Dann H. Hall / March 2, 2012

The American Self

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.


According to Clarke, development of the whole person included the conscience, the temper, education, social behavior and handling money. Clarke pointed out that, although everyone is born with a conscience, it needs to be nurtured so it is not stunted. One’s conscience needs to be developed to make a responsible person who can and does control his/her passions. It is not to say that passion is bad but the passions need to be controlled when they lead to behavior that damages the rights of others. John Adams famously remarked: “The Constitution was made for only a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

John Fritz, an essential person in the development of Bethlehem Steel, was raised on a farm in Chester County Pennsylvania. But his interests lay in machinery so he left the farm to work in a machine shop, learning a trade unrelated to farming. He went on to run a steel mill and invent the three-high rail mill that transferred the rail industry from England to America almost overnight. One night soon after the mill first opened, the wood mill building caught fire and was destroyed. Reports went out that it would take months to rebuild the equipment. But, "Uncle John”, as he was affectionately called, asked the workers to bring quilts and blankets off their beds to the mill so they could be wetted and thrown over the equipment, protecting it from heat and certain distortion. It worked; the mill was running three weeks later (John Fritz Autobiography) Mr. Fritz was an example of applied faculty psychology, but so were his mill hands that saw the logic of the request and acted passionately that winter evening in their self-interest. The three motivations are not mutually exclusive and when properly balanced produces happy and useful individuals. The mill hands most certainly had been immersed in self-culture at school and at home. Their willing act sped development of the West and improved the economy. The John Fritz Medal, named in his honor, has been awarded to many notables including Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and Alfred Nobel. Such stories as his are almost unheard of in any other country.

The reason that faculty psychology was so successful in America was that it was taught in the schools. Allow me to relate a typical story in a mid-nineteenth century primer. A young boy was to go to a party some miles from home and his father rented a pony for him to take him; there was to be a foot race for which he had been practicing. On the way an old woman called to him that her husband was sick and would certainly die without a doctor. Unfortunately the doctor was not in the direction of the race. The story tells of the tension in him until he finally decides to do the right thing and go for the doctor who comes and the man recovers. The doctor tells the father about his son. The proud father buys the boy a pony because, as he tells the boy, he has proven that he is responsible enough to care for a pony.

Still in the twentieth century, this flame survived. I have friends who have found the freedom to develop their faculties here in the U. S. An acquaintance of European decent now runs a successful consultancy in the U. S. that would not be possible in his home country in Western Europe.

Why should children learn when they are told that they are in the lowest income decile and the government will take care of them? Why should our school children believe that they were made by God for Him and that they have a God-given right to pursue happiness when the Declaration of Independence is not allowed our schools? Why are children, of all ages, taught that they can be regulated to happiness and prosperity if they will only stay docile on the “plantation”? The self-culture of Americans across all deciles of wealth, education and all ethnic backgrounds is what has made America exceptional – not big government. Self-culture that has been nurtured here is the reason that application of our Constitution in other nations has found such little success. Modern American education and nation building are both flops for the same reasons – stunting the individual and feeding government.

Ronald Reagan campaigned and governed by appealing to and recognizing American’s individuality; he most certainly did not appeal to big government to lead America. Both political parties appear to have forgotten the importance of individual self-culture in this campaign. Thanks to Prof. Howe’s book, they can be reminded of what made America great and can again.

“There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.” Ronald Reagan (em>Brainyquote.com)


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