Published by Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia on 2009
Genres: Colonial Period (1600-1775), History, Revolutionary Period (1775-1800), United States
In the wake of American independence, it was clear that the new United States required novel political forms. Less obvious but no less revolutionary was the idea that the American people needed a new understanding of the self. Sensibility was a cultural movement that celebrated the human capacity for sympathy and sensitivity to the world. For individuals, it offered a means of self-transformation. For a nation lacking a monarch, state religion, or standing army, sensibility provided a means of cohesion. National independence and social interdependence facilitated one another. What Sarah Knott calls "the sentimental project" helped a new kind of citizen create a new kind of government.Knott paints sensibility as a political project whose fortunes rose and fell with the broader tides of the Revolutionary Atlantic world. Moving beyond traditional accounts of social unrest, republican and liberal ideology, and the rise of the autonomous individual, she offers an original interpretation of the American Revolution as a transformation of self and society.
In Sarah Knott’s words, sensibility was perceived “as a distinctive mode of self” that takes into account feelings and sympathy to connect the self with society. (5) This definition helped to understand Knott’s use of the word in her cultural history, Sensibility and the American Revolution. According to Knott, sensibility was “the fundamental link to self and society.” (1) She followed the transformation of sensibility through the period surrounding the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution in her “sentimental project.” This term consisted of the transformation of sensibility as the self and society were reconstructed together during this period. (2-3) Looking at this sentimental project, Knott argued the American Revolution was not just about the fight for independence from British tyranny; the Revolution was also part of a key period in the development of the American people, society and politics together. (4) The American colonists had the opportunity to transform society and their selves into a utopian form through social revolution as they fought to separate themselves from British control and write their own Constitution.
To support her argument, Knott focused primarily on the latter half of the eighteenth century in the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia. While Knott had a number of strengths in her research through her unique use of sources and approach to the period not typically taken by other historians (particularly her research on booksellers and physicians) there were weaknesses that could have used further elaboration: She focused on nervous disease and mentioned the disease did not arrive in the colonies until the decades prior to the Revolution, and when it did arrive, “it flooded.” (92) The reader was left to presume there may have been an influx of British at this time and the monarch asserting control or perhaps the effects of the Seven Year’s War may have led to the arrival of nervous disease. Knott also touched on the use of cognomens. She focused on the private use of cognomens and their significance in journals, but she did not explain the difference in these private cognomens and public aliases found in the Federalist Papers or other political pieces published for mass audiences. These aliases were covered by historians more often than Knott’s journal cognomens. It would have been helpful to understand the difference of the more popular use of masking names over the private use and why these had a stronger effect and reflection on sensibility. Finally, at times Knott presented some cynical assumptions that read more like her opinion than supported her argument. For example, in her depiction of Peggy Arnold following the capture of Benedict Arnold as a traitor, Knott described the theatrical performance put on by Peggy as the officers visited her, noting “she needed to ensure” her innocence through a public display.(177) Perhaps it was theatrics that prompted Peggy to behave the way she did, however, Knott’s mentioning of this event read more cynical and assumptious and was more of a distraction than support for her argument and understanding of sensibility. (92, 110, 177)
Some personal notes: This was a dense book. Knott defined sensibility in Jane Austin’s terms… at times, I am not going to lie (and this is harsh), I felt like I was reading gibberish. My brain was mush and I had to go back and read, and re-read paragraphs and still could not grasp the full content. In addition, I recommend keeping a dictionary close by. This book was a unique turn from the usual Revolutionary histories typically published. I had to read this book for my Revolutionary era class and appreciated the discussion that followed with the group to help iron out the content in relation to the argument and this significance for the time period.
Overall, I felt Knott took a unique approach to the transformation of self and society and its contributions to the historical studies that further the understanding of the period around the American Revolution. However, I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a casual read or for a book to help further their understanding about the revolutionary period in America without further background and in-depth knowledge of the subject. This book was more for those who have a background in literature studies or for those interested in cultural histories and a deeper intellectual understanding of the Revolution. If you do decide to read, I recommend reading with another so you can talk it out and discuss the thesis.