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Washington at Valley Forge. Lithograph by F. Heppenheimer, 1853.


“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,
religion and morality are indispensable supports.
In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism
who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”

George Washington

The American Self

By Dann H. Hall · Friday, March 2, 2012

President Reagan often mentioned the American individual’s right to dream and to try to bring their ideas to fruition. He believed this was the essence of American exceptionalness. As we move into the great quadrennial election season, development of the individual is barely addressed. Instead schools are emphasizing government’s ability to solve our problems.

Daniel Walker Howe did modern Americans a great favor when he wrote “Making the American Self” which teaches the history of a prior philosophy that has been apparently forgotten today. It chronicles the self-making of eight well-known Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He employs a term, faculty psychology, to describe the process which identifies three basic motivations; truth/reason, self-interest and passion. The book is a history rather than a philosophy or societal treatise. Prof. Howe discusses a book, “Self-Culture: Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Spiritual” by James Freeman Clarke, first published in 1880. The book underwent at least 22 editions, last printed a decade after the author’s 1888 demise. The book’s longevity indicates the interest generated.

Prof. Howe addresses the development the self-culture of prominent Americans including theologian, Jonathan Edwards, secularist Benjamin Franklin, presidents John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln and others through the faculty-psychology construct. Several of the individuals received little formal education while others were well educated. All came to lead useful lives when they developed their faculties beyond what they learned in the classroom. Mr. Clarke’s book demonstrated self-culture through his acquaintances rather than the famous.

Faculty psychology divides motives into truth, self-interest and passion. Hence an individual’s actions can be thought of as driven by these three. Since each person has different faculties or abilities and one’s environment is unique, development results in different people with different skills. The concept assumed that the proper development of people led to happiness for the individual who felt worthwhile and at the same time made for a civil society that could progress. Howe discusses the Methodist preaching of sanctification, the process of becoming continuously more righteous, i.e., becoming a better person. Ahlstrom (American History of the American People) points out that Methodism was particularly important in Western America where there was little law and civil behavior was important.

As far back as the 1600s, Puritans heard sermons that stressed the significance of all people who perform honorable useful work. People’s vocation need not make them wealthy or powerful to be happy. It was necessary that one worked diligently and with pride. There was an overarching acknowledgement that God made the universe and everything in it; each creation, including human beings, had a purpose. Mankind is the only creation that has the ability to reason; one is responsible to attempt to determine one’s God given purpose. This Puritan work ethic nowadays is called the Protestant or Christian work ethic…….. READ MORE HERE

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