"Sentimental Democracy"

A historian examines the roots of American self-righteousness.


Kyle Copas
May 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The last best hope, Manifest Destiny, Pax Americana -- the terms have changed over the course of more than two centuries, but as Andrew Burstein's new book, "Sentimental Democracy," makes clear, the American self-righteousness they stand for has altered little since colonial times. By tracing the emotional wellsprings of the Founders to the 18th century culture of sensibility, and then charting the next few generations' efforts to adapt their language of feeling to changing circumstances, "Sentimental Democracy" offers new insights into how American exceptionalism -- the idea of the United States as the chosen land, the new Israel -- came to be the rule.

In his previous book, "The Inner Jefferson," Burstein explored Thomas Jefferson's emotional life by explicating his private views on nature, friendship and sympathy. In "Sentimental Democracy" Burstein broadens his focus, examining a wide range of material -- sermons, orations, pamphlets, editorials, correspondence -- in order to map the shifts in American political discourse from the time of the Stamp Act to the presidential election of 1828. Tracing the sources of colonial beliefs about thought and behavior to Locke's "Essay upon Human Understanding," the philosophical writings of the Scottish moralists and literary works by Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne and the now-forgotten Henry Mackenzie, Burstein deftly describes an environment in which the desire for moral refinement led to the cultivation of a stirring and intensely emotional language of dissent in the face of "unfeeling" Parliamentary repression.

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With the American victory at Yorktown, the newly liberated citizenry sought fresh challenges to reconfirm its republican purity and virtue. But the rise of factionalism in the 1790s and a growing argument as to the true relationship between the good of the nation and enlightened self-interest strained the linguistic consensus. The Founders' happy balance of sentiment and reason was soon relegated to the status of myth -- witness Parson Weems' 1800 hagiography of George Washington. Westward expansion, the War of 1812, the contentious debate leading to the Missouri Compromise -- each of these developments required an assertiveness at odds with the language of feeling. Burstein marks the election of the populist Andrew Jackson as the final triumph of the Man of Action over the Man of Feeling, whose hypersensitivity and weepy outpourings of sympathy had come to seem mawkish and stereotyped.

Burstein's documentary method permits occasional glimpses of the withering ironies that the country's moral self-absorption has engendered. The frequent rhetorical opposition of "liberty" and "slavery" in the colonial and early federal periods, the simultaneous praise of and destruction of Native American tribes -- these paradoxes seem to have passed unnoticed. But that's no surprise, given the compelling evidence Burstein offers in "Sentimental Democracy" that America was (and remains) staunchly self-centered in its conviction of its virtue and its integrity.


Kyle Copas

Kyle Copas is a poet and writer who lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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