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The Evolution of America's Romantic Self-Image

by Andrew Burstein

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8090-8535-6
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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, Crävecoeur, 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 era seemed 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.