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The Imperial Self in American LifeStephen J. Whitfield

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

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But the attributes associated with "the imperial self" have been, I suspect, more pronounced in America. There the boundaries have been ill-defined, the promises implicit in a fresh start more open, the liberties which were guaranteed to the citizenry not easily distinguishable from license. Neither traditional moral codes nor the nexus of institutions would be seen as necessary, but rather as a hindrance to the imperial self in its incessant pursuit of that happiness which Saint just had claimed during the French Revolution was a new idea in Europe; it was a somewhat older idea in America.

Permit contrasts to be introduced to suggest how such a sensibility diverged from the Old World. When Samuel Gompers, the canny and tenacious immigrant who dominated the early phase of the American Federation of Labor, was asked what the workers whom he represented wanted, he did not reply with a concrete set of goals, with what we would now call an agenda. Instead he answered the question with a monosyllable: "More." [3] such a demand is, of course, impossible to satisfy, because there can never be enough. A relentlessly active and vibrant society does not make it easy to stipulate what is enough. Yet consider how Tolstoy conveyed the danger of such limitlessness in his short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?", in which a peasant is given the opportunity to own as much land as he can cover on foot in a single day. He races over the terrain with such eager longing, with such fervor, with such utterly intemperate exhaustion, that at the end of the day he is dead. Buried six feet under the earth, that turns out to be exactly how much land a man needs. But Tolstoy's suggestion is the sort of knowledge that eludes many of those in a society animated by the ethos of individual freedom.

In justifying his horror of the French Revolution in 1790, Edmund Burke conveyed his own nostalgia for the ancien regime by describing society as a pact between the living and the dead, in which each generation owes a debt to its ancestors, but also is obligated to work for the sake of posterity. Such a vision could be contrasted with his contemporary Thomas JeffersonÕs assertion that "the earth belongs ... to the living." Jefferson sought to minimize the legacy the Framers transmitted to posterity, which was supposed to define its own political terms and needs. Such effacement may even imply the bleak atomism that Alexis de Tocqueville captured in one of the most poignant and melancholy passages in Democracy in America, where "the woof of time is in every instant broken, and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after, no one has any idea .... Aristocracy has made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it." He realized that "democracy maker[s] every man forget his ancestors" and also "hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him" and "threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart." [4] The pursuit of happiness can thus induce the pursuit of loneliness--a predictable defect of an unmodulated individualism.

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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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