Acton Institute Powerblog

The Myths of American Individualism

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Whence the rugged individualism that is traditionally synonymous with being American? Was it there from the beginning, rooted in our founding documents? Or does the idea represent a later corruption that can be reversed in pursuit of a more religious or egalitarian republic?

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Americans are an individualistic bunch. Our popular culture makes heroes of outsiders, loners, and disrupters. Our politicians emphasize their independence of entrenched institutions, party discipline, and special interests. In economic affairs, we assume that success is within the grasp of anyone who really tries—and harshly judge those who don’t appear to meet the challenge. Our religious communities are voluntary associations that compete for the allegiance of adherents free to choose leaders, doctrines, and rituals that suit their preferences.

These qualities have been noticed, if not always approved, by observers of American life since the 18th century. There is less agreement about where they come from. Is the American penchant for individualism the result of philosophical principles that were ultimately built into the constitutional order? Or are they later, inchoate influences that tend to separate latter-day Americans from the conditions of the founding and early republic?

While they’re partly historical, these questions have a political edge. For critics of modern America, the quest for a pre-individualist past is also a way of thinking about the future. On the right, that means recovery of a more religious regime in which personal choice plays a smaller role. On the left, it involves a more egalitarian economy in which sufficient property is the entitlement of every citizen rather than the special prize earned by a virtuous minority.

The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson is the latest entry in these debates, which extend back at least to the late 1960s, when scholars including Bernard Bailyn and J.G.A. Pocock rediscovered the influence of classical republican ideas on early patriots. Synthesizing decades of research as well as introducing some unfamiliar primary sources, Alex Zakaras suggests that the familiar conception of American individualism coalesced only about half a century after the founding. To understand, and also to criticize, what look like fixed characteristics of American national identity, in other words, we need to turn to the age of Jackson and the emergence of the organized Democratic Party.

One advantage of Zakaras’ account is that he locates sources of our political culture outside the independence movement and very early republic. If the unattached individual is an almost inescapable assumption, the idea that what it means to be American was permanently fixed in 1776 or 1787 is another. The decade, more or less, that includes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention did help define Americans’ conception of themselves and their place in the world. But that process did not cease when Washington was inaugurated as president. To the contrary, not only political institutions but also the ideologies, arguments, and narratives that sustained them continued to develop over the following decades. Fixation on a narrowly construed founding tends to obscure these changes, which eventually produced a country that defied and in some ways rebuked many Founders’ hopes.

A second advantage of this book lies in its emphasis on myth. As Zakaras hastens to clarify, “myth” doesn’t necessarily mean falsehood, intentional or otherwise. The term can also designate a special kind of story that makes sense of politics, imposing coherence on unruly experience. The trouble with myth, in this sense, is less that it’s untrue than that it’s inevitably partial. Every narrative is selective in the figures, events, and lessons that it takes into account.

The mythic dimension of politics is harder to study than philosophical arguments expressed in canonical treatises. But it is also more important—especially in a democratic republic like ours. Under democratic conditions, as Tocqueville observed, few citizens have ever enjoyed the leisure, training, or inclination for abstract thought. Rather than the pages of great books, American myths emerged from campaign speeches, activist journalism, the popular arts, and other genres that scholars of political philosophy proper tend to neglect.

Religious teaching, especially in sermons and missionary appeals rather than academic theology, is prominent among such expressions of the American mind. A third merit of Zakaras’ work is its insistence that Protestant revival movements in the early 19th century both reflected and encouraged dramatic changes in national character. Contrary to the assumption that modernization and secularization go hand in hand, these movements produced a society that was publicly more religious than the America of the 1780s. But they also broke the authority of hierarchical churches with institutional roots in the European Reformation, replacing the state establishments of the early republic with the religious marketplace that’s still familiar today.

On the basis of these methodological choices, Zakaras argues that emerging American individualism was characterized by three distinct but overlapping visions of freedom. Rather than a formal definition, each vision revolves around a personal embodiment. Myth, after all, is not primarily an argument. It is a story about who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be.

The first of these “mythic heroes” is the independent proprietor. The property owner is free because he does not depend on anyone else for his material existence. On the one hand, this independence gives him mastery of his own affairs. On the other, it allows him to participate responsibly in collective self-government, resisting the temptations of economic interest as well as outright bribery. The underlying assumptions of self-ownership and the origin of property in labor are familiar from Locke and, through that connection, can be integrated with a more philosophical interpretation of American origins. But Zakaras points out, accurately, that they have also non-Lockean expressions, including classical republican and “Country” Whig discourses that remained influential in North America long after their early 18th-century heyday in England.

Locke’s treatment of the acquisition and disposition of property as a matter of natural rights is more distinctive and points toward a second vision of freedom. Here the American is understood as a “right-bearer,” defending his moral autonomy against infringement. That oppression had an economic dimension—hence the characteristic opposition of both Country Whigs and Jacksonian Democrats to legal intervention in markets, which they saw as a way of granting undeserved privileges to a favored elite. But invocations of rights shifted the emphasis from material dependence per se to the unjust interference by government. As Zakaras emphasizes throughout the book, the American vision of the rights-bearer also had important religious implications. Challenging political and ecclesiastical authority alike, human beings were understood to enjoy fundamental liberties of conscience and association when it came to preaching and worship.

Both the independent proprietor and the rights-bearer were theoretically egalitarian visions, insofar as neither form of freedom conceptually limited the ability of any other individual to enjoy the same liberty. The third hero, the self-made man, served less to justify equality than to explain inequality. In America, the story went, there were no classes in the European sense of hereditary groups whose personal and economic choices were subject to rigid constraints. All were free to make the best use of their abilities in competition with others doing the same. A few unfortunates might be so handicapped by nature or circumstance that they would not find success no matter how hard they tried. On the whole, though, persistence, discipline, thrift, and other characteristically bourgeois virtues were almost certain to find their reward. Most who failed to prosper, therefore, had no one blame but themselves.

The bulk of The Roots of American Individualism elaborates the evolution and deployment of these myths in the political debates of roughly the 1820s through the 1840s. Like most other studies of these matters, though, Zakaras’ eye is on contemporary political implications as well as historiographical accuracy. A man of the left, Zakaras aims to defend individualism as a part of a usable past against fashionable arguments that the individual is a relic of racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression. Although his name is never mentioned, this strategy recalls the philosopher Richard Rorty’s appeal for a kind of aspirational patriotism that seeks precedents for a more egalitarian society in American history and traditions.

In pursuit of that goal, Zakaras concedes the objection that the idealized American individual of the Jacksonian age was a white, Christian (usually Protestant) male. Usually in practice and sometimes in theory, the principles of the Declaration of Independence and other expressions of rights-bearing individualism were limited to a racial and sexual minority. Zakaras also notes the tension between the mythology of the independent proprietor and the reality of Western expansion. The claim that all men could secure their freedom by laboring in the state of nature did not take much account of the presence of rival occupants of the land.

Yet Zakaras contends that these contradictions don’t discredit the myths. Even if their realization was halting and inconsistent, the individualism of rights and property could be extended beyond the conventional limits of the 19th century. And indeed they were. As Zakaras points out, critics of slavery, the political subordination of women, or Indian removal could and did appeal to the same myths as they made the case for more inclusive forms of individualism.

Zakaras struggles, though, to defend the vision of the self-made man. Like Christopher Lasch, he sees the ostensibly equal opportunity represented by the self-made man as an unsatisfactory alternative to the authentic freedom enjoyed by independent farmers and producers. While the other two myths were characteristic of the Democracy, as the party of Jackson was then known, Zakaras blames the rival Whigs for substituting economic mobility for economic—and therefore political—equality.

The sharp distinction between these forms of American individualism is historically,

philosophically, and politically dubious, though. For one thing, the myth of the self-made man, if not all the rhetoric, long predates the Whigs. The promise that disciplined workers are sure to rise in a commercial economy is present in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. And Franklin was celebrated both at home and abroad as the archetypal American before the Yankee capitalists who opposed Jackson were born.

Nor can the assumption of a reliable apportionment of effort and reward be clearly distinguished from already overlapping arguments for independent proprietorship and natural rights. Locke himself argues that the earth was made for the “rational and industrious,” who enhance their material well-being through careful planning and diligent labor. The case for Western expansion and craft industry was not simply that they tended to provide Americans with sufficient property to maintain their independence. It was that they offered this prospect to those willing to accept the risk and effort necessary to achieve them.

That essentially meritocratic understanding of material conditions persists today. In the closing chapters, Zakaras urges readers to revive the ideal of individual freedom through expanded government services. We can no longer aspire to be freeholding yeomen working our own land. But he suggests that we can hope for the universal provision of “childcare, health care, and other vital services” that will allow us to pursue our own goals in a comparable manner.

The problem Zakaras faces is that such proposals have proved politically unfeasible. The reason is not that Americans remain subject to the subterranean influence of 19th-century Whigs. It’s that the expectation of a predictable moral relationship between effort and achievement unites all three narratives of individualism. Like Rorty, Zakaras is frustrated that a European-style welfare state is hard to square with the “myths” that continue to define American political culture. Myths are flexible, but this may be one of their limits.

Despite its unsatisfying conclusion, The Roots of American Individualism is a valuable book. Moving beyond tedious debates about the influence of eminent philosophers on the constitutional founding, it opens up a dimension and period of the American political tradition that is still relevant about two centuries later. The search for the roots of American individualism will not end here. But with this labor, Zakaras has staked a claim as an authority on the subject.

Samuel Goldman

Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is also executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. His most recent book, After Nationalism: Being American in a Divided Age was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in spring 2021. Goldman received his Ph.D. from Harvard, and taught at Harvard and Princeton before coming to GW. In addition to academic work, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is also an affiliate scholar for the Acton Institute.