Show Less
Restricted access

Constituting «Americanness»

A History of the Concept and Its Representations in Antebellum American Literature


Iulian Cananau

This work in cultural history and literary criticism suggests a fresh and fruitful approach to the old notion of Americanness. Following Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte, the author proposes that Americanness is not an ordinary word, but a concept with a historically specific semantic field. In the three decades before the Civil War, Americanness was constituted at the intersection of several concepts, in different stages of their respective histories; among these, nation, representation, individualism, sympathy, race, and womanhood. By tracing the representations of these concepts in literary texts of the antebellum era and investigating their overlapping with the rhetoric of national identification, this study uncovers some of the meaning of Americanness in that period.
Show Summary Details
Restricted access

Chapter 8. Sympathy


Chapter 8. Sympathy

David Hume and Adam Smith are the best-known eighteenth-century theorists of sentiment-based ethics and their contributions to the semantic field of sympathy remained influential through the first half of the nineteenth century in Britain as well as in the United States. In contrast with Thomas Hobbes, who saw moral sentiments as thoroughly subordinate to self-interest, Smith and Hume grounded their ethical theories on the valorization of sympathy. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Adam Smith explains the concept of sympathy in terms equivalent to what present-day psychologists call “empathy”1: unlike compassion and pity, which are restricted to “fellow-feeling” with sorrow, “sympathy” is “our fellow-feeling with any passion whatsoever” (5). But Hume goes one step further and, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), he describes sympathy as fundamental for social communication and mutual understanding. Cultivating this “passion” at the expense of selfish impulses is a prerequisite of the enlightened society. “Sympathy”, he writes, “is much fainter than our concern for ourselves, and sympathy with persons, remote from us, much fainter than that with persons, near and contiguous; but for this very reason, ‘tis necessary for us, in our calm judgments and discourse concerning the characters of men, to neglect all these differences, and render our sentiments more public and social” (49).

The concept of sympathy proposed by the Scottish Philosophers operates as a mediator between self-interest and social stability. Its social function was well-known to the American Founders, especially...

You are not authenticated to view the full text of this chapter or article.

This site requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books or journals.

Do you have any questions? Contact us.

Or login to access all content.