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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing, 1815-1850
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of the Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
Topic: Culture of the Common Man
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: Culture of the Common Man
Text 1. Andrew Jackson
Text 2. Mark Twain
Text 3. Thomas W. Dorr
Text 4. Mechanics/Workers
Text 5. Richard Allen and David Walker
Text 6. Nathaniel Hawthorne
Text 7. James Fenimore Cooper
Text 8. Ralph Waldo Emerson
» Reading Guide
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Text 9. John C. Calhoun
Text 10. Walt Whitman

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Reading Guide
8.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, excerpts from "Self-Reliance," 1841

One critic has written that "the rise of democracy, either the trans-Appalachian Jacksonian stripe or that of the eastern slums and factory towns, was what provoked the transcendentalist to his most significant reaction." We have chosen to illustrate that reaction with an excerpt from Emerson's "Self-Reliance." An exhilarating call to a vital and bracing individualism, it is also a critique of the culture of the common man. To help place it in that context, read it in the light of the following excerpt from Emerson's 1860 essay "Considerations by the Way."

"Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled; I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them. The worst of charity is that the lives you are asked to preserve are not worth preserving. Masses! The calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only, and no shovel-handed, narrow-brained, gin-drinking million stockingers* or lazzaroni* at all. If government knew how, I should like to see it check, not multiply population. When it reaches its true law of action, man that is born will be hailed as essential. Away with this hurrah of masses, and let us have the considered vote of single men spoken on their honor and their conscience." Could be used with students. 7 pages.

Discussion questions
  ·  In "Self-Reliance," how is Emerson trying to "draw individuals out of" the masses?
  ·  What implications does "Self-Reliance" hold for community, for a democratic culture, for equality?
  ·  What is Emerson's vision of democracy?
  ·  In Emerson's view, what is the source of political power? What is its purpose?

Reading highlights
  ·  Compare Emerson's attitude toward the mob with that of Hawthorne in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and Twain in Huckleberry Finn.

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Americans respond to the emergence of a functioning democracy in which the majority of free adult males could vote?
  •  How did Northerners view the purposes of political rights and power?
  •  How did Southerners view them?

Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man | Cult of Domesticity | Religion | Expansion | America in 1850

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Revised: January 2002