The Role of Philosophy and Literature in building up the National Identity of the early 19th century United States

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The Role of Philosophy and Literature in building up the National Identity of the early 19th century United States


The Quest for Nationalism

The Intellectual Climate

Two Philosophies

History & Literature


Works consulted


The Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776 did not mean a sudden hiatus in social and cultural development. The trend toward a distinctive American way of life had begun during the Colonial period. Nevertheless, the creation of an independent body politic was such a concrete event that it provoked an additional stimulus to the quest for a distinctive identity. It is no wonder then that the American historians have paid a lot of attention to the decades following the American Revolution. Many historians regard the early 19th century as the most important and crucial period in the cultural history of the United States, on the grounds that this era represented for the U.S. the opportunity to shape its political, economic, cultural and social future free from external pressure. Henry F. May, for instance, argues that if a distinct American culture can be said to exist, then it was during this period that it took shape.

The point of departure in these kinds of interpretations has continuously been the problem of national identity. Was the United States a nation or only a loose coalition of various people and landscapes? Which were the factors that shaped American nationalism and American mentality? Or, which were the factors aiming at sectionalism? I give you only two examples, which are somewhat opposite to each other.

First, Russel Blaine Nye has identified four factors in the post-independence decades which provided the basis for the evaluation of a distinctive American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s he published two influential books on early American culture and society where his ideas can be detected and which have been very useful also for this paper.

The first two factors in Nye's "system" operate in the temporal dimension. First of all, the leaders of the American republic were aware of their past: of the fact that the United States was a product of a long process of development, English in the first instance, but also, on a more general plane, European. Thomas Jefferson saw Europe as a teacher, from whose past (both in its good and bad aspects) Americans could learn to understand their own past. History was not seen as a burden, but as an aid to the new history, that is to the future.

The emergence of an original Americanism can be understood more clearly in terms of Nye's second factor, the attitude toward the future. The Americans' positive view of the future rested on the assumption that their society, and its members, were superior to the rest of the world. This thinking was based on the values of the new industrializing, embourgeoising, secularizing society in which activities were directed towards a constant improvement of the standard of living. In certain areas, however, such as intellectual culture, a temporary state of inferiority was recognized, but this was assumed to be bound to disappear in the course of time. Their superiority was seen by the Americans themselves as deriving from the dynamism of their society, which unlike the European nations had never had to endure feudalism and were free from the class boundaries. Moreover, it was believed that this way of life ought to be spread to other nations. Thus the American authorities adopted a sense of mission during the very first decades of their history as an independent nation.

The next two factors in Nye's approach operate in space: in horizontal (and geographical) terms the relationship to Europe was crucial. Naturally, the value judgment depended on the measuring rod chosen. For the majority (or, the average American) view the most common criteria included democracy, individual freedom, or moral questions, while the cultural minority emphasized intellectual achievements which could not match the long European tradition.

The fourth factor was powerfully trans-atlantic as well, but in more concrete terms. Heavy emigration in the post-Napoleonic period from Europe made America a multi-ethnic nation and contributed strongly to the nature of American nationalism. Connected to this, the frontier of settlement which was steadily moving further west was also a crucial explanatory factor both in the Americans' life and their Americanism.

Nye's analysis ends in a summary. He concludes that these four features led to a unique combination of unity and pluralism in American society: everyone was in theory equal, yet the individual, and individual freedom, also provided a counterweight to the majority. Not only the individual, but equally the group, was of importance. Both for culture and other forms of human activity, these were factors which provided the tone of the American intellectual atmosphere, and a tension between majority and minority aspirations on the direction of the American national identity.

Robert M. Crunden published his American cultural history in 1990 and looks at American history differently from Russel Blaine Nye. Crunden does not place himself in the situation of the early 19th century Americans, but makes his conclusions retrospectively. According to him, the American history can be understood from the point of view of religion, capitalism and democracy. Thus for Crunden, spirit, economy and political and social equality explain the American history in its entirety . Crunden concludes that before 1815 Americans perceived their mentality locally, in several separate centers on the Eastern seaboard. The second phase lasted until 1901 and was a time of regionalism and sectionalism (North, South, West). Nationalism was the most important ideology only during the first four decades of the 20th century, after which the Americans have belonged to the cosmopolitan, global world, Crunden writes.

As these examples indicate, historians cannot agree when nationalism in America began or what it was like. Even more difficult it was for the contemporaries. The Declaration of Independence, if it did not create a nation, made it clear that although there were thirteen colonies, they were united. "Our great title is American", wrote Thomas Paine. Nor could the problems of independence and war be confronted and solved except in nationalistic terms. The Constitution of 1787 or the War of 1812 between the U.S. and England further strengthened this feeling.

By the Jacksonian era of the 1830s, the Fourth of July was the most important national holiday. Authorities in Washington were eager to develop national symbols, to encourage the nationalistic pride and confidence in a country which undoubtedly had severe sectional problems by the middle of the century: i.e. negro slavery in the South, steady movement to the West, and problems of urbanization and industrialization in the North.

In search for these symbols, it is interesting to notify, that the nation turned, not to England which it had rejected, but to Greece and Rome (particularly to Rome, "the most powerful republic in history"). Thus the Eagle furnished an equivalent for the British Lion, while the Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1776, with its slogan of "E Pluribus Unum" was directly derived from similar Roman apparatus. Roman architecture furnished patterns for American public buildings. The upper house of the Congress became a Senate. Even Horatio Greenough's statue of George Washington, done in 1841, clothed him in a Roman toga.

The Quest for Nationalism

The official United States was very well aware of its identity, and it was fortified with an egocentric sense of mission and an idea of progress without limits. Schoolbooks taught that the U.S. is an example for 90% of the human race - for all those who have not inherited their position or wealth. Alexis de Tocqueville who visited the United States in the 1830s wrote that the frontier men in the backwoods of Michigan possessed the same kind of ideas and attitudes as the government officials in the East. According to him, "America, more than France, was one society". The sectional tension was turning to its climax only after Tocqueville's visit.

It should be noted also that the idea of nation or union was not the same in the mind of an average American - whether a lumberjack in Michigan, a farmer in Kansas, a ranch hand in Texas or a street cleaner in New York - as in the mentality and actions of a Washington congress member or a New England intellectual. For many, America was a land of opportunity, a channel to a materially better life; one's immediate, individual needs and aspirations went well beyond the theoretical or even moral speculations about the nature of the new nation.

The Intellectual Climate

It remained for the East Coast intellectuals to mediate between Washington authorities and other Americans on questions of the national identity. Although the national symbols were partly borrowed from Greece and Rome, philosophers and authors could not avoid contemporary European intellectual impulses in building up the foundations of their intellectualism.

Even though the Americans had fought against the Englishmen in the 1770s and again in 1812-1814, the British Isles was the closest link to European culture. Americans recognized their inferiority in intellectual culture; they knew that they had to be educated to western culture the European way. Their democratic system was good and useful for the modern kind of life but it was not enough; colleges and universities were founded to train churchmen and civil servants, but also to raise the cultural consciousness of the population.

The ideals of Enlightenment and Romanticism dominated the American intellectual life in the late 18th and early 19th century. Ideas of the Age of Reason came late to America. Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others were inspired by texts which were 50-100 yeard old; they cited Locke, Newton and Voltaire, while their contemporaries in Europe read Coleridge, Schiller and Goethe. The founders of the American republic leant on thinkers who seemed to answer to their immediate needs and purposes. They were very practical and nationalistic in their rationalism while European philosophy, literature and science were more international and conceptual. The ideas of Enlightenment were submitted to the ideals of American democracy and progress, and the development of religion.

The same is true with the Romantic movement as well, but its ideals fitted chronologically well with the first decades of the American experiment. Therefore, it was more influential in forging the intellectual and artistic climate than Enlightenment. In Europe, the centers of Romanticism could be found in German-speaking areas and in England, and this helped its influence in America. Factors like breaking off old traditions (especially Classicism), the revolutionary nature of culture, Christian religion, individualism and political radicalism could be easily transferred to serve the American society. Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized individual freedom many times in many ways. "I have taught one doctrine, namely the infinitude of the private man", he summarized in his book Self-Reliance.

This work was published in 1836, and according to Robert M. Crunden, it was only then when Romanticism made its aesthetic breakthrough in the United States. It was a fairly late phenomenon in America but relatively speaking not as late as Enlightenment. It is worth pointing out, too, that many of the social ideals of Romanticism were well known in America, among the youth in particular, already in the 1820s: Crunden writes how the young generation criticized the bourgeois character, Englishness and Classicism of their parents.

Two Philosophies

On the other hand, these Romantic ideals lived longer in America than in Europe. American Romanticism was more conservative; it did not question the basic structures of the American government, institutions or way of life. American Romanticism produced Longfellow, not Byron, and it produced Thoreau, not Marx. Not even the American youth accepted Schiller's revolutionary spirit, or Byron's opposition towards institutions, or Goethe's conception of morals.

The very title of Emerson's other book The Nature (1836) reveals much: American intellectuals of the early 19th century paid a lot of attention to the relation between man and nature. This was natural: America was large, America possessed many landscapes and virgin lands. This was the essential feature in American Romanticism; in a way, Romanticism was in the mentality of the Americans even before its ideals came from Europe. Therefore, it was a driving force there for a long time, especially in the arts.

In the American philosophy the Age of Reason and the idealism of Romanticism were equally influential during the early 19th century. The practical and rational nature of the American society was clearly reflected in philosophy even though other areas of the humanities were more Romantic. It also should be noted that since the Americans were more men and women of action than speculative thinkers, philosophy was by no means the central factor in American culture. Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s that he did not know any people who were so uninterested in philosophy than the Americans. Even though he exaggarated, it was easy see that the Germans, English and French avoided the practical aspects of philosophy compared to American thinkers who looked for useful solutions and mixed political and theological ingredients with their philosophy.

The so called Scottish approach became the quasi-official philosophy of nineteenth-century America. Few educated Americans, in the generations between 1790 and 1870, were not familiar with concepts of the Scottish school. John Witherspoon, who left Scotland to become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1768, brought it to America. During the Revolutionary era the major strain of American philosophy had been Lockean empiricism, which had fitted admirably with the political and scientific interests of the times. As Locke's popularity faded in America and England, Americans found a satisfactory replacement in the philosophy of "common sense" in building up their democratic ideals. The Scottish approach was an answer to those needs.

It provided a means by which men could establish workable standards of religious, aesthetic, and moral truth. It gave, as one of its proponents, Thomas Reid, claimed, "to the human mind the power to make original and natural judgments which serve to direct us in the common affairs of life, when our reasoning faculty would leave us in the dark". These judgments, he continued, "make up what is called the common sense of mankind", providing men with best possible moral and social codes.

These sentences were based on the principle of the Scottish school that men possess two sets of senses: external and internal. External senses provide knowledge of the outside world; these ideas group by association and are made into new ideas by rational organization and synthesis. Internal sensations are of three kinds: first, those of the mind itself, which originates first principles such as the idea of God, the existence of the soul, or the certainty of will; second, those of beauty and taste; third, those of morality, or ideas of good and bad. These senses are common to all men.

The Scottish philosophy could be adapted nicely to the American society, its ideals of consensus and the common good. It was an extremely useful weapon against the skepticism of Hume and the rationalism of the Deists, as well as an affirmation of the older belief in a "moral sense". Most convenient of all, it destroyed nothing and gave more or less satisfactory answers to bothersome theological questions. The basic optimism of the Scottish philosophy fitted American needs nicely, especially its assumption that all men whatever their condition, possessed an inherent moral sense which could be strengthened and improved by proper education and application. The principles of "common sense" gave reason to believe that the average individual could fulfill those obligations which the American political system placed upon him.

For decades the Scottish thinking dominated the intellectual and cultural aspects in the curricula of American colleges: it was usually divided into three parts as Natural, Mental, and Moral Philosophy, and taken usually during the third or fourth years of study. Its academic practice was very pragmatic: its aim was to organize and codify rather than to explore or test ideas. Francis Wayland, in his book Elements of Moral Science (1835), suggested that a philosophy text "ought to exhibit what was true rather than discuss what was doubtful". Wayland's text book was very typical and also popular; during the next 60 years it sold 200 000 copies.

The Scottish approach was not an American invention but it gave a strong stimulus to an American philosophical innovation, Pragmatism, which began to gain prestige and popularity in the 1870s and 1880s and which finally replaced the Scottish approach from the American universities.

As I mentioned, the idealism of Romanticism was important in American philosophy as well. Transcendentalism - a Kantian term - was chronologically parallel with the practical Scottish approach. It came from Germany but via English and French sources and translations. It was a diverse, individualistic and theological trend in philosophy, and hardly to be called a school. Yet, since it dealt with problems of knowing, believing, and acting, it had pertinent philosophical implications, even though some regarded it strictly as a gospel.

It was also a very American movement, since the Transcendentalists used Kant's concepts quite freely. The "practical reason" was a good ethical guide, the "categorical imperative" a principle of morality, and the "pure reason" an intuitive source of truth. Nor were the Germans the only source of inspiration; the Transcendentalists read Plato, Oriental philosophy, and the older Berkeleian idealists. American Transcendentalism was an eclectic habit of mind rather than a system. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the young minister who resigned his pulpit in 1832, was its most important spokesman and writer. His writings Nature, Self-Reliance and The Over-Soul form the basis of the Transcendentalist thought.

The core of Transcendentalism lay in its theory of knowledge. Neither Locke nor the Scots gave convincing answers to the question, How do we know? Transcendentalists therefore went beyond reason; affirming the validity of intuitive truth, they assumed that knowledge was available to every man within himself. Like the idealists, they postulated two realms: a perceptible world of sensations, and an unseen world beyond, of pure ideas, beauty, truth, and goodness. This intuitive sense could pierce beyond the material world into suprarational, "transcendental" realm of "ultimate reality" that lay behind phenomenal appearances.

Transcendentalism, however, was more than epistemological speculation. It was a way of finding an answer to what Emerson called "the practical question of the conduct of life, How do I live?" It had religious, ethical, and social implications for the times. Unlike the older view that the ability to know God directly was granted only to the elect, Transcendentalism held that this intuitive sense was every man's birthright. This was convenient for the many Evangelical groups of the Second Awakening which were very influential during the first half of the century.

Transcendentalism was also powerfully individualistic. "Trust thyself", wrote Emerson. Transcendentalism had thus - somewhat paradoxically - much in common with the optimistic, individualistic, egalitarian spirit of Jacksonian democracy of the 1830s and 1840s, although Emerson could never bring - and maybe he did not even want it - himself to unqualified approval of the President of "the ordinary people", Andrew Jackson. In any case, Transcendentalism resembled Jackson's democracy emphasizing the worth of the individual and the principle of self-reliance.

On the other hand, the influence of Transcendentalism on the mainstream of American philosophical thought was not large, nor did it cause a major interest in academic circles. It was not able to deal effectively with the powerful economic and social forces shaping the contemporary American life, nor was it able to adjust to all the new ideas of science (like Darwinism) after the 1850s. By the latter decades of the century, new winds of philosophical doctrine - like Pragmatism - had blown much of it away. In addition, the Scottish school was too tough a competitor as well as associations which were formed around the philosophy of Kant, Hegel and others.

Transcendentalism was chiefly influential as a literary- religious phenomenon and as an alternative to the materialistic and un-cultural America. Its influence was best seen in literature, painting, religion, and ethical and moral problems. It was also a source of inspiration for various Utopian experiments. Emerson's friend, Henry David Thoreau, adapted the Transcendentalist ideals in his own way of life: he lived modestly, close to nature, almost as a hermit.

History and Literature

Thoreau and Emerson warned the Americans that they were too materialistic and that they put too much emphasis on machines and technological values. Emerson tried to educate them as members of the European high culture. The visiting commentators from abroad did not have to worry about that. They only described what they saw and made comparisons with the European cultural tradition. Scottish minister, Sydney Smith published an article in 1820 which was largely read in America and made the American intellectuals feel uneasy. He listed provocative questions like:

"In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? ... Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets?"

This very year 1820 represented old times in a way. 20 years later many of Smiths's questions were getting concrete answers. In literature and the arts the situation was different though. They were aimed at building up the national identity for the new country. Rather than trying to have recognition in Europe, the trend in literature and in the arts was to create something purely American - something that had nothing to do with Europe. On the other hand, every intellectual understood this was not possible; the European example and tradition were too strong to be neglected. But this did not hinder the basic goal: to create a typically American culture.

Romanticism was the dominant attitude in the early 19th century American literature. This was natural, since there were plenty of romantic features in American culture even without the aesthetic or philosophical principles of Romanticism. Americans admired their nature and their short history. Still, the authors faced problems trying to combine their nationalistic ideals with the European impulses.

Past was seen as a very suitable theme for national purposes. Therefore, history was depicted scholarly as well as in fiction and poetry. After the War against England in 1812-1814, historical writing was regarded as a strong means in building up the national identity. Although the historians were aware of the new, modern historical research which originated in Germany, and although many of them got their training in German universities, the task of the historian was seen as educational. Behind the historical facts were eternal truths, "the hand of God", which had to be revealed. The most prominent American historian of the first part of the 19th century, George Bancroft wrote "that every page of history praises the Lord and his wonderful plans for the human beings".

The historian was considered the equal of the poet, orator, and philosopher, possessed of the same aims and insights. The first volume of Bancroft's History of the United States from the Discovery of the Continent was hailed in 1834 as "an instrument of Providence". The last, tenth volume, appeared in 1874. Educated at Harvard, Göttingen, and Berlin and thus influenced by the German historical theory, he chose as his theme "the necessity, the reality, and the promise of the progress of the human race" as it was exemplified in the history of the United States. Even though his critics wrote that Bancroft's history of the United States was like the history of the Kingdom of God, or that every page of his books "voted for Jackson" (Bancroft was a Democrat), his American history became a standard text, and nobody could challenge his authority.

By the middle of the century, however, younger historians, disenchanted with excessive patriotism which infused much Romantic history, took closer looks at the legends, the documents, and the historian's method of using them. The founding of the Historical Magazine in 1857, a scholarly journal devoted solely to historical research and criticism, was a proof that it was no longer enough for history to be patriotic, philosophical, and literary.

Literature also leant on nationalism and Romanticism, which as a literary expression began in America in the early 1820s, together with the works of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. Connected to this, a striking development in American literature after 1820 was the rise of fiction. Whereas at the turn of the century there had been a considerable belief among critics that novels tended to diminish the reader's morals with a false impression of life, twenty years later the critics characterized the country as "a nation of newspaper readers and novel readers".

By the middle of the century, there were plenty of new potential readers because of better elementary and higher education, high birth-rate and immigration. The development of transportation eased the distribution of books and magazines. Improved oil lamps meant more reading hours per day. Improvements in printing and bookmaking changed the technology of publishing and made the books cheaper.

Publisher Samuel Goodrich estimated that the number of titles increased as much as twenty times between 1820 and 1850. Copyright laws, both domestic and international, were so loosely drawn and easily evaded that best-sellers were consistently pirated. This was hard for the livelihood of the authors.

The popular novelists did the best. Susan Warner was one of them. In 1855, for example, she published three books, all of which sold over 75 000 copies, netting her in excess of 25 000 dollars. In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe received only 4-5 dollars a page, while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received the highest fees for poetry, as much as 3000 dollars after establishing himself. The absence of copyright laws, on the other hand, was an important factor in making American literature known in Europe. At the beginning, before 1850, this was mainly true only in regards to popular novels.

For the national identity, however, "serious" literature was more important. Political themes dominated immediately after the revolution, with heavy criticism against the English. But when writers discovered how to exploit the American past and the American landscape, the novel became a powerful instrument for defining and developing the national personality. This happened in the 1820s together with the Romantic impact. James Kirke Paulding was not the greatest of historical novelists, but he is a good example for us Finns. He published his novel Konigsmarke. The Long Finne. A Story of the New World in 1823. It describes the 17th century Delaware Finns and Swedes, and what makes it important is the fact that the main character is a Finn. There were many other writers of the American past, and undeniably they have had a strong influence in making the history of the Americans familiar to readers.

The first internationally known authors published their early works also around 1820, namely Irving and Cooper. Their appearance marked the beginnings of a distinctively mature American fiction. As writers, they were completely different. Irving represented a well-established British and Continental tradition. He lived in England for 18 years and was influenced by British Romanticism, particularly Coleridge and Carlyle as well as the historical novelist, Walter Scott. Irving's Sketch Book in 1820 was an immediate success among the British who regarded him more as a European than an American writer. Nevertheless, the whole next generation of American writers was inspired by his example.

But Cooper, much more than Irving, represented a thoroughly native point of view in his novels. If Irving was well-read among the European and American intellectuals, Cooper's public was the average reader, and even though his themes were very American he became well-known also in Continental Europe. His Leatherstocking series came out between 1823 and 1841 introducing true Americanism - nature, Indians, pioneers - in a Romantic way to Americans but also to Europeans who read books like The Last of the Mohicans even today. He published also sea novels and even presented his ideal society in an 1848 book, but for the pioneering national spirit his frontier stories were most influential. He always explored the contradiction between nature and civilization wanting to save the Americans from revolutions, many of which he experienced himself during his five years in Europe.

Both Irving and Cooper were hailed by the critics and public in their lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe was not. His personal way of life and his poetic themes were strange to American values of the 1830s and 1840s. Instead, America's first national poet was William Cullen Bryant whose texts on nature fitted nicely with American nationalism. A little later Longfellow took his place, and it is interesting to note in this context that his most Romantic works like Song of Hiawatha came out as late as in 1855. Longfellow as well as Walt Whitman, for example, were strongly influenced by New England Transcendentalists, particularly Emerson.

Only after the Civil War the Romantic period in American literature started to give room to more realistic trends. One reason for this late start is, of course, that the young nation had needed identity builders, and a strong moralistic ethos had spoken admirably for that cause. And in many ways, as I have mentioned, Romanticism was built in into the American culture and landscape.

Still, we might find this somewhat surprising. Industrialization, urbanization, material values, immigration, and the North/South controversy were all factors which required explanations. In addition, European literature was well on its way to Realism by the middle of the century, and the Americans were certainly aware of that trend. Harriet Beecher Stowe's little book Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) was one of the first signs of Realism, but Longfellow and others were still on the forefront as well. Nationalism and Romanticism needed each other to the bitter end.


There would be several other aspects than the one - let us call it intellectual or cultural - that I have presented here which would help us understand the first decades of American mentality. One would be the relationship between high and popular culture, another one the North/South/West division of the United States, still another one the ethnic and racial factor, etc. But no matter which aspect we would take, I believe, that the search for national identity is the best common denominator explaining the mentality of the Americans during the first 60 or 80 years of their independence. Practically every American had to be interested in it or was - to say the least - influenced by its practices and interpretations.

Works consulted

  • Boorstin, Daniel J.: The Americans. The Democratic Experience. New York 1974.

  • Crunden, Robert M.: A Brief History of American Culture. Helsinki 1990.

  • Larkin, Jack: The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840. New York 1988.

  • Lowe, Donald M.: History of Bourgeois Perception. Chicago 1982.

  • May, Henry F.: Ideas, Faiths, and Feelings. Essays on American Intellectual and Religious History. New York 1983.

  • Nye, Russel Blaine: The Cultural Life of the New Nation, 1776- 1830. New York 1960.

  • Nye, Russel Blaine: Society and Culture in America, 1830-1860. New York 1974.

  • Virtanen, Keijo:"The 19th Century Origins of American Popular Culture" in: Dimensions in American Studies. Ed. by John D. Hopkins. Tampere 1986.


Keijo Virtanen

Department of Alfa-informatica, University of Groningen

At : philosxx.htm

This paper was originally presented to the conference Maple Leaf and Eagle, held in Helsinki 10/7/1992

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