American Self, and the Relevance of History of the Early Republic

Howe, Daniel Walker, Making the American Self
Harvard U. Press, 1997

(Read around July or August, 1997; reread November 1997)

In the Early American Republic, about all that happened was the building of a nation, its institutions, its culture, its forms of education, its patterns of religious expression, its technology, and a great deal of self creation by individuals. We had a couple of wars, but not ones that we can readily construe as noble or glorious.

Obviously a pretty boring era, unless you are drawn to instutution-building and all that. But, irony aside, my opinion is that we are is in desperate need of institution-building on a global scale, and that we will either become some kind of coherent world entity (or "self" you might say), or else awake some day to find that a major city has been blown up by the ultimate truck bomb, or has been dusted with anthrax, or some other sort of "poor man's" atom bomb.

Yet institution-building and societal evolution are boring to most people -- to sell history we need a war, or some other conflict between really good good-guys and really bad bad-guys. Actually what really sells is any story about an *individual* facing really unbelievable odds, or some really creepy, awful, scary situation: a maverick cop, or beautiful computer hacker being hunted down by institutions gone wrong (as they always do), or on the *really* awful, creepy, end of things, anything involving serial killers who skin their victims.

This attraction to that kind of story probably makes good sense in the kinds of environments in which human beings evolved. To know what to do if a leopard starts to jump on you, you must rehearse it in your mind, in listening to stories, in dreams, etc., 'til you know what to do in a flash. In such a state of society, it is a good thing to be powerfully drawn to someone telling a story of how he got away from a lion, or escaped from rival tribesmen who would have cut out and roasted his heart.

But in the modern world, the ability to handle sudden violence is virtually irrelevant. If we get into one of those situations, we will probably not be able to think or act fast enough. The lions have automatic rifles. We need to create - to build societal structures that will head off those events. The ability to react is highly overrated today.

This somewhat explains why I find early 19th century American history exciting, and military history usually boring (some exceptions that prove the rule: Eric Larrabee: _Commander in Chief_; Tuchman: _Stilwell and the American Experience in China_; the movie _Twelve O'Clock High_; all about the nature of building a "fighting machine").

It was a pleasant surprise to find Daniel Walker Howe's _Making the American Self_  when I went to the library for The Unitarian Conscience, which I always meant to read, and The Political Culture of the American Whigs, which Richard John called one of the 10 most important books for graduate students to read -- or at least that was the vote of the SHEAR-97 all night poker club. I read it a second time when it was about to be reviewed, so as to participate in the lively discussion that the review was bound to kick off.

In my view, it is about the *essence* of the history of the Early Republic -- what makes it exciting and *important* for the modern world - its being a time of deep questions about the extent to which individuals and/or nations, could govern -- or "make" themselves -- and of the nation, and of individuals struggling to learn how to "make" and govern themselves. So I wonder how to account for the silence on the list when this book was reviewed.

What can we learn from the way in which certain early Americans dealt with self-construction, and by analogy, nation building?

Besides looking at self-made men making themselves, Howe examines how the concept was applied to society.  He speaks of "Publius" -- a collective pseudonym used by the writers of the Federalist Papers -- envisioning the properly formed nation as analogous to the man whose faculties were well balanced, with dangerous passions kept from running amok. And all of the individuals on whom Howe throws his "spotlight" are either to some extent actors on a stage, consciously creating an edifying spectacle, or else in some other way trying to spread the benefits of (their own interpretation of) faculty psychology to others. I.e. they are trying, with their lives, to instruct society.

What was faculty psychology? It begins by postulating a division of the mind into a set of "faculties", or powers, along the following lines:
* Moral faculties, or virtue,
* Prudence, or self-interest, or preferably (to some at least) "enlightened self-interest"
* Passions, appetites, ... the "animal" side of our nature.

The Classical Republican (or civic virtue)-vs-Liberal axis of political thought are characterized by different notions of how best to "use" the faculties. The republicans' main theme was to somehow make virtue rule the roost in both the individual soul, and in the community or nation. As for liberals, the optimistic ones thought prudence could support, and do much of the work of, virtue; the most pessimistic ones thought virtue was a myth, so we have to arrange for prudence to do the job somehow.

Other targets of Howe's "spotlight":

What I can grasp about the business of self construction and self government, if I grasp anything about it, is an aspect not much discussed by Prof. Howe, and it may seem at odds with the very "rational" approaches pursued by his subjects.

One reason I care about this book is that I've been working on being a self-RE-made man for some time now -- the old mid-life crisis -- computer scientist decides to become a historian syndrome. Well, that covers the last three years, but this striving for self-reconstruction has been going on in some form for almost 15 years.

Every now and then, someone has an exhilarating moment in which they suddenly start doing what they always thought needed to be done, and the sense of inadequacy drops away; they virtually become some promise that they make, as when John Brown, in response to the killing of Lovejoy, said "I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery." Often people who seemed incompetent all their lives become movers of mountains. Many of the conversion experiences, so common in the early American republic, and many of the temperance pledges made on the spot represented, I believe, a real, sudden, realignment of who the person is.

Such transforming speech acts are not only familiar, but expected in the lives of powerful individuals -- so much so that helpful biographers may supply them without adequate evidence. Lincoln's saying to himself, "Someday I will hit that thing and hit it hard" is a likely example.

I had such a moment once, in which I stood up and declared that I would organize a certain kind of program for "youth at risk" in Newark NJ. With no experience of ever directing anyone to do anything, I ran a volunteer group which included some of the biggest prima donnas I have known, as we raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars, enrolled partner organizations from among the Newark social work community, and raising a large volunteer force - mostly people with good jobs - who would use their vacations to spend ten consecutive days chaperoning and waiting on 80 very troubled and sometimes violent teenagers, in some borrowed or rented girl scout or church camp. And I had horrible strains on my marriage and neglected my job to a crucial extent.

I also have observed many other such moments in others (that youth program, for example, produced many startling realignments and redefinitions of the selves of the participants, very often with lasting effect). In such moments of self creation, there is, in fact, an absence of self, the way one often thinks of self, as this balky thing with a number of parts, which we struggle to "control". Rather, there is a sense of being one with some declared principle or promise, or of some projected future.

Individuals who are "living a declaration" can be troublesome, or worse when they are not ending slavery (or even when they are). They are apt to have lopsided personalities, and to have very unexpected characteristics for the leadership roles they often assume. And they are apt to be lost when the situation for which they refashioned themselves goes away.

Why Do "Transforming Moments" Occur?

Perhaps the following will help answer the question.

In the study of self-organizing systems -- part of what Heinz Pagels calls the "science of complexity", a bi-stable system is one with two possible states, that tends to stay in whichever state it happens to be in, like a coin, which is either "heads" or "tails". If the system is not in a certain desired state, it may be very difficult to get it there, but *maintaining* it in the desired state is easy.

I suspect that the quality of leadership; taking responsibility; creativity, and the quality of "playing ones role" (looking for leadership from without, being passive, being a follower) are "two sides of the coin" of our bi-stable natures. There is a quality about this dichotomy that is akin to turning a switch on or off.

While there are many aspects of leadership that can (or must) be shaped by talent and/or long experience, I suspect the audacity to jump up and start leading, often appears out of nowhere, as if one had accidentally bumped into a hidden switch.

The book Listening to Prozac cites a study done with apes (monkeys?) which may have put a finger on the biological mechanism controlling the division of labor between leaders and followers.

By increasing the level of serotonin in the blood, the researchers were able to "make a leader", i.e. turn a nonassertive male into an "alpha" male. By decreasing serotonin, they could make an "alpha" male become docile.

What happens if there is no researcher around to manipulate serotonin levels in the blood? One possibility, which I think was hinted at by the study, is that inevitable differences between individuals just get accentuated. An individual finds himself to be faster, stronger, and/or able to out-think others around him, and gains "confidence", or a tendency to think independently and give direction to others, while others, finding themselves more than matched by this individual, become less apt to act independently, and more likely to look for direction.

It is suggested that the stabilization of these roles is largely achieved by a differentiation in serotonin level -- at least it is true that without any artificial manipulation, the dominant males have a significantly higher level of this chemical neurotransmitter, which is perhaps triggered by the sense that one seems more and more to be the "natural" leader of the group, beginning a self-reinforcing cycle. The raised serotonin level makes them fit the role of leader more, and experiences of leading and being followed again feed into the self-reinforcing cycle.

What evolutionary role would it serve for the vast majority of the population to "switch off" most of what they have of creativity, leadership, tendency to act independently? Why throw away mind power? Because in the preliterate situation in which we evolved, there were not so many courses of action, and it not so important to apply all possible "thinking power" to a situation -- more important that some reasonably thought out course of action be chosen and acted upon -- with unity. That applies to tactics of group action. What about the value , so apparent today, of innovation? Without writing, the collective memory was severely limited, and could utilize only a small amount of creative thought. What worked was for the community to settle on a few bits of knowledge to be handed down as precious relics: how to make a blowgun; how to find, prepare, and eat, certain foodstuffs, and what things never to eat. But the set of ideas to be passed from one generation to another had to be carefully pruned so as to remain manageable.

Human beings have speech, unlike monkeys, and are, for one thing, unique in their ability to change to meet new situations. It may be that, if there is a "switch" that turns on an aspect of leadership or creativity, then one means of access to it, for human beings, is through certain speech acts, that, in addition, might convincingly transform the speaker into the virtual personification of some ideal, or some projected future.

Self Creation, Self Government, Paradox, and "Will"

How does anyone "make" him or herself? The idea is paradoxical, as is expressed in the phrase "picking oneself up by ones bootstraps", or the Escher print of two hands, each drawing the other.

"Governing" oneself is also paradoxical. People commonly say thing like "I had to make myself get up this morning" -- it is kind of like Cleavon Little in the movie Blazing Saddles pointing a gun at his own head and saying "Don't anybody move, or the nigger gets it". The idea of "governing" as an application of force just doesn't fit "self government" -- at least not on the individual level; maybe ultimately not even on the collective level. Yet we have trouble picturing it any other way, so we apply it even at the individual level, and talk glibly of "making ourselves" do this or that.

As paradoxical as the idea of "governing myself" is, it is perilous to not grapple with it.

What is "the Will" or "Will-power"?

There is a strong tendency in our culture, or perhaps in human nature, to take for granted our will, or intention. What is it? Can it even be thought of as an IT? It seems to me that "it" is the core of ones being -- the very "thing" that defies our paradigm of acting in a world of manipulable objects.

Far easier to think about "capabilities". I have a certain IQ; I can type at so many words per minute. I can run a mile in so many minutes. This is a comfortable way to think about "self".

Then we have our feelings, often thought of as something like magnetic attraction -- our attractions, appetites, ... These we also tend to focus on, after a quick glance at the will, and quickly looking away: "I intended to, but I just didn't feel like it, or I didn't feel 'up to it' (here we get a hint of feeling treated as quasi-capability).

When we don't do what we said we would do, we must make an excuse, or else astonish people with what seems to be our arrogance: "I just didn't do it. It's as simple as that." Rather, we must say "I wasn't feeling too well this morning" or "I tried, but there were so many other things to do", or "I got caught in traffic".

We try to make will into a power, which it isn't at all; "he had a lot of will-power". It isn't a "power" at all, but a matter of what we say we will do and the extent to which we stick to what we say we will do. Capabilities are about what we can do, but will is about what we do do or will do, or just plain do. I believe we cast that into a sort of "ability" or "power" out of habit, and because we don't have the conceptual tools to think of it any other way.

All the excuse making (traffic, not feeling "up to it"), which we do largely out of "modesty" puts a great deal of attention on what is outside of our control; on what we are or are not capable of. So we often think about the traffic, and the fact that it moved slower than we hoped it would, and not the fact that we didn't allow enough time for the worst traffic in our experience on that route.

[I claim] There is a core of our being which we cannot back up and look at as a thing. I suspect this might be philosophically "provable" in a way that would stand up to modern scrutiny (not like most, or all, proofs of the existence of God, for example).

A motive is not a power in my view; rather, a power is the mechanism that allows a motive to express itself.

Motives are generally taken to include conscience (a virtuous motive), desire or appetites (a highly suspect motive), and will (often viewed as diabolical when not subordinated to God, or on the other hand, viewed in the most glowing terms by the Nietzchian temperament, or those who have experienced the ecstatic feeling of "pure will").

If you think this essay is dangling in mid air at this point, I agree, but I've come back to this essay again and again over a few months, and wish to see if anyone else is interested, and whether anyone else can help me to think about these things, and particularly how they touch upon the history of the early American republic.

One thing I like about Prof. Howe's approach is that, better than most people, he knows what he knows, and knows what he doesn't know, and sticks to what he knows. While maintaining this discipline, however, moving in a well grounded way from one thing that he knows, to another, to another ..., he remembers that he is trying to shed light on something huge, that he may not be able to reach, at least this time around. The result may be something like a Stephen Jay Gould essay in Natural History, with something of the character of a scenic drive, where I always learn something, though it is only about some creature I never new existed and will never see, and at the same time have seen light shed on that grand abstraction, evolution. A very good model for a historian, natural or otherwise, to my thinking.