Abstract: Building a Canal and a Myth in the 1830s

Pamela W. Laird


For decades after its publication in 1838, dozens of newspapers and magazines printed excerpts or announcements of <em>Clement Falconer, or, The Memoirs of a Young Whig</em>. Most coverage highlighted the novel's passages about "self-made men," reflecting a significant feature of the cultural history that built mainstream America's business-related cultures. The 1830s' economic frenzies and rising democratic tensions accelerated the transition of the "self-made man" as a national exemplar from older religious and communal goals toward its place at the top of individualism's symbol system. Nonetheless, author William Price hewed to traditional values about self-making. A man of affairs, Price was a leading jurist who also participated in the era's great debates about internal improvements. He served on the board of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, fought a duel in 1840 with the board's president, and wrote his novel to attack the spoils system that threatened the canal's development. Ironically, Price admired Henry Clay above other politicians of his day, yet Clay pushed "self-making" toward its modern, individualist meanings. Price struggled with both real-world issues and the cultural values applied to justify men's actions, a participant in his generation's competition to define "self-made success."