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The Imperial Self in American LifeStephen J. Whitfield

From Columbia Journal of American Studies Vol. 4, No. 1 2000

As early as the eighteenth century, it has been widely acknowledged that the American republic has represented something new in Western (and perhaps) world history; and the unprecedented formation of such a society attracted the attention of visitors and foreign observers as well as immigrants and its own domestic champions. But of what does its novelty consist? I would like to propose that Americans could be historically distinguished from, say, Europeans by an attitude toward limits. The New World fostered a belief in such boundless possibility that restraints became difficult to perceive. Ambition counted more decisively than moderation. Americans have been inclined to defy the impediments of time and space, and--not realizing that there are limits to worldly endeavors--have exhibited a reckless tendency to overreach. Because their history has been more about rights than duties, more about promises than debts, more about opportunities than obligations, they have created a society in which the claims of community are weak. Individualists yearning for autonomous power cannot easily recognize the reciprocal needs of others. If their national experience were folded into the history of Christianity, Americans would be quickly classified as Armenians in their preference for human agency over divine determinism, in their belief in free will rather than in original sin, in their hopes for working out one's own salvation. An anecdote that circulated in more than one version has a New York merchant and broker getting news of the death of Andrew Jackson. They speculate on whether the soul of the former President has merited salvation. But what matters even more is will-power: "If Andrew Jackson has made up his mind to go to heaven," the merchant tells the broker, "you may depend upon it he's there."[1]

Far more than in the Old World, American society has been noteworthy for nurturing the sort of grandiosity and excessive ambition that can be designated as the cultivation of "the imperial self." This is a term that the literary scholar Quentin Anderson of Columbia University put into circulation in 1971, in a book distinguishing American romantic poetry from its English counterparts. But the phrase can usefully be extended to mean the unappeasable appetite to dominate others, to deny their interests; the term can suggest the compulsive urge to surmount the restrictions which elsewhere have been taken for granted as fundamental to the human condition. The imperial self does not know how to stop, indeed, does not see the point of stopping in struggling to gratify its desires even at the expense of others. Such a craving can certainly be round elsewhere; it was Cecil Rhodes who asserted: "I would annex the planets if I could." [2]

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Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University . He is the author of eight books, including most recently A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1988), The Culture of the Cold War (1996), and In Search of American Jewish Culture (1999). Professor Whitfield is also the editor of A Companion to 20th-Century America (2004).

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