For a century after Independence, the dominant American understanding of selfhood and society came from the tradition of political economy, which defined freedom and equality in terms of ownership of the means of self-employment. However, the gradual demise of the household economy rendered proprietary independence an increasingly embattled ideal. Large landowners and industrialists claimed the right to rule as a privilege of their growing monopoly over productive resources, while dispossessed farmers and workers charged that a propertyless populace was incompatible with true liberty and democracy.
Amid the widening class divide, nineteenth-century social theorists devised a new science of American society that came to be called "social psychology." The change Sklansky charts begins among Romantic writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, continues through the polemics of political economists such as Henry George and William Graham Sumner, and culminates with the pioneers of modern American psychology and sociology such as William James and Charles Horton Cooley. Together, these writers reconceived freedom in terms of psychic self-expression instead of economic self-interest, and they redefined democracy in terms of cultural kinship rather than social compact.
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The Soul's EconomyMarket Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920
By Jeffrey Sklansky
University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePolitical Economy in Revolutionary America
"There is no Science, the Study of which is more useful and commendable than the Knowledge of the true Interest of one's Country," Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1729, opening one of his earliest essays on political economy. Franklin shared with many in colonial British America an essentially scientific understanding of social power and social order, of duty and right, authority and allegiance, status and privilege. Such a social-scientific worldview was premised upon the idea that the behavior of individuals as well as societies followed certain fundamental laws that could be discovered and explored in the manner of the natural sciences.
Social science and the American colonies were both born of the crisis of religious, political, and economic authority in seventeenth-century Europe. The social as well as intellectual turmoil accompanying the decay of feudalism and the related conflicts over church, state, and land, which sparked European colonization of the New World, also gave rise to scientifically inspired movements in mental and moral philosophy, political theory, jurisprudence, andeconomics. Emerging especially from English and French efforts to find in human nature and the nature of society a new basis for social order, Enlightenment social science reached its apotheosis in mid-eighteenth-century Scotland. It received its most famous expression in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. But it was above all in Revolutionary America, which provided both the political backdrop and the most avid audience for Smith's work, that the new science of society took practical form.
The name commonly given that synthetic science by Smith and his contemporaries was "political economy," by which they meant the study not solely of the production and distribution of wealth, the main focus of Smith's masterpiece. Political economy concerned as well the basis of social order broadly conceived to comprise psychology and ethics, law and politics, the subjects of Smith's earlier lectures and writings. In this inclusive sense as the science of human nature and society, political economy provided the foundation for late eighteenth-century Anglo-American political thought.
Drawing together divergent social-scientific traditions-the egoistic psychology of Thomas Hobbes, the "political arithmetic" of William Petty, the "philosophical history" of James Harrington, the natural-rights theory of John Locke-political economy presupposed a few core concepts. The basic unit of social life was the individual, endowed with the natural capacities of rational willpower and productive labor, variously motivated by the dictates of passion, self-interest, and conscience. Social relations were constituted through control of land, labor, and the wealth they together produced. In order to secure their property, individuals vested authority in government. Political power was therefore founded upon property rights, which were themselves rooted in land and labor.
From these widely accepted premises, the American colonists derived the revolutionary ideals of independence and self-determination, for individuals as well as society as a whole. After the Revolution, the precepts of political economy informed the class-conscious struggles over public policy in the new nation. By the early nineteenth century, political economy had become closely identified with the increasingly contested character of American society itself. "As our country has had the high honour of laying the true foundations of civil government," wrote the author of one of the first American textbooks in the subject in 1823, "it must also have the honour of laying the true foundations of political economy."
While political economy defined the terms of political debate in Revolutionary America, however, crucial areas of contemporary social thought remained beyond the bounds of social science. Reformed Christianity shared much with scientific conceptions of the social as well as natural worlds: Jonathan Edwards drew deeply upon Locke, just as Locke grounded his theories of labor and private property in Puritan theology. Yet Christian belief also animated commonplace visions of the good life dedicated to the service of God rather than the pursuit of individual or collective interest, along with images of the good society predicated upon spiritual communion instead of private property and social compact. Many if not most Americans looked to Scripture as the ultimate authority on their place in the cosmos, even as they relied implicitly or explicitly upon social science for their understanding of political and economic institutions.
At the same time, political economy by definition largely excluded the central social institution in most people's lives: the family. The classical distinction between household and polity informed the Enlightenment assumption that family relations were essentially apolitical, governed by different laws than those of free will and voluntary association. Relations between husbands and wives, like those between parents and children, masters and servants, guardians and wards, remained legally as well as culturally within the feudal fold of patriarchy, outside the framework of political economy. While householders' property in the labor and earnings of their families provided the basis of men's political-economic identity, married women, along with children, servants, and slaves, were largely subsumed within the family, denied the mental as well as material attributes of political-economic "man." Nevertheless, the social-scientific model of universal human nature and the revolutionary ideology of universal human rights incited feminist as well as antislavery thought in the early republic, along with a "revolution against patriarchal authority" within the family itself. Though political economy generally did not question the relations of dependence that governed the household, neither did it simply afford a new rationale for familial hierarchy.
Most Americans, of course, never read Hobbes or Harrington or Smith, and in this sense political economy was largely the domain of an educated, cosmopolitan elite. Yet the Revolutionary Era witnessed a dramatic widening of the circle of political discussion as well as political action, so that backcountry farmers, urban mechanics, and even common laborers took part in the "American Enlightenment," claiming the rights of liberty and property for themselves. If in eighteenth-century England the laboring poor scorned political economy in favor of a "moral economy" indebted to pre-Enlightenment patriarchal principles, Americans of little means tended by contrast to articulate a plebeian political economy as the basis for an expansive understanding of equal rights. Indeed, it was the way in which political economy supported the often opposing claims of wealthy creditors and cash-strapped debtors, land speculators along with tenants and squatters, merchants as well as yeomen, that made the original science of society so central to the political battles of the early republic. In the antebellum era to follow, the explanatory force of political economy for both sides in the widening class divide would spark growing opposition to the Smithian science itself.
At the base of classical political economy was a new science of human nature that highlighted the uniquely human capacities of rational will and productive labor. "[A]s there is but one species of man," wrote Thomas Paine in Rights of Man (1791), "there can be but one element of human power; and that element is man himself." The Western concept of a universal human nature was originally rooted in the Book of Genesis, in which the unity of humankind mirrors that of God. The Calvinist rejection of church dominion over the soul in favor of a radically individual relationship between Christians and their Creator further bolstered notions of human nature as innate and independent of society.
Christian conceptions of the solitary soul provided the point of departure for the Enlightenment psychology of "Reason," the spiritual source of independence for Revolutionary Americans. Seventeenth-century psychological theorists such as Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza followed the example of the natural sciences in analyzing human nature by abstracting the individual from social relations, much as Galileo imagined how falling bodies would behave in a vacuum by abstracting from their friction with other bodies. The profoundly egalitarian implications of individualistic psychology underlay nearly all eighteenth-century republican or revolutionary thought, which largely defined itself against a deeply conservative cultural relativism and environmental determinism that denied the existence of universal natural law or concomitant natural rights.
It was not that the social science of the Age of Revolution assigned little significance to nurture as opposed to human nature. Rather, psychological writers beginning with Locke identified the capacity for learning and self-improvement as among the distinctive traits of human nature itself and as the basis of the utopian promise of revolutionary experiments in social engineering. "The dimensions of the human mind are apt to be regulated by the extent and objects of the government under which it is formed," wrote Benjamin Rush, a prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of American psychiatry, on behalf of the new national Constitution in 1792. "Think then, my friend, of the expansion and dignity the American mind will acquire, by having its powers transferred from the contracted objects of a state, to the more unbounded objects of a national government?"
Rush and other Revolutionary writers drew much of their understanding of human nature from the "faculty psychology" most fully developed by Scottish moral philosophers such as Dugald Stewart, Lord Kames, and Thomas Reid. For the American apostles of the Scottish Enlightenment, "Reason"-comprising both "prudence" and "conscience," both self-interest and virtue-reigned supreme. "How great are our obligations to Christianity," Rush wrote, "which, by enlightening-directing-and regulating our judgments-wills-and passions, in the knowledge-choice-and pursuit of duty-truth and interest, restores us to what the apostle very emphatically calls 'a sound mind.'" In this much, even orthodox American Calvinists with little faith in human nature agreed with their more liberal contemporaries. "God has given us rational minds. Let us then act a rational part," the Connecticut minister Nathaniel Niles urged his anxious parishioners on the eve of the Revolution.
Reason represented for Revolutionary thinkers the power of psychological self-government, the ability to master one's irrational passions. "Self-command is not only itself a great virtue," Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), "but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre." Few American writers appeared to share David Hume's dour conviction that humans were wholly incapable of rational self-rule, though virtually all believed that the ideal required masterful effort, upon which free government no less than free will depended. "But it is the reason of the public alone that ought to controul and regulate the government," James Madison wrote in The Federalist, sounding a pervasive refrain. "The passions ought to be controuled and regulated by the government."
The highest human "faculty" was generally considered the "conscience," which Locke and other religious dissenters in Restoration England had cherished as the chief protection of a free people. Rush and others in the Scottish tradition similarly valorized what they called the "moral faculty," or the "capacity in the human mind of distinguishing and choosing good and evil, or, in other words, virtue and vice." The strongest force in human nature, however, as many American writers emphasized, was the instinct of self-preservation that Hobbes had argued humans shared with all living things. Properly enlightened and directed, self-preservation became the rational pursuit of self-interest basic to the economic writings of William Petty and Pierre Boisguilbert, and later Adam Smith and the French Physiocrats. "Now it ought not to be wonder'd at, if People from the Knowledge of a Man's Interest do sometimes make a true Guess at his Design," Franklin observed, "for, Interest, they say, will not lie." "Though we allow benevolence and generous affections to exist in the human breast, yet every moral theorist will admit the selfish passions in the generality of men to be the strongest," John Adams wrote in his Defence of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America (1786-1787). " ... We are not, indeed, commanded to love our neighbor better than ourselves." "Man is a being made up of self-love, seeking his own happiness to the misery of all around him," agreed William Manning, the Massachusetts farmer known for his advocacy of a national labor alliance in The Key of Liberty (1799). Yet "interest," a central concern of Revolutionary social thought, meant more than the calculated pursuit of purely economic ends. It encompassed as well the quest for social esteem in which Smith found the source of the universal desire for wealth, power, and eminence. Self-interest did not necessarily imply selfishness, inherently opposed to morality or virtue. Carefully channeled, "prudence" could be enlisted on the side of "conscience" rather than against it, so that doing well meant doing good, and vice versa. Arguably the guiding question for moral philosophers from Smith to Franklin was how to align the dictates of self-interest with those of the moral faculty. As historians such as Joyce Appleby and Gordon Wood have shown, one of the signal features of eighteenth-century Anglo-American political thought was the belief that enlightened self-interest promoted the prosperity of society as a whole, epitomized in Smith's valorization of the "frugal man" as a "public benefactor" in the Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as the Wealth of Nations.] Equally importantly, by anchoring self-interest in human nature, writers on social science tended to identify the "pursuit of happiness" with freedom from unnatural restraint. Madison's famous argument in The Federalist concerning the danger of political factions was based upon the presumption that individuals naturally followed their separate interests, so that the causes of factionalism could not be removed without denying human nature itself.
Excerpted from The Soul's Economy by Jeffrey Sklansky Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
1. Political Economy in Revolutionary America
2. Transcendental Psychology in Antebellum New England: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, and Margaret Fuller
3. Antebellum Origins of American Sociology: Henry C. Carey, George Fitzhugh, and Henry Hughes
4. The Postbellum Crisis of Political Economy: Henry George and William Graham Sumner
5. The "New Psychology" of the Gilded Age: William James, John Dewey, and G. Stanley Hall
6. The Sociological Turn in Progressive Social Science: Simon N. Patten and Thorstein Veblen, Lester F. Ward and Edward A. Ross
7. Corporate Capitalism and the Social Self: Thomas M. Cooley and Charles H. Cooley Conclusion Notes Index
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The Soul's Economy is a well-researched and copiously documented book. . . . Sklansky's cross-disciplinary approach to the evolution of thinking on selfhood is interesting and enlightening.Journal of the History of Economic Thought
An ambitious, tightly argued, sometimes dense, but finally rich and rewarding book.Business History Review
[This] inspired and inspiring book sheds light both on the transformation of nineteenth-century thought and on the political limitations of social theory after the cultural turn.Journal of American Studies
Did twentieth-century notions of 'social selfhood' represent an unambiguous improvement upon the 'outdated ideals' of the nineteenth century? In this exemplary study, Sklansky provides us a fresh perspective on this familiar theme. His book is a valuable act of historical recovery which will also greatly enrich our present-day debates about self and society.Wilfred M. McClay, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Jeffrey Sklansky has produced a learned and carefully crafted work that, as has been seen, carries a sting in its elegant tail.American Journal of Sociology
Displays the importance of the human sciences for showing the culturally oriented roots that run deep in American society. . . . Rich scholarship. . . . Offers a resource for understanding or even healing some of our deepest polarizations.Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences
Insightful and complex.Australasian Journal of American Studies
A satisfying book; Sklansky tackles a big subject, asks big questions, and offers provocative answers.Historian
Jeffrey Sklansky's The Soul's Economy persuasively documents a shift in American social science from political economy's sovereign individual, his will grounded in reason and labor, to social psychology's socialized self, a product of instinct, habit, and desire. Along the way, Sklansky gives us illuminating rereadings of many major figures in a century of social thought. This is an original and important book, with implications for both the history of American social science and the welfare-state liberalism it helped to sustain.Dorothy Ross, Johns Hopkins University