Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution of America's Romantic Self-Image

Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution of America's Romantic Self-Image

by Andrew Burstein

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The provocative interpretation of American political rhetoric

Americans like to use words of sentiment and sympathy, passion and power, to explain their democracy. In a provocative new work, Andrew Burstein examines the metaphorically rich language which Americans developed to express their guiding principle: that the New World would improve upon the Old. In


The provocative interpretation of American political rhetoric

Americans like to use words of sentiment and sympathy, passion and power, to explain their democracy. In a provocative new work, Andrew Burstein examines the metaphorically rich language which Americans developed to express their guiding principle: that the New World would improve upon the Old. In journals, letters, speeches, and books, an impassioned rhetoric of "feeling" set the tone for American patriotism.

Burstein shows how the eighteenth century "culture of sensibility" encouraged optimism about a global society: the new nation would succeed. Americans believed, as much by sublime feeling as by intellectual achievement or political liberty. As they grew more self-confident, this pacific ideal acquired teeth: noble Washington and humane Jefferson yielded to boisterous Jackson, and the language of gentle feeling to the force of Manifest Destiny. Yet Americans never stopped celebrating what they believed was their innate impulse to do good.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Stimulating, well researched, and relevant to today's debates about the nature of the American character and the role of the United Sates in world affairs.” —Library Journal

“Fully documented and carefully written, Burstein's book puts up a convincing case for his main thesis: the American character has to be forged, then reshaped over time, in a process of individual, regional and national self-scrutiny.” —The Roanoke Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As the season of impeachment subsides and the campaign season looms on the horizon, readers with an interest in American political expression would do well to turn to Burstein (The Inner Jefferson). The American Revolution, he writes, would have failed without the "language of feeling" that was used to articulate the Enlightenment ideal of a just society. He goes on to cite great examples of American expression, from the sublime phrasings of the Declaration of Independence, which combined "masculine sentiment and a kind of theater," to Patrick Henry's impassioned cry, "Give me liberty or give me death!" As America grew more powerful, however, the voices of the noble Washington and the humane Jefferson were supplanted by that of the pugnacious Andrew Jackson (who, writes Burstein, "seemed to enjoy killing"). A rarity among academic writers, Burstein minimizes his own rhetoric and instead uses a rich panoply of original sources that give every page a rich texture and render the whole stirring and convincing. Though the book focuses on the first decades after the Revolution, Burstein does discuss the relation of 18th-century political rhetoric to the contemporary variety. Accessible and insightful, Burstein's book explicates and vivifies the discourse of democracy.
Library Journal
Given Bursteins expertise regarding the Founding Father whose stirring words and political views did so much to shape Americas self-image, the topic of his newest book is a natural one. Previously, historians have traced the American sense of exceptionalism to a variety of sources: the Puritan ideal of a City on a Hill, George Washingtons warnings against entangling alliances, and the belief that Americans were a chosen people. Adding to these, Burstein (history, Univ. of Northern Iowa; The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist, Univ. of Virginia, 1995) now adds the claim that the 18th centurys cult of sensibility (as exemplified in the sentimental fiction of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Richardson) had a lasting impact in America, contributing to a particularly emotional brand of patriotism and strong feelings of benevolence and generosity. Burstein shows that this pacific compassion could evolve into policies that might seem anything but gentle. Bursteins book sometimes shows signs of strain as it tries to demonstrate that sentiment was the all-pervasive root of the major traits in the American character. However, one must credit Burstein with producing a book that is stimulating, well researched, and relevant to todays debates about the nature of the American character and the role of the United States in world affairs.Thomas J. Schaeper, St. Bonaventure Univ., NY
Kirkus Reviews
A scholarly, exhaustively detailed account of how America's founding generation used the "language of sentiment" to establish a benevolent, romantic self-image for the new nation. Historian Burstein (Univ. of Northern Iowa) has compiled evidence from letters, speeches, newspapers, poems, and popular literature to illustrate 18th-century America's "concern with the workings of the human heart," a concern that helped shape the founders and their nationalist ideology. Through the use of sentimental language, the revolutionary generation created a sort of secular religion envisioning America as a divinely ordained Eden whose example would liberate the world from tyranny. Burstein parses this sentimental language, citing the impassioned words of Jefferson, Crèvecoeur, Paine, and others. With a profound understanding of the moral and intellectual climate of the Revolutionary era, Burstein describes the evolving mythology of the young nation. Washington was transformed into a symbol of republican virtue, a selfless Cincinnatus forsaking his plow to defend his country. The "spirit of '76" stressed a love of liberty that compelled total self-sacrifice. As postwar factionalism and economic instability rose, the rhetoric of moral crisis returned. Federalists increasingly bemoaned the "unbridled passions" of the multitudes, fearing a descent into Hobbesian mob rule. Hence, they proposed constitutional checks and balances to channel public sentiment. Jefferson, Burstein's quintessential Man of Feeling, feared this centralization of power as a smokescreen for aristocracy; he revered the simpler, agrarian virtues, worshiped Nature, and trusted in resilient individualism. While the Jacksonian eraseemed to embody Jefferson's idyllic vision, it also promoted concepts of acquisitiveness and aggression. As the 19th century advanced, Burstein notes, the seemingly contradictory concepts of sentiment and power were merged into a national ideology of benevolent aggression, whereby power was wielded for paternalistic or "civilizing" motives. Burstein wisely admits that the nation hasn't always lived up to its romantic self-image, especially in its treatment of slaves and Native Americans. A welcome addition to the literature exploring American history's ideological underpinnings.

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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First Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Inventing a nation entails giving definition to the character of the people, identifying their compatible qualities and common understandings, cultivating a sense of moral community. In the United States, this process is still going on. It has provoked every emotion from the menacing rhetoric of nativists to the humbling acknowledgment of diversity. Almost every such attempt to define the nation's identity can be linked in some way to an embellishment of the language and events of the American Revolution—a romance with the pre-romantic age of the eighteenth century.

    The most distinctive emotional force of those years was sentiment and sympathy. When citizens today claim that mastery of the continent was attained by the enterprising spirit of unselfish, fit pioneers, or when they avow the right of all to free speech and assembly, or whenever the U.S. government asserts that maintaining world peace can best be accomplished by a benevolent use of American power, the spokespersons for these ideals have relied on an inherited vocabulary of sentiment and sympathy. In his 1801 Inaugural Address, in words that Americans today still relate to, Jefferson termed his country "the world's best hope." Seeing the "rising nation" as a land that was "wide and fruitful," he urged its citizens to "unite with one heart and one mind," to restore after a decade of heated politics the sentimental values of "harmony and affection." For, without these, he insisted, "liberty and even life itself are but dreary things."

    From the time of the Revolution, if not before, Americans have tended to project a self-image of charitable concern and active self-restraint. Less persuasively, perhaps, their commitment to ordered liberty has dictated that righteous self-expression stop short of forfeiting reason through the degenerative effects of self-indulgence, greed, license, or political fanaticism—the unhealthy passions. During the Revolutionary crisis, loyalists decried rebel Americans' excesses in just such a vocabulary. The passion they witnessed in the activities of patriots during the 1770s appeared to them dangerous and unruly; they described the failure to check behavior in terms of "deformation," of a loss of reason and judgment. People recognized and feared their own base instincts; they knew they were vulnerable creatures subject to temptation. Freedom could not exist without morality—both sides in the American Revolution believed that—and both felt certain that the other lacked fortitude and enough moral strength to avoid being victimized by untrustworthy leaders.

    In part because mid-eighteenth-century Americans were thought (and acknowledged themselves) to be culturally and economically inferior to Europeans, the preeminent pens and leading voices of 1776 focused on what they believed was a widely held sense of moral superiority over the powerful mother country from whom they were to separate. Starting by describing their continent in idealized imagery as a promised land conducive to the growth of liberty, they highlighted the virtue of simplicity possessed by the people of the thirteen colonies, and they promoted a community spirit generated through popular resistance to an authority as unsentimental as it was unrepresentative.

    Revolutionary America's eloquent polemicists could defend the inseparable causes of independence and American exceptionalism by the use of a potent, viscerally felt contrast: they claimed they were a patient, understanding, sensate people, and that the king and Parliament, who had sought to suppress their decent impulses, were necessarily dull, insensitive, and emotionally misaligned and misdirected. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in particular played up the distinction between the feeling and the unfeeling, between a virtuous people and a tyrant who had "waged cruel war against human nature itself." Americans were resorting to war only after grievously suffering the "last stab to agonizing affection," while King George III had "plundered," "constrained," and "neglected" honorable subjects who had been simply seeking their rightful happiness. Because the colonists' British brethren were "deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity," Americans had united to form a new consanguinity. Thus the nation of a just sensibility, with its "manly spirit" (here meaning one with sturdiness and conviction), had determined to "renounce forever these unfeeling brethren."

    As Jay Fliegelman has effectively argued, the Declaration of Independence was intended to be read aloud as well as in its printed form. Print culture in 1776 was secure in its authority, yet Jefferson aimed to preserve the special character of the spoken voice in his composition of a vigorous and passionate, politically persuasive document. When one member of Parliament denounced the Declaration as a "wretched" instrument "drawn up with the view to captivate the people," John Wilkes, a defender of American rights, rose to laud Jefferson's composition: "The polished periods [sentences], the harmonious happy expressions, with all the grace, ease and elegance of a beautiful diction, which we chiefly admire, captivate the people of America very little; but manly, nervous [vigorous] sense, they relish even in the most awkward and uncouth language. Whatever composition produces the effect you intend in the most forcible manner is, in my opinion, the best." Jefferson may not have seen his technique as Wilkes did, but he clearly aimed to mix style and sentiment in a way that affected listeners as well as readers. He was in effect announcing to the world a new oratorical ideal that combined masculine sentiment and a kind of theater. To "captivate," in the sense almost of ensnaring or bewitching (as the member of Parliament intended to convey), was not the effect of the Declaration; rather, Americans were responding to language that contained sensory power, that coursed through the nervous system and, in fact, made "sense."

    Self-serving distinctions between feeling and unfeeling persisted in American political rhetoric in the decades after the Revolution. A Fourth of July oration in Portland, Maine, in 1801, for example, reminded citizens of the meaning of independence: "We were no longer esteemed the rebellious subjects of Great Britain: but as a magnanimous people struggling for liberty—for our inherent birth-right ... in opposition to men and measures instigated by the vilest motives; in opposition to men totally devoid of principles, of humanity, and of every spicies [sic] of fellow feeling." In Ohio, the Scioto Gazette that same year referred to a Great Britain likely to prevent farmers' flour from reaching the West Indies as an "unfeeling nation." Of the expected blockade, the newspaper editorialized: "The prospects of the enterprising citizens of the western country [are] blasted in the bud—their only avenue to foreign markets obstructed by an arbitrary and unfeeling nation, whose subjects are starving for the very article which they have prevented from proceeding."

    As the new republic grew, it continued to develop a sense of its special destiny grounded in its unique and unprecedented, emotionally rich and resilient, morally uplifting national creation story. Scholars who have written about sentiment have primarily related it to the sentimental literature of this period, especially to the female consciousness. But sentiment and sympathy—and the culture of sensibility in general—were used to sustain the enterprise of nation building. It was as important for men as for women to cultivate this sensibility during and after the Revolution, and it went well beyond familiar characterizations to comprise an enduring counterpoint to plain masculine assertiveness and national aggressiveness.

    The Enlightenment made an impression on the American founders not only in introducing a reverence for science, an appeal to intelligent judgment, and a tone of criticism but in asserting that harmony and sympathy existed in nature. "The prosperity of reason in the eighteenth century," Peter Gay has written, "was less the triumph of rationalism than of reasonableness." The world of the literate was being emptied of religious mystery and filled with a philosophic understanding of humanity. In America, from the Stamp Act, which ignited Revolutionary protest, through the Jeffersonian-Hamiltonian party battles of the 1790s, anxious concern for the preservation of liberty and for the continued claim to happiness intensified Americans' fears of aggressive forces and aggressive behavior. The language of sentiment and sympathy, used by a people who routinely called themselves peace-loving, constituted a defense against inner and outer turmoil.

The concept of sensibilité had arisen in the seventeenth-century French novel as a combination of amour, amitié, and the capacity to feel pain. When medical research yielded more precise terminology, men with philosophic minds in eighteenth-century France and England combined their respect for science with social responsibility, as they came to identify the progress of civilization with decency, generosity, and optimism. The meaning of sensibility expanded accordingly, linking the physiology of the nervous system with feminine delicacy and masculine self-control, with matters of private conscience and public virtue. To be endowed with sensibility in its most attractive (and at the same time most afflicted) form meant to have an enlarged capacity to perform benevolent deeds, to show affection readily, to shed tears and empathize strongly with human suffering. While women were easily acknowledged to possess such characteristics—tenderness and benevolence, fainting spells and languid spirits being extreme manifestations, positive and negative—men also possessed, to a certain and varying degree, a sensible nature.

    Any understanding of sensibility begins, then, with its medical definition. British America's perspective on the psychoperceptual system in humans, of a mind that received impressions, dated from John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Nerve fibers set off tremors; nervous tension within the body directly affected conscience and consciousness. Indeed, the words conscience and consciousness were for the most part interchangeable throughout the eighteenth century and coincided with hearts of compassion, with sympathetic emotions. While the heart combined circulatory power with vital equilibrium and expressions of love, a conscious person was one who commanded a moral sense.

    A revolution in understanding human physiology was underway. Dr. George Cheyne, who treated his friend the popular novelist Samuel Richardson, wrote the paradigmatic line in 1733: "Feeling is nothing but the Impulse, Motion or Action of Bodies, gently or violently impressing the Extremities or Sides of the Nerves, of the Skin, or other parts of the Body, which ... convey Motion to the Sentient Principle in the Brain." Human feeling was understood to be simply the motion of nerve fibers; every response to a moral concern had a physiological referent. Popular writers thus spread, in the words of a modern critic, "the new science of man, directing thought about man from his visible eyes and expressive face to his unseen nerves and controlling brain, from what he looks like to what he feels to what he knows."

    Because the body was viewed as a mechanism that might be easily overwrought, sensible creatures, however respectable, disinterested, creative, or accomplished, might also "fatigue their Heads with intense Thought and Study," according to Bernard Mandeville, an early-eighteenth-century writer and physician specializing in nervous disorders. James Madison's hypochondria, or possible "epileptoid hysteria," was explainable in these terms. New Hampshire senator William Plumer wrote of his Kentucky colleague Buckner Thruston in 1807:

He was educated to the profession of the law—& is a man of science—Is a good Greek & Italian scholar. Is a man of an amiable disposition—his manners are refined—His feelings exquisitely delicate—is subject to hypocendriacal complaints, &, of course, at different times appears very different & unequal. He assured me to day, that was he once attacked with rudeness in a news paper publication he would retire to private life. He is not like his late colleague Brackenridge [John Breckinridge], or his present fellow [Henry] Clay, effective man.

By this time, traits considered feminine, or like the female constitution possessing and exhibiting an unusually high degree of sensibility, were thought to indicate an imbalance in males, making them less fit for the demands of public debate.

    Fibers, connectors of the nervous system, figured prominently in sentimental literature. Thomas Jefferson, for one, frequently intensified statements where he wished to combine reason with an appropriate level of passion by referring to "every fibre of my frame" as an elemental component of his being; he wished to eradicate "every fibre" of aristocracy in America and in later years he explained that "every fibre" of his passion for public life had dried up. "Vibrations" and "thrills" also accompanied human activity, words conveying the interpenetration of emotions and physiology. Around mid-century, the Swiss physiologist and poet Albrecht von Haller clarified the importance of sensibility as a primary life force with his experimental results distinguishing irritability (unfelt automatic responses) from sensibility (responses accompanied by feeling).

    Most profoundly, "sympathies" were what conducted feelings through nerves and organs. In his Lectures on the Mind, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia stated that physiological sympathies were governed by the same laws as emotional sympathy. The pulsation of the heart was a sympathy, as was the "reciprocal" sympathy between the brain and the stomach. Rush called the senses "the inlets of ideas." He held that odors as well influenced morals: living near an active volcano aroused people to unusual passion, just as one's morning walk through a flower garden brought a natural composure. Arthur May, a candidate for the degree of doctor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, submitted a dissertation on sympathy to the trustees and medical faculty in 1799: "In warm weather appetite fails; because the impression of heat on the skin invites excitement from the stomach to the surface; and the system cannot bear both impressions of heat and aliment. Appetite is suspended in the same manner by joy, grief, expectation, etc." May found that impressions or sympathies "vibrate" throughout the body and "undulate" to the "remotest boundaries." "In a word," he claimed, "the whole system, mind and body, is one mass of general sympathy."

    In the eighteenth century, most Europeans and Americans were taught from birth how to curb their emotions, though they remained anxious about appearances. "Outward expression of the passions is a sort of universal language," wrote a contributor to The Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine, seeking insight into Americans' character. Passions were "commotions of the body as well as of the mind," which a sensitive, sophisticated observer could interpret. Countenance and constitution were the subjects of the "conjectural science" of physiognomy. One could search for fraud, deceit, or moral weakness. In a more positive light, the perfectly innocent, unsuspecting heroine in Susanna Rowson's sentimental Charlotte Temple (1791) was described by her physiognomy: "The goodness of her heart is depicted in her ingenuous countenance." According to The New-Hampshire Magazine, the external manifestation of inner virtue was visible even to those with a less extraordinary perception: honor and love of truth wore the face of "vivacity" in a true gentleman. The young Bostonian author of The Power of Sympathy (1789), William Hill Brown, gushed in his prose: "But come thou spirit of celestial language, that canst communicate by one affectionate look—one tender glance—more divine information to the soul of sensibility, than can be contained in myriads of volumes!" Repeated references to Johann Caspar Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy, first published in America in 1794, attest to the popularity of this method of reading character. Lavater tauntingly illustrated his findings, which associated the shape of foreheads, eyes and eyelids, noses, lips, and chins with various temperaments. "Each part of an organized body is an image of the whole," the physiognomist claimed.

    The taxonomy of facial expressions and their corresponding revelations of character formed a literature that could be easily translated into political culture. The republican ideal of plain speaking, honest deportment, and apparent lack of concealment was contrasted with the seductiveness of heartless contrivance. Sociability highlighted sensibility. It was an important part of politics, at once art and strategy. It involved subtle self-promotion, at the same time avoiding a crass regard for notice or the appearance of glory seeking. But it was not easy to effect. As Jay Fliegelman has commented, "the triple injunctions to please yet persuade, to control oneself but stimulate passions in others, to reveal oneself and yet efface oneself, combined to create an exhausting challenge."

    At once sentient and rational, human beings needed to maintain a proper balance between these two facets of their behavioral system in order to achieve happiness. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith produced what was perhaps the most thorough work codifying the culture of sensibility into which eighteenth-century Americans and Britons alike came of age. Smith described the sensations of sentiment and passion as "affection of the heart from which any action proceeds," and he characterized virtue and propriety, the experiences of grief and joy, taste and judgment, concord and discord, opinions and moral standards. "A man of sensibility," he wrote, "may sometimes feel great uneasiness lest he should have yielded too much even to what may be called an honourable passion." The man of virtuous sentiment, cultivating a sense of duty, overcame the impulse of self-love through reason, principle, and conscience—by reflecting on the precariousness of existence and discovering "the man within." He came to recognize that "we are but one of the multitude." Smith called such a feeling "moderated sensibility."

    The injunction to follow nature's dictates animated the mid-eighteenth-century Scottish philosophic school to which Smith belonged. Not inconsequentially, Edinburgh and Glasgow were centers of medical as well as moral discourse. The American Enlightenment plainly profited from the writings of these Scots (including Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Hume's cousin, Lord Kames), for the Revolutionary literati appreciated their pragmatic and intuitive qualities, and their argument that benevolence and public virtue demanded an engagement of the heart. Silent, pondering reason, they insisted, could not act as a moral restraint. America's language of sentiment drew upon the moral scheme of the Scottish Enlightenment, a system which may be said to have contributed structure to the culture of sensibility.

    The so-called father of sentimental ethics was the third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), a student of John Locke who conceived harmony and sympathy in cosmic terms and cherished the notion that an innate moral sense was present in all human beings. Shaftesbury believed that society was made strong and cohesive through the cultivation of intimate connections, the "natural, generous affections." While self-interest was said to govern the world, he wrote, "Passion, Humour, Caprice, Zeal, Faction, and a thousand other Springs, which are counter to Self-Interest, have as considerable a part in the Movements of this Machine." Even as the metaphor of the cold, metal mechanism came into literary fashion—the balanced springs and wheels of a clock to represent the well-tuned human body—it required the "enlarg'd Affections" of the heart to perfect circulation. In his 1726 "Plan of Conduct," the twenty-year-old Benjamin Franklin found himself sensibly "excited" to this idea of moral virtue. Appreciating natural impulses and the value of emotional intimacy, he and his successors in America's enterprise to constitute a humane government responded to Shaftesbury's sentiment and to that nicely expressed in Alexander Pope's 1733 Essay on Man:

In lazy Apathy let Stoics boast
Their Virtue fixed; 'tis fixed as in a frost,
Contracted all, retiring to the Breast;
But strength in mind is Exercise, not Rest:
The rising tempest puts in act the soul,
Parts it may ravage, but preserves the whole.
On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but Passion is the gale.

Human abilities were best employed when the passions were recognized, not artificially stifled. The yearnings of the heart must give force to real progress in public affairs.


Meet the Author

Andrew Burstein is the author of The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist. He teaches at the University of Northern Iowa.

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