The eighteenth century used to be the “Age of Reason.” But not anymore. Now it has become the “Age of Sen-sibility.” The heart has replaced the head. Everywhere recently literary and historical scholars have discovered that in the so-called Enlightenment feelings seem to have been more important than thought, emotion more important than intellect. Perhaps this recent scholarly tendency is symptomatic of our time, with its often mawkish sentimentality and lots of people, including the President, feeling other people’s pain. Or perhaps it is due to the new interest in gender history and the ways in which feminine feelings asserted themselves in the eighteenth century, particularly in the new form of the novel. But whatever the reasons there is no denying the extent to which scholars have come to regard sentiment and sensibility as the animating moral force of the eighteenth century.
Sensibility meant the receptivity of the senses, the capacity of people to receive impressions through their senses and thereby develop understanding and sensitivity. In the English-speaking world interest in this receptivity grew out of the sensationalist epistemology systematized by John Locke in the late seventeenth century. It is hard for us today to appreciate the intellectual breakthrough represented by Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and by the radically new value placed on knowledge acquired through the senses. In the late sixteenth century Sir Humphrey Gilbert was certain that there was a western passage through the New World to China. It was true, he admitted, that no one had yet seen the passage. But that did not matter. The difference between brute beasts and men, or between the simple and the wise, Gilbert wrote in his Discourse for a Discovery of a New Passage to Cathay (1576), “is that the one judgeth by sense only and gathereth no surety of anything that he hath not seen, felt, heard, tasted or smelled, and the other not so only, but also findeth the certainty of things by reason, before they happen to be tried.”
A century later no one could put the mind ahead of the senses as assuredly as Gilbert had done. By Locke’s time, the senses, and thus the capacities of ordinary people, had assumed a significance that the succeeding century would only expand, especially as theorists developed a new understanding of neurology. Drawing on Newton’s work on Opticks, physicians and others set forth the idea that sense impressions gathered from the external world excited vibrations that passed along nerve fibers to the brain or the soul and thus affected the character of people. Few revolutions in Western consciousness have been more important than the emergence of the culture of sensibility.
By the middle of the eighteenth century the senses and sensibility had come to dominate the Western world, and reason had become something of a handmaiden to emotion. Indeed, David Hume went so far as to assert that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions; and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Since passions and feelings seemed so much more prevalent and susceptible to manipulation than reason, new possibilities for reforming society opened up. Lockean psychology presumed a world that could be fashioned and made over, if only the impressions and sensations that besieged the senses could be controlled. People became aware, as never before in history, that they might be able to create their own culture. By playing on people’s senses and refining and improving their sensibilities, reformers and moralists could turn growing numbers of them into more loving and more compassionate human beings.
Sensibility now assumed a moral value that it had never had before. People seemed to care for one another in ways they had not in the past, and they began to feel the pain of other beings, including animals. Sympathy and compassion and the avoidance of cruelty became the measure of one’s humanity. Tears were everywhere, and shedding them became the sign of a true and tender heart. Diderot declared that a people who wept could never be wicked, and Voltaire judged the value of his plays by the tears they created. Sentimental novels flourished, and writers like Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne became identified with the cult of sensibility. Thomas Jefferson was no great novel reader, but he loved Sterne. How much he appreciated Sterne’s humor is unclear, but he certainly admired his moralism; indeed, he concluded that Sterne’s works “form the best course of morality that ever was written.” He kept seeking ever smaller copies of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey so he could carry it with him when he traveled.
Jefferson’s admiration for Sterne is not surprising, for Jefferson was one of the most enthusiastic of eighteenth-century American moral reformers. Like other American revolutionary liberals, Jefferson believed in the equality of all men, and this belief grew out of his basic understanding of people’s sensibilities and their instinctive capacity for moral judgments. Perhaps only a few people were capable of reason and intellectual achievement, but all people had senses and were capable of having their feelings refined and their hearts enlarged. Indeed, Jefferson believed that a plain unlettered person at times might even have a greater sense of right and wrong than an educated gentlemen. “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor,” he said; “the former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.” This is essentially what Jefferson and other Americans meant when they claimed in 1776 that all men partook of the same common nature.
Most revolutionary Americans in 1776 certainly believed in Lockean sensationalism, in the capacity of human beings to manipulate their environment in order to reform their society and character; indeed, that belief was central to their faith in the future. But they were not such out-and-out sensationalists that they counted on men and women being able by reason alone to control the environment’s chaotic bombardment of their senses. Something else was needed to structure their sense experiences. Otherwise human personalities, said James Wilson of Pennsylvania, quoting Hume, would become “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity…in a perpetual flux and movement.” A society composed only of fluctuating sensations was impossible; something had to bind people together intuitively and naturally. As Jefferson pointed out, “The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist, had he intended man for a social animal, without planting in him social dispositions.”
Americans, following Shaftesbury and other eighteenth-century theorists, modified their stark Lockean environmentalism by positing a natural social disposition, a moral instinct, a sense of sympathy, in each human being. Such a moral gyroscope—often identified with Scottish moral or common-sense thinking and resembling Kant’s categories—was needed to counteract the worst and most frightening implications of Lockean sensationalism and to keep individuals levelheaded and sociable in a confused and chaotic world. If man’s character were simply the consequence of the “impressions” made upon him “from an infinite variety of objects external and internal…,” wrote Nathaniel Chipman, judge and one-time senator from Vermont, “he would be the sport of blind impulses.” There was a “necessity” therefore “for a balance, as well as some arbiter of moral action.” And this balancer or arbiter was not reason, which was too unequally distributed in people, but a common moral sense—a moral intuition existing in every person’s heart or conscience that made possible natural compassion and affection and that bound everyone together in a common humanity.
Even the lowliest of persons, it was assumed, possessed this sense of sympathy, or moral feeling for others. Thomas Robbins, a young divinity student and a schoolmaster in Sheffield, Massachusetts, recounted in his diary in the 1790s the incident of a black boy of about four who asked Robbins about a cut on his thumb. The boy told him, “If I had some plaster I would give you some to put on it.” Robbins was overwhelmed by the boy’s sympathy. “He appears to act from the pure dictates of nature without the least cultivation. If in anyone, I think we can see nature in him.” The conclusion was obvious: “Is there not then in human nature a principle of benevolence?”
Thus, as one American declared in 1791, it was “natural to infer, that a disposition to do good, must, in some degree, be common to all men.” From this assumption flowed the confidence of many late-eighteenth-century Americans in the natural affability and benevolence of people, especially of themselves. They believed that they were the greatest people of feeling in the world.
Andrew Burstein, professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa, is rightly fascinated by this culture of sensibility, and in his book, Sentimental Democracy, he has set out to relate it to the American Revolution, which, he writes, remains “the ultimate source of all American optimism.” He does not have a lengthy description of how this culture arose, but his brief summary of its origins toward the end of his book reveals rather graphically how he tends to treat such matters of intellectual history. “In the end,” he writes, “it was a combination of factors that produced the culture of sentiment and sympathy.” He then proceeds to list these “factors”: “the eighteenth century’s long and grievous experience with seemingly unavoidable tragedies (wars, shipwrecks, mortal diseases, complications attending childbirth), the European Enlightenment that encouraged both humanism and science, and a growing ideal of refinement that asked men and women to behave respectfully and generously.” One cannot quarrel with the last two “factors,” but the first is quite puzzling. Was the eighteenth century’s experience with these tragedies worse than previous centuries’? Whatever the causes of this culture of sympathy, Burstein says, “eighteenth-century Americans helped one another cope with their common distresses,” and eventually “a new emotional system took hold.”
Describing how that “new emotional system took hold” in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is the task Burstein has set for himself. He wants to know how Americans developed an emotionally based national identity and why they came to think of themselves as an especially generous, humane, and benevolent people. He wants to explain the origins of that “democratic spirit” and “moral quality” that lie behind Americans’ presumption that “it is right that their country should take the lead in feeding the hungry or rescue earthquake victims elsewhere in the world.” In short, he wants “to narrate the story of America’s romance with itself.”
Lest these ambitions seem too grandiose, however, Burstein immediately manages to tone them down. He does not want, he says, to prescribe or scientifically analyze the minds of the Americans he is investigating. And true to his word, his book is far more descriptive than analytical. In the end he wants “simply to stir the pot of Americans’ passions.”
It is just as well that he reined in his aims, for even stirring the pot of American passions over three quarters of a century is a major task. Burstein has made it easier on himself by organizing his book very simply. Beginning in 1750, with the publication of Jonathan Mayhew’s fiery sermon against unlimited submission (often considered the opening blast in the American Revolution), and ending in 1828 with the election of Jackson, Burstein traces the history of America over this tumultuous period. In most respects his narrative of events is very conventional. In one chapter after another he tells us about the French and Indian War and the colonists’ celebration of British liberty, the Stamp Act of 1765 and the colonists’ response to it, the Coercive Acts of 1774 and the response to them, and the Declaration of Independence and the birth of what Burstein calls “the American dream.” After taking us through the Revolutionary War, he writes on the 1790s and Jefferson’s and Madison’s administrations, ending with “the era of good feelings” and John Quincy Adams’s presidency. Much of the book is thus a short history of the Revolutionary era and its aftermath.
But Burstein obviously wished to do more than simply tell the story of the main events of the Revolution. Thus he infuses his very traditional narrative with numerous quotations from the public writings and speeches of the period—all of which tend to emphasize what he calls “the language of sensibility.” So he pauses periodically in his story to quote the inflated rhetoric of some Boston Massacre speeches or to describe the grandiose visions of some millennial sermons. “Language is too feeble to paint the emotions of our souls, when our streets were stained with the blood of our brethren,” declared Joseph Warren in 1772. “The example of political wisdom and felicity here to be displayed,” announced Joel Barlow in 1787, “will excite emulation through the kingdoms of the earth, and meliorate the condition of the human race.”
Emotion-laden quotations like these follow one upon another, but Burstein’s strictly chronological approach to his subject makes it difficult for him to develop many analytical themes. He mentions the emphasis on masculine virtues in one speech of 1755, but before he can expand on this important issue in the culture of sensibility he has to move on to describe Colonel Washington’s desire that his colonial soldiers be treated equally with the British regulars, which is in turn followed by fervid descriptions of the grand empire resulting from the victory over the French.
So it goes throughout the book. Interesting questions and problems dealing with the culture of sensibility are touched on but seldom developed. Burstein is aware of the social and class character of the culture of sensibility—that ordinary folk, for example, were praised for wearing their hearts on their sleeves—but the structure of his book prevents him from exploring the issue in any depth. He notes the Anti-Federalists’ claim that members of the proposed new Congress could never share the feelings of the common people, but he does not inquire deeply into this important point. Religious sentiment is cited throughout the narrative, but not fully analyzed, even though the growing enthusiasm of emotion-rich evangelical Protestantism frightened many gentry throughout the period. He mentions the Great Seal of the United States but misses the Masonic influences on it. In fact, he ignores entirely the remarkable development of Freemasonry in the period, even though the organization largely rested on a cult of sensibility.
Aside from the Great Seal and a brief mention of Peale’s portraits, Burstein has little to say about the extraordinary outpouring of iconographic works in the period. Jeffer-son was especially interested in the sensuous impact of buildings (architecture was “an art which shows so much”) and used a Roman temple for the design of the Virginia capitol because he wanted to improve the taste of his countrymen and make them better republicans. Since the iconography and architecture of the period were designed to impress the feelings of people, they seem to belong in a discussion of America’s Revolutionary sensibility.
The neoclassicism of the era and its relation to increasingly Romantic sentiments seem a good subject for Burstein but they are not thoroughly explored. Burstein seems to assume that the “bloated rhetoric” of the speeches and writings can be explained merely by the circumstances and emotions of the speakers and writers; so he makes sense of one excited valedictory oration by saying that “it was part of a euphoria at war’s end.” He seems unaware of the neoclassical rhetorical conventions of the day that account for much of the overwrought language. And he pays insufficient attention to the manner in which men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine challenged these conventions.
Burstein’s aims seem to have been much more limited than they might have been. Apparently he merely hoped that his accumulation of quotations would show us how emotional and sentimental Americans were and how much Americans’ sense of themselves, their “exceptionalism,” was expressed in their language of sensibility. And this limited aim seems to have affected his conception of how sensibility was used.
He seems to conceive of the culture of sensibility essentially as propaganda, as a device or weapon to be manipulated at will. At times, it even becomes personified as an agent: “Americanized, sensibility conceived liberty as a moral condition.” Throughout the book he suggests that American patriot leaders needed heart to win the Revolution, and thus they deliberately set out in their writings to create that heart, to turn Americans into a people of feeling. “Without a language of feeling,” he writes, “the American Revolution would have existed only in the minds of the most narrowly philosophical. Sensibility was a critical device in the promotion of patriotic sentiment.” It “was always used as a social weapon by those who feared that tendencies toward gender equality would undermine patriarchal power in the republic.” “Sentiment and sympathy—and the culture of sensibility in general—were used to sustain the enterprise of nation building.”
The nation’s leaders “tapped” into sensibility in order “to contribute to social order, to a spirit of reconciliation among America’s parts, and to draw out Americans’ feelings so as to nourish a nationalistic language.” Although “the 1790s in America were a time when the call for sensibility remained strong,” it turned destructive “instead of feeding sympathy and generosity.” In Burstein’s view sensibility was always an agent of great power.
Eventually, however, Americans came “to recognize the limitations, even the sterility, of the ethic of sensibility.” Indeed, sensibility became in time “so conventional that it bored people.” “The Man of Feeling became passé in the 1820s,” finally overtaken by the aggressive common man of business who was interested only in conquering a continent. The “sensible virtues” were now reframed “into a strictly female category.”
Unfortunately this disintegration of sensibility in the 1820s comes as something of a surprise. For seventy-five years, according to Burstein, Americans had been relentlessly promoting themselves as a people of feeling and then all of a sudden they seemed not to need to do that anymore. In his conclusion Burstein scarcely does justice to the complicated ways the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility gradually became vulgarized and turned into the blatant moralism of popular nineteenth-century melodrama.
Although Burstein has certainly demonstrated that the Americans of the Revolutionary era thought of themselves as an especially sentimental and benevolent people, I do not believe he has fully explained why they should have been so eager to conceive of themselves in this way. He tends to see the Americans’ claims that they possessed more compassion and affability than other peoples as merely their means of establishing their national identity. Like most other scholars exploring the origins of nationhood these days, he cites the anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s view that nations often derive from the ideas people have about “imagined communities” and suggests that all the Revolutionaries’ appeals to moral duty and sacrifice were simply “assigning characteristics to the People of Feeling—that is, to a constructed American character.” Yet I think he has missed something by focusing so exclusively on national identity. All the talk of sensibility and sociability that he quotes had a much more deeply rooted and scientific significance than he allows. America’s culture of sensibility was not simply an instrument for constructing a national identity; it was as well a means of national survival.
For Revolutionary Americans sensibility and sociability became modern surrogates for the classical virtue that theorists for millennia had thought necessary for sustaining a republican government. By becoming a republic or a union of republics in 1776, Americans were faced with a major problem of holding their nation together. It had long been understood that monarchies could sustain themselves from the top down through their unitary authority, their titles and complicated social hierarchies of dependence, their standing armies and elaborate religious establishments. But republics, which had none of these devices, had to hold themselves together from the bottom up, ultimately, from their citizens’ willingness to take up arms to defend their country and to sacrifice their private desires for the sake of the public good. This reliance on the moral virtue of their citizens was what made republican governments historically so fragile.
Thus thinkers from Plutarch to Machiavelli to Montesquieu had argued that republics that depended on the virtue of their citizens necessarily had to be small in size and martial in character; otherwise their citizens would not be able to cohere, defend themselves, and develop the proper spirit of self-sacrifice. Many intellectuals in the eighteenth century still believed in the value of this classical masculine and martial virtue; witness the acclaim that greeted David’s painting, The Oath of the Horatii, exhibited in 1786. But many others like David Hume had come to believe that the kind of classical republican virtue represented in David’s painting was too demanding and too severe for the enlightened civilized societies of eighteenth-century Europe. It was true, wrote Hume, that ancient Sparta and Rome were free republican states whose citizens were virtuous and self-sacrificing. But they were also small states that were almost continually in arms. If we could turn every modern state into a fortified camp and every citizen into a soldier, said Hume, then we might be able to duplicate the virtue of the ancient republics. But creating that kind of classical martial virtue was no longer possible in the enlightened eighteenth century of sprawling commercial societies.
Some substitute for this ancient martial virtue had to be found, and many discovered it in what was increasingly perceived as the natural sociability, sentimentality, and politeness of people. Humanity, it was said over and over, was made for social life. People had an instinct, an irresistible urge, to associate with their fellow beings and to care for them. There seemed to be a natural principle of attraction that pulled people together, a moral principle that was no different from the principles that operated in the physical world. “Just as the regular motions and harmony of the heavenly bodies depend upon their mutual gravitation towards each other,” said Jonathan Mayhew, so too did love and benevolence among people preserve “order and harmony” in the society. Love between human beings was the gravity of the moral world, and it could be studied and perhaps even manipulated more easily than the gravity of the physical world. Enlightened thinkers like Shaftesbury and Adam Smith thus sought to discover these hidden forces that moved and held people together in the moral world, forces, they believed, that could match the great eighteenth-century scientific discoveries of the hidden forces—gravity, magnetism, electricity, and energy—that operated in the physical world. Thus was modern social science born.
With these kinds of developments the classical idea of virtue changed. Many now came to conceive of it as less the harsh and martial self-sacrifice of antiquity and more the modern willingness to get along with others for the sake of peace and prosperity. This modern virtue became equated with sensibility, and as such it was softer, less masculine, and less political than the virtue of the classical past. It was more Addisonian than Spartan and was capable of being expressed by women as well as men. Some said that women were even more capable than men of sociability and benevolence, which suggested to some that too much male sentimentality was apt to breed effeminacy. This point literary scholars of the eighteenth century have developed but Burstein ignores it.
This new domesticated virtue was bred by participation, not in government as in classical antiquity, but in society. Mingling in drawing rooms, clubs, coffeehouses, and even commercial exchanges—partaking of the innumerable daily comings and goings of modern life—created friendship and sympathy and credit and helped to hold society together. This social virtue, said Thomas Paine in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, was “produced by our wants,” unlike government, which was produced “by our wickedness.” While government promotes our happiness only “negatively by restraining our vices,” society, said Paine, “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections.” Burstein cites this quotation, but seems unaware of just how scientifically based was the confidence of Paine and other liberals like Jefferson in the natural harmony of society. It was in fact the source of their enlightened belief in minimal government.
It is not surprising that Americans should have become excited by the discovery of these sentimental attachments among people and that they should have come to believe that they were especially benevolent and compassionate. It was not simply a matter of national identity that they should be a generous people of feeling; their republican experiment demanded it.
No doubt this belief in the capacity of love and benevolence to hold their republican society together became for some Americans as utopian as the belief in ascetic classical virtue had been, and hard-nosed skeptics like Alexander Hamilton came to doubt its efficacy. But for a moment in the glow of the Revolution, Americans as cool and collected as young John Quincy Adams could imagine a new and better world emerging. In such a “vision of bliss” all violent passions, Adams wrote, will “give place to the soft control of mild and amiable sentiments, which shall unite in social harmony the innumerable varieties of the human race.” Superstition would disappear, barbarism would recede, and all parts of the globe would be gently bound together through commerce. And then “the long expected era of human felicity which has been announced by prophetic inspiration and described in the most enraptured language of the muses, shall commence its splendid progress.” As Burstein points out in a final chapter on the legacies of America’s national character, this vision still lies behind much of modern American humanitarian thinking. Americans still yearn for a world in which everyone will love one another, and they are willing to use force to see that they do.
October 7, 1999