Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln

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Originally published in 1997 and now back in print, Making the American Self by Daniel Walker Howe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought, charts the genesis and fascinating trajectory of a central idea in American history.

One of the most precious liberties Americans have always cherished is the ability to "make something of themselves"—to choose not only an occupation but an identity. Examining works by Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and others, Howe investigates how Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries engaged in the process of "self-construction," "self-improvement," and the "pursuit of happiness." He explores as well how Americans understood individual identity in relation to the larger body politic, and argues that the conscious construction of the autonomous self was in fact essential to American democracy—that it both shaped and was in turn shaped by American democratic institutions. "The thinkers described in this book," Howe writes, "believed that, to the extent individuals exercised self-control, they were making free institutions—liberal, republican, and democratic—possible." And as the scope of American democracy widened so too did the practice of self-construction, moving beyond the preserve of elite white males to potentially all Americans. Howe concludes that the time has come to ground our democracy once again in habits of personal responsibility, civility, and self-discipline esteemed by some of America's most important thinkers.

Erudite, beautifully written, and more pertinent than ever as we enter a new era of individual and governmental responsibility, Making the American Self illuminates an impulse at the very heart of the American experience.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An erudite, original, and often eloquent reconstruction of, and tribute to, a vital and protean tradition in American liberal culture."—Charles Capper, Boston University

"By reinvigorating a vanished past...Howe provides also much to ponder for the present. We have no better historian on broad questions at the intersection of mind and culture in the American past than Howe."—Mark A. Noll, University of Notre Dame

"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 illuminates landscapes of the American intellect...long closed off to view."—Allen C. Guelzo, Books & Culture

Library Journal
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195387896
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 9/2/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,536,231
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History Emeritus, Oxford University and Professor of History Emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of What Hath God Wrought (OUP 2007), which won the Pulitzer Prize in History, The Unitarian Conscience, and The Political Culture of the American Whigs. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Table of Contents


I Virtue and Passion in the American Enlightenment
1 Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Problem of Human Nature
2 The American Founders and the Scottish Enlightenment
3 The Political Psychology of The Federalist

II Constructing Character in Antebellum America
4 The Emerging Ideal of Self-Improvement
5 Self-Made Men: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
6 Shaping the Selves of Others

III The Cultivation of the Self Among the New England Romantics
7 The Platonic Quest in New England
8 Margaret Fuller's Heroic Ideal of Womanhood
9 The Constructed Self Against the State



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  • Posted September 14, 2012

    Should be required reading

    In this election season when so much political ranting about "true Americans" is heard (especially via radio), this fine book by one of our most thoughtful historians should be read by all. It's an engaging, insightful study of those American voices from the past that can still inspire the best in us.

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