The Common Man

My first book, The Common Man: Human Similarity and American Exceptionalism, 1776-1948, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press as part of the Intellectual History of the Modern Age series.

This book traces the theme of human similarity through the moral philosophy and political economy of the early republic and antebellum periods; reconstructs its further evolution in the philosophy, literature, and popular science of the post-Civil War decades; and analyzes its reformulations in the emerging discourses of social science as they differentiated from one another in the first half of the twentieth century. The purpose is to reconnect episodes, individuals, and texts that have wrestled with the problem not of human equality—the idea that before God or the law or death, all stand on a single plane—but of human similarity: the principle that humans either vary much less in innate endowments than is often supposed, or that what variance exists is less significant (morally and practically) than those capacities and faculties which all humans have in common.

The first part of The Common Man examines how this principle was articulated simultaneously within the transatlantic struggle for the abolition of slavery and the equally transatlantic struggle to define the character of the new United States. I show both how emerging theories of race challenged the principle of human similarity and how integral African Americans were to articulating it in more forceful and more creative terms. I also illustrate how central a role this debate played in ideologies of the market and of popular sovereignty, as Americans and Europeans came to see the new nation as uniquely founded on both. And I show how vexing the problem of heroes or “Great Men” (or women) was for emancipatory movements: “liberators” could achieve human equality, but would they disprove human similarity by their greatness?

The second part of The Common Man extends the interlacing of the principle of human similarity and the doctrine of American exceptionalism: after the Civil War, human similarity was appropriated and reconceptualized as a uniquely American idea under the symbol of the “common man.” This appropriation culminated during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as influential US intellectuals, business elites, and diplomats increasingly identified the unity of the human race with the spread of American influence. The US, unlike Nazi Germany, did not aspire to be a nation of supermen, but its greatness—economic, cultural, and military—did prove that the world was full of common men.

This book makes substantive contributions to ongoing debates about the origins of human rights and humanitarianism, American exceptionalism, meritocracy, the history of racist ideas, and dehumanization. Methodologically, it borrows from both the “myth and symbol approach” of the early American Studies movement as well as the recent revival of “history in ideas.” And although its concerns—the boundaries of “humankind” and the way humans have been subdivided and ranked—are unfortunately perennial, this project has taken on greater pertinence over the last few years, as figures from the far right have increasingly tested the waters of the mainstream with declarations of immutable racial differences and unquestionable white superiority.

This study critically reconstructs a previous effort to overcome such ideas, giving coherence to what has previously been a relatively scattered body of scholarship that has largely focused on discrete social movements or moral causes. By keeping the idea of human similarity at the center of our vision, we can instead see the longer threads of ideas running through nearly two centuries of efforts to qualify, debunk, and even overthrow assertions of natural human hierarchies and wide gulfs of aptitude or capabilities among varying groups of humans. Yet this focus also shows us where these threads accommodated or incorporated such ideas, leaving tangles and bare patches. It is in the interest of doing better—of more consistently asserting not only abstract human equality but the significance of concrete human similarity, of our common lot as humankind—that this project is written.