Jacksonian Democracy and the Ideal of the Self-Made Man

As you saw when reading his biography, Jackson is widely regarded as a self-made man. Read this short essay on the development of this concept of the self-made man in the context of Jacksonian Democracy and American Romanticism. Think about how the pieces by Truth and Apess contradict this self-making. What does this reveal about race, ethnicity, and class in this literary period? Are certain people and voices allowed personhood when others are not?

Perhaps no one's figure casts as long a shadow over the first half of the nineteenth century as Andrew Jackson. As described elsewhere in this subunit, Jackson was frequently taken to embody the best and worst of the new nation. He had emerged from the Revolutionary War as an orphan. After moving to the frontier of Tennessee, he had successfully become a wealthy planter and important political leader before gaining national military renown in the War of 1812. Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828 was seen by many as the triumph of democracy. Where most states had significant property requirements for suffrage after the Revolution, by the time of Jackson's election, universal adult white male suffrage was the rule. At the same time, the democratization of white male suffrage corresponded with increasing voting limitations on people of color, the deepening entrenchment of slavery in the South, and the expansion of Indian removal from the eastern United States. For those opposed to Jackson, his election suggested the rise of mob rule or demagoguery. Jackson represented more than just the rule of the common (white) man; he represented, for many, the potential of each and every man to determine his own fate, economically, socially, and politically. During the Revolutionary era, many American colonists implicitly acceded to the idea that the more elite members of society should be trusted to make the most important decisions regarding the political and social lives of the nation. Where most American colonists and Americans of the Revolutionary era would have accepted that a person's place in the world was determined by God and/or by his family's social and economic standing, the Jacksonian era saw the full emergence of the ideal that each American, through hard work and perseverance, not only could but should determine his place in the world and that he should have an equal voice in determining the future of the country.

While not yet so widely accepted, this emphasis on self-determination can be found in nascent form in many Revolutionary-era writings and thinkers, with Thomas Jefferson's celebration of the yeoman farmer and Benjamin Franklin's account of his own rags-to-riches story as a model for young Americans standing out. Where Jefferson called, before his presidency at least, for economic self-sufficiency grounded in small scale agriculture, Franklin foresaw the fuller development of market forces. One of the key factors behind the development of Jacksonian democracy and its emphasis on the self-made man was the market revolution, the broadening incorporation of more and more Americans into market relations in terms of selling their labor and their products and in terms of buying the goods they consumed. Jefferson's concerns about market relations – that the dependence "on casualties and caprice of customers . . . . begets subservience and venality" – indicates the ways that they had traditionally seemed to undermine masculine economic independence. Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, this ideal of economic self-sufficiency largely detached from the marketplace became harder and harder to imagine, as farmers increasingly became reliant on selling their crops to markets for funds to purchase their daily goods and artisanal work was largely displaced by large-scale factory operations. At the same time as most American men became more entrenched within market relations and more dependent on them, defenders of the capitalist marketplace began to characterize those economic relations not in terms of dependence and subservience but in terms of proving one's self-worth and relying on one's self to survive and thrive within the competitive environment of the marketplace. What had previously been seen as detrimental to individual masculine economic self-sufficiency came to be a vital part of new definitions of masculine independence.

At the same time that political changes gave the average white man greater political power and economic transformations played up the individual's responsibility for taking care of his financial needs in an increasingly interdependent economy, cultural developments similarly emphasized the priority of the individual. Within religion, as explored more fully elsewhere in this course, the Second Great Awakening brought an intensified focus on the individual's soul and his individual relationship to God. Within literature and philosophy, romanticism, as first articulated at the end of the eighteenth century in Germany, France, and England, foregrounded individual judgment in ethical and aesthetic matters and enshrined subjective perception as the starting point for inquiry. In the United States, this romantic individualism reaches its apex in the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. To an even greater extent than his European precursors, Emerson viewed the individual as the focus of philosophical and literary pursuit and the yardstick by which truth and morality could be judged. This more profound reliance on the self within the American context derived, in part, from the United States' relative lack of strong social structures and of long-standing social and political relationships and hierarchies. Unlike most of Europe, the U.S. provided ample opportunities for geographic and social mobility, thus countering any sense that any social or cultural institutions should determine individuals' behavior or their sense of place within society. This relative lack of impediment against self-determination (for most white men, at least) gave rise to American romanticism and American culture more broadly to what the literary historian R. W. B. Lewis called the American Adam, the idea that like Adam, the individual American was not constrained by the past or by social connections or entanglements, by longstanding social or communal habits, or by ways of being and thinking.

Emerson's philosophical and literary emphasis on individual perspective and judgment and on self-reliance can be seen as parallel to the democratization of the Jacksonian era and the increasing acceptance of a capitalist ethos of economic self-orientation. Critics and historians have explored how Emerson's thought in particular and American romanticism more broadly both emerged out of these developments and helped to encourage them. And, at times, Emerson's characterization of his ideal of self-reliance played up the economic self-sufficiency and political self-determination of these other spheres. In his essay "Self-Reliance" and elsewhere, Emerson alludes at different times to the importance of maintaining individual political judgment and to the forces of capitalism acting as correctives to those who do not wisely rely on themselves economically. Emerson more frequently and consistently distinguished his emphasis on the individual from political and economic individualism. As "Self-Reliance" repeatedly emphasizes, this political and economic sort of self-reliance is, for Emerson, a very thin version of what he actually calls for. In fact, he often suggests that what most Americans saw as essential to self-made manhood – free political judgment and economic self-sufficiency – most often involved neither, as the vast majority of individuals simply followed their political party or church and the economic relations of the modern world necessarily involved a high level of interdependence. While most white American men would have insisted that they acted independently, following their own judgments, Emerson maintained that his contemporaries merely followed the herd, that "we are a mob". In particular, towards the end of the essay, when he insists that "a greater self-reliance must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men", Emerson points to supposed economic independence as yet another form of relying on people and objects outside the self – "And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance". Emerson's individualism calls for the very obliteration of the self, for the deepest, truest part of the self is not, finally, our own. This point arises when he asks about "the reason of self-trust" and concludes that the foundation for that self-trust, "the fountain of action and of thought", derives from the fact that "We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams". Rather than being an expression of individual will-power and self-determination, for Emerson true individualism emerges out of a loss of the self into something greater, to allowing the universal flow of divinity to guide us.

Like many other authors from the antebellum period, both canonical writers such as Hawthorne and Melville as well as more recently recovered writers such as Margaret Fuller and Frederick Douglass, Emerson offers a profound critique of dominant conceptions of American masculine individualism even as he shares many features with them. He evidences one of the many ways that many Americans from that time forward have viewed such an ideal as less a real goal for the nation's individuals to pursue than a delusion. Unlike Emerson's critique, however, which saw contemporary notions of self-reliance as too dependent on dominant notions of success and independence and as failing to acknowledge the self's foundation in a universal oneness, most critiques emphasized – and continue to emphasize – how this ideal obscures the fact that relatively few individuals (even among adult white men) have the opportunity and economic resources to even approximate this kind of independence. Yet the self-made manhood that Jackson so forcefully embodied continues to have great power in the U.S. Even as there is widespread recognition of how limited the opportunities of such self-creation were in the past – a point many authors of the antebellum period reflected on in various ways – the nation as a whole still tends to view the ideal as defining our greatest heroes and its expansion to as many individuals as defining our nation's social and moral health.

Source: Saylor Academy
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Last modified: Tuesday, February 2, 2021, 2:54 PM