psychological argument about passion. But the burden of Daniel Walker Howe's Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln is that these two arguments, political and psychological, were a single argument in more minds than just Lincoln's, and that conflict about the political order of the American republic closely tracked particular theories about the architecture of human consciousness. This is a startling proposition, since few people in the twentieth century imagine that there should be any significant connection between cognitive psychology and political theory. But the surprise that may emerge from this proposition is dwarfed, by the close of this book, by the even more provocative suggestion that the eighteenth century, and not the twentieth, might have had the better view of this connection.

Daniel Walker Howe, who has taught at Yale and UCLA and is now the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University, has spent his career chasing the ideas that mattered most to Americans between the Revolution and the Civil War. But Howe's curiosity about the history of American thought has pushed beyond cataloging schools of American thinkers to ask about the quirky ways that sets of explicit, formally organized systems of ideas cast broader shadows of attitudes, style, and culture.

What was it, for instance, about the Whig party's commitment to national projects of "internal improvements" in the 1830s that held so much attraction for American evangelicals that they formed a sort of Moral Majority for the Whigs (despite the fact that the Whig standard bearer, Henry Clay, was a notorious womanizer and gambler)? Howe's answer, in his landmark The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979), focused on the idea of improvement, and how the transformation of the American landscape into an orderly and productive economic system in the 1800s paralleled the evangelical urge to transform unruly American souls into orderly and productive citizens.

In Making the American Self, "improvement" becomes the central metaphor for American thought from the mid-eighteenth century until the Civil War, and the work of "improvement" turns principally on the process of "constructing a self" that could be improved upon. The materials for the "construction" of this self were reasonably straightforward: with only a few adaptations, eighteenth-century Americans assumed that the "self" was a collection of "faculties" or "powers," composed of the understanding and will (the moral and rational powers), supplemented by the emotions and instincts (animal powers), and served by the mechanical reflexes (vegetative powers). The great question—in fact, for Howe, "the central problem of eighteenth-century moral philosophy"—was how these elements should be organized and which one of them ought to be calling the shots.

This was not as easy as it looked. Even before the creation of the American republic, there was already sharp disagreement over a proper pattern for American selves. Much as there was general agreement that reason ought to have the chair, with the other faculties bowing submissively, there was also general agreement that reason could be an exceedingly weak moderator of the faculties. So, achieving a stable, "balanced" character meant calling in psychological allies for reason that would keep the will functioning smoothly and the emotions properly subservient to reason.

Benjamin Franklin, who was "one of the most famous exemplars of self-construction who ever lived" (and who was so constantly rearranging his public persona to suit his opportunities that some recent biographers like Francis Jennings, Robert Middlekauff, and David T. Morgan have wondered whether there ever was a coherent self at all be hind his many opportunistic masks) favored enlisting self-interest as reason's sheriff to control the emotions and thus find the way to balance and happiness. Others among the Revolutionary generation, like Washington and Alexander Hamilton, enlisted the "love of fame" as reason's best friend.

It was the weakness of reason as a cognitive monarch that led Jonathan Edwards to offer a very different path to self-construction. Edwards and Franklin were agreed on at least three points: that the self was an arrangement of faculties, that it needed reconstruction from its primitive natural condition, and that the weakness of the rational faculties (and especially the will) meant that reason was incapable of performing the job on its own. But for Edwards, it was original sin and not (as it was for Franklin) one's original station in life that made reconstructing the self necessary, and he certainly looked for no help from prudence or self-interest. Self-interest, in fact, was exactly what needed to be transcended, since self-interest only shaped the outward behavior and did nothing to address any defects within the personality. Reconstructing the self could only begin with a divine initiative of grace, with a dramatic renovation of the faculties from outside. Only then could the process of real self-construction begin properly.

That, as it turned out, was not actually Edwards's most radical departure from the Franklinesque model. Edwards argued that heightened emotions—which he tactically referred to as affections to avoid the pejorative connotation of passion—were not only useful in overcoming the feeble inertia of reason in responding to divine grace, but were in fact the best situated of the faculties to appreciate the beauty of divine grace. Perception was, for Ed wards, the very essence of being; God therefore reveals himself not as a logical argument but as beauty, as "the consent, agreement, or union of being to being." It only made sense to Ed wards to see the emotional response to this beauty as the primary force in re constructing the unregenerate self along the pattern of grace.

This did not make Edwards into a raw "enthusiast," but it certainly opened opportunities for others to turn out that way, as Edwards learned to his sorrow in the Great Awakening of the 1740s. And it was partially as a response to the potential abuses of the "passions" that yet another path toward self-construction was opened up in the eighteenth century by Scottish "common sense" moral philosophy.

The Scottish Enlightenment, which ran the intellectual gamut from David Hume to Adam Smith, put a high value (like Franklin) on self-interest and prudential calculation, but Scottish moral philosophers also inserted a universal "moral sense" between reason and self-interest, so that self-interest's advice to reason was always strictly censored, and so that everyone could be held liable to the information necessary to self-control and restraint from too much self-interested indulgence.

Since the "moral sense" responded to self-evidence rather than logic, it was (like Edwards's affections) an aesthetic function, although it responded more to justice and right relationships than to beauty and "fitness." But at least it offered a place for legitimate emotional responses and the testimony of the passions, and for that reason it proved highly attractive to Old School Calvinists like Charles Hodge, who pulled shy of Edwardsean revivalism but who was equally reluctant to surrender religion and reason to self-interest.

Howe has a keen eye for how the Scottish middle way held a peculiar attraction for Americans, who found America and Scotland sitting in very much the same cultural situation at the end of the eighteenth century. Like Americans, the Scots existed on a periphery of the British empire; like Americans again, the Scots salvaged their sense of national pride largely by their success in commerce, and so one of the principal tasks of the Scottish philosophers was to reconcile the acquisitive spirit of commerce with the benign order of virtue. Unlike classical republicanism, which suspected commerce as selfish, the Scots came to the defense of commerce as a form of self-improvement for Scotland, as a virtuous exercise in national self-construction.

"These two programs, the improvement of the nation and that of the individual, were mutually reinforcing," argues Howe, and so in both Scotland and America questions that had been posed to the construction of the self now became the questions one asked about the construction of the new republican order. Should government, Howe asks, "be structured to maximize opportunity for self-fulfillment? Is self-development a right or a duty? To what extent should society intervene to help the disadvantaged develop their potential? Can the proper fulfillment of some individuals be accomplished without the exploitation of others—for example, slaves or women?" The American answer was to construct a national government that mirrored eighteenth-century assumptions about psychological government. The federal Constitution, of course, sets out to create a government of balanced powers; but this, Howe claims, was a literal reflection of the goal of balancing the faculties, or "powers," within the human personality.

And yet, the politics of "construction" reflected the divisions of opinion that marked "self-construction." Publius, for instance, lays out a politics in the Federalist Papers that ranks reason, prudence (or self-interest), and then passion in that order, so that reason regulates the government, and the government regulates the passions (which in Publius's case pretty clearly meant "the people"). But anti-Federalists like Thomas Jefferson valorized "the people"— especially the independent farmer, whose type Jefferson praised as "God's chosen people if ever he had one"—and defended the legitimacy of the passions in the formation of political character as much as the revivalists promoted them in the formation of spiritual character. Thus, two rival political models grew up to match the rival psychological models: the Federalist who endorses self-interest and rational regulation of the passions, and the Jeffersonian who applauds the people, and the passions, as the mark of true democratic character.

This division might have remained clearer had it not been muddied by two major challenges in the first half of the nineteenth century. One was the surprising success of evangelicalism, which Jefferson had prophesied would disappear by the 1820s, but which was in fact far stronger in the 1820s than it had been 50 years before. The success of evangelicalism guaranteed its complexity: some parts of the evangelical coalition, like the Methodists and Baptists, promoted newer and starker versions of passion-laden revivalism, and very largely put their political shoulders behind the wheel of Jefferson's Democratic party. But many others, from the New England–inspired Charles Finney to the Scottish-influenced Old School Presbyterians, preferred to keep reason firmly in control of the self, and elaborated apologetic and systematic strategies that appealed (in ways that would not have shamed the Enlightenment) to a psychology based on the rational discovery of divine truth and the rational imposition of divine order on the self. Politically speaking, these establishment evangelicals preferred the Federalists in the 1790s, and went wholeheartedly behind the Whigs in the 1830s.

The mention of the Whigs points Howe to the other great challenge of the nineteenth century, which was the market revolution. The technological achievements of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century that we rather loosely herd together under the rubric of "the Industrial Revolution" introduced major new ways of producing and distributing goods in the Western world, and with it new ways of organizing and employing labor. Among the revival-oriented evangelicals, the market was suspect: they dealt in the spontaneous response of the emotions as the best guide to the self, while the market was driven by the rational calculation of dollars and cents and corrupted the affections into mere desires. And they voted for Andrew Jackson and the antibank and anticorporate Democrats; in some cases, like the Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright, they actually ran as Democrats for Congress.

But like the Scots a century before, many other establishment evangelicals and Old Schoolers like Hodge, Noah Porter, and James McCosh saw in the market, not an enemy to oppose, but a force to harness. The market offered Americans multiple opportunities for mobility and self-transformation—from agriculture to the professions, from backwoods to city, from rags to riches—and since self-transformation was what evangelical conversion was all about, many evangelicals like Finney hoped to tame the market's potential for social mobility, and to discipline it as they hoped to discipline their own passions, with the moral sense and sanctified reason.

If anything, these evangelicals came to see it as their mission to harmonize the market with the moral urge for self-development and to contain the impulsive, passionate behavior of an economy based on the gratification of desires. Or, to put it another way, the market required that its glorification of choice and desire be matched by the self-discipline needed for capital formation, and that was a requirement that evangelicals nursed on Scottish "common sense" moralism were ideally prepared to supply.

The other great supplier of that requirement, as Howe adds, was the Whig party, which is where Abraham Lincoln emerges as the other bookend of this story. Al though raised in a Calvinist home, Lincoln's parents were antirevival Baptists, and though he shucked off the theological substance of Calvinism, he retained a hard shell of suspicion for emotion in religion or in politics.

Howe focuses (as many other commentators on Lincoln have done since Edmund Wilson) on Lincoln's 1838 address to the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum as an early key to Lincoln's political character. What Howe catches is the close linkage in that address between Lincoln's anti-Jacksonian politics and the psychology of reason. With an eye on Andrew Jackson's great Bank War and the Panic of 1837, Lincoln claimed that Jackson and the Democrats had usurped the rule of law; but lying behind that usurpation was a Democratic psychology that substituted "the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs for the executive ministers of justice." Passion "will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence." Max Weber could hardly have put it better.

Nor, as Howe indicates, was Lincoln the only one to make such a linkage. Like Lincoln, Lyman Beecher thought that the Democratic party in Connecticut "included nearly all the minor sects, besides the Sabbath-breakers, rum-selling tippling folk, infidels, and ruff-scuff generally." Like Lincoln again, Frederick Douglass condemned slavery, not only as a system of economic oppression, but as a general license to the "passions" of white slaveowners. There is no patience here with Daniel Feller's recent attempt in The Jacksonian Promise to resurrect a Jacksonian synthesis from the culture of the early republic. Jackson stands on one side, Clay and Lincoln on the other, and their minds are as disparate as their politics.

It was, fully as much as politics, his loathing for Jacksonian passion that drew Lincoln to the Whigs, for the Whigs offered him the ideal political companion to "cold calculating, unimpassioned reason." Guided by Scottish-style political moralists like Francis Wayland, the Whigs glorified economic development, and yet struggled to corral the worst excesses of the market with a rigidly moral self-discipline. For Lincoln, they offered mobility, opportunity, and escape from the "passions" of Jeffersonian agricultural life; but because they were governed by reason, they favored political schemes of compromise, in the form of gradual emancipation, colonization, and the Union-saving Compromise of 1850.

Even those Whigs who lacked much of a religious profile (like Clay or Lincoln) were willing to give at least an endorsement to evangelical schemes for national moral self-improvement, for bourgeois politeness, and temperance, in contrast to the passionate and individualistic hedonism of the Democratic opposition. Whigs sought redemption, not liberation: as Howe demonstrated in his earlier work on the Whigs, they supported centralized public schooling, reformatories, and voluntary societies, but most of all advocated self-culture, self-denial, self-help, and self-control. Better that, in Lincoln's mind, than the "passion" that had willfully destroyed the Effie Afton and that strained (as he said in his First Inaugural) the "mystic chords of memory" that bound the Union together. When the Whig party died of electoral failure in the 1850s, he joined the new Republicans, but he always thought of himself as "an old Whig," and he ran the Republican party and his own administration very much as though he were the last Whig president rather than the first Republican one.

The tragedy of the Whigs, and of Lincoln himself, was that it was no easy business to transfer the discipline of the self to the discipline of commercial or democratic society. Howe's concluding chapters on the efforts of Horace Mann, Dorothea Dix, and Horace Bushnell to impose rational orderliness on American schools, families, and hospitals are all parables about the limitations of reason apart from the will, the emotions, and self-interest.

Richard Hofstadter once remarked that Lincoln died on the right side of 1865, before he could discover that the passions of the market were no easier to subdue than the passions of the slaveowners: "Had he lived to seventy, he would have seen the generation brought up on self-help come into its own, build oppressive business corporations, and begin to close off those treasured opportunities for the little man," not to mention seeing "his own party become the jackal of the vested interests, putting the dollar far, far ahead of the man."1 That may be underestimating Lincoln, who had his own suspicions of "silk-stocking Whigs," but it does say accurately enough what Howe does not like to admit, that the voyage to self-construction from Franklin to Lincoln may have been a voyage to nowhere.

Instead, what seeps through every page of Howe's discussion is a wistfulness for the psychological heroism of the self-constructors. Although Howe warns that this book is consciously "far from comprehensive, much less exhaustive, in its coverage" of all the permutations of self-construction in the early republic, it is much less of a book for neglecting many of the people Howe red-lines at the start: "Southern planters other then Jefferson and Madison," or "charlatans or tricksters" or even "parodies or critiques of self-construction, although Melville's The Confidence Man could have lent itself to that purpose." Indeed it could have. What Howe mainly writes is the Whiggish half of this story, with only the scantiest attention to how Jeffersonians, Southerners, and Democrats used passion in the construction of the self, or whether they really did at all.

The revivalists get something of the same short shrift at the expense of the moral philosophers and the canonical writers of the New England renaissance (Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller), despite the fact that distinguishing among the various strands of an intellectually athletic evangelicalism is critical to puzzling out the various patterns of self-configuration in America. Howe does not handle the Romantics or the transition to Romanticism very gracefully, and he prefers to domesticate Romantic willfulness under the rubric of "New England Platonism," so that Romanticism also becomes a form of self-culture. And it has to be said that even his treatment of Lincoln and "passion" is limited to the Lyceum address, the 1842 Temperance ad dress, and the 1852 eulogy for Henry Clay. Lincoln's more pointed attempts to link "passion" with slaveholding and secession, as in the Effie Afton trial and the First Inaugural, are simply missed.

Part of this unevenness is surely due to the fact that much of this book is hung together from essays Howe has published in a variety of journals and edited anthologies, mostly since 1989. But another part of this unevenness arises from Howe's unabashed desire to recommend to our times many of the prescriptions of the self-constructors for self-discipline and self-control. Self-construction was not, Howe asserts, an exercise in pathological repressiveness: "I consider the opportunity to make one's own identity a healthy kind of autonomy." And virtually his last words in this book mourn, Miniver Cheevy-like, the triumph of "orthodoxies" that "teach us to discount the chances for self-improvement and the opportunity to be self-made."

This does little to help us understand why these newer "orthodoxies" came to prevail, or why both self-improvement and faculty psychology should have gone up the spout. Briefly, Howe alludes to the displacement of "moral philosophy and the classics" by "literary modernism and popularized forms of psychoanalysis, both of which celebrated the expression of the passions rather than their subordination to reason." But this is not the same as an explanation, or even a description, of what happened: William James, who did more than any other single individual to sap American confidence in reason and self-construction, is mentioned only once, in passing.

This stance appears odd when we remember that one of Howe's major complaints against Charles Sellers and (to a lesser degree) Harry Watson has been that a "market revolution" as oppressive as they paint it seems to be an unlikely candidate for so much success in the 1840s and 1850s. A moral philosophy that was as useful as Howe makes it seem in the 1830s certainly needs as much of an explanation for why it wasn't working by the 1870s. Howe also poses an even greater oddity by accepting as his working definition of the self the postmodern critical description of the self as "a sense of personal order, a characteristic mode of address to the world, a structure of bounded desires"—in other words, as a performance or a representation.

It would be hard to find any one of the thinkers Howe so earnestly recommends to us who would have endorsed such a definition of the self. As James Hoopes wrote in 1989 in his underappreciated classic, Consciousness in New England: From Puritanism and Ideas to Psychoanalysis and Semiotic, the late seventeenth century in the West introduced a dramatic rerendering of the self from a substantial entity that was pretty well exchangeable with the mind to an understanding of the self as one of several aspects of the mind. Much of the struggle of the moral philosophers was a struggle to hold on to a concept of the self as a created spiritual substance, even while allowing for an admixture of construction. Howe's ultimate problem may be in reconciling his recommendation of moral self-construction with a definition of the self that precludes the moral.

Still, Howe succeeds triumphantly in linking the cultural gestures of politicos like Madison and Lincoln with the formal systems of thinkers like Edwards, and middle-brow culture brokers like Mann, Emerson, and Fuller. His skill in dovetailing these otherwise angular and resistant minds illumines landscapes of the American intellect that the pragmatic narcosis of American public philosophy had for long closed off to view. And it may be, on the basis of those achievements, that Howe can purchase an audience in his closing plea for reason over passion. "The old faculty psychology and the principles of self-construction that it fostered still address our situation," Howe gently insists. "There is still a need to justify education as a form of self-fulfillment, not only as vocational training," and there is an even more urgent need "to rebuild a functioning democracy on habits of personal responsibility, civility, and self-discipline." Despite "the unfashionable quality of their principles," Howe is convinced that "the American advocates and exemplars of self-construction do, I think, speak to our times if we choose to listen." I can't say that I'm so confident as that, but it might not be a bad idea.

Allen C. Guelzo is Grace F. Kea Professor of American History at Eastern College. His biography of Lincoln was recently published by Eerdmans.

1. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, 1973), p. 105.

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