How can we understand American individualism?

Attempts to define the essence of American society often begin with a quote from "On Democracy in America," Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th century masterpiece. It is amazing that a book written over 150 years ago about a country believed to be subject to perpetual change, ruthless modernity and lacking any sense of tradition is still as true and as describing a present one Situation appears. Even more astonishing, Tocqueville's study of a mainly rural, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon population (with African-American slave labor) should have any validity for the urban, industrialized, multicultural nation now inhabited by millions of restless people.

If observations from the first half of the 19th century still apply to the United States [early 21st century], it would be logical to assume that there exists an enduring "core" of the nature of American society. To understand this core, however, a distinction must be made between American national identity and that of traditional societies that derive their identity from a common belief, ethnicity, and memories. Talking about an American identity requires that we re-examine what holds a national community together and what constitutes a national culture.

To be fully according to the official definition of American citizens does not imply any ancestral connection with the land, its predominant ethnic cultures, or religious traditions. Americans as individuals participate in a variety of historical cultures, but what they share is something entirely different. An ongoing social contract and the energetic process it has triggered underlie their national identity. The purpose of this essay is to describe the importance of this contract and how this process evolves.


Membership in the American national community requires only a decision to become American - a political decision that also has a moral dimension. All Americans, including those born in the country, are considered "free choice" Americans rather than simply Americans based on a common historical heritage. The enthusiasm for freedom of choice could even be the central dynamic and value of society. This active form of freedom not only requires the absence of political or economic restrictions, but also the opportunity to choose from a wide range of options. Culture indulges in this value in the most trivial of ways by offering an endless and often meaningless variety of purchase options.

On a deeper level, in the love of freedom of choice, there is a reminder of the chance to escape the hopelessness of life in cultures of ancestry and to create the life one wants to lead in a New World. Many Americans repeat this pattern of migration, in fact moving to a western state, or symbolically looking for new beginnings and second opportunities in their work or personal life. Though the tragic Native American and African American experiences have for years been a mockery of the national ethos of agency, they too now claim the right to determine their own destiny and share in the opportunities that are considered a birthright.

The United States believes in self-determination and the concept of the self-made man, or today the "self-made woman". This belief is based on the conviction that inheritance and ancestry are by no means as important as the path you choose for yourself and the energy you put into making this decision. The American heroes "come from nowhere" and "make it alone". ... Aside from the indomitable and heretical limitations of the concept of race, which will be discussed later, Americans assume for themselves and others that origin enriches their lives, but does not shape their destiny.

Although this concept of social and economic free will as an acceptance and ideal is liberating, it also brings with it the burden of responsibility for one's own destiny. In a society that is in the eternal state of becoming, there are no social or economic absolutes and no compensation for inability to improve one's life for whatever reason. When ambitions become frustrated and prosperity is lacking, Americans see it as a perversion of the natural world order.
While an enthusiasm for agency is the driving force behind American individualism, it can also correct selfish behavior. From the point of view of more traditional societies, the United States appears as a nation of dispersed individuals in social free fall; but they have not abolished the sense of social responsibility. They have merely replaced its hereditary basis.

Americans join clubs, volunteer for honorary positions, and are philanthropists. They advocate a number of voluntarily assumed duties and tasks, using their individualism for social purposes. When Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans marvel at the lack of belonging to extended families, ancestral connections, and class structures in the United States, Americans alike marvel at what they see as the petty dislike on the part of members of traditional cultures for non-religious or non-familial See opportunities for voluntary work and willingness to donate to good causes.


American society has tied the ethics of agency to an endless variety of traditions, ideas, and opportunities. The mix of people and customs in daily American life and the dramatic break most communities have experienced due to their emigration from their homeland has resulted in a practice of trying and borrowing and mixing styles, rituals and, most importantly, food. This eclecticism, which may seem chaotic to historically more uniform cultures, has become a value and a sign of vitality in the United States. It is he who ultimately gives national expression to much of the country's art and literature. American artists, writers, and architects have made it their prerogative to choose from elements of foreign and native cultures and assemble them into a new American whole.

The dynamic underlying the American system of values, beliefs and identity found its most lyrical early expression in the "inalienable rights" of all human beings, which were defined in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as "life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness". Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, did not call happiness itself the right of all Americans and all of humanity, but rather the "pursuit" of it. From the beginning there has been little utopianism in mainstream American politics, few ideas of an ideal state or ideal human condition to be created through social planning. Rather, it is precisely the state of striving, becoming, the experience of unhindered life that stimulates the national imagination. The words that move Americans are instructive: "Freedom", "Mobility", "Individualism", "Opportunity", "Energy", "Pragmatism", "Progress", "Renewal", "Competition". These are not dry, descriptive words - they speak directly to the American mindset.

In his successful 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton chose one of the most evocative words in American history for his campaign motto: "Change". Part of the appeal of change in American culture stems from the hope that every change leads to improvement. But the optimistic expectation that change can be equated with progress precisely because of this fact is less important than the strong tendency to distrust or even fear permanence in government or politics. During the discussion about the approval of the American Constitution, Thomas Jefferson warned that the re-election of a president after his first four-year term - without an automatic change - could lead to that president becoming a "holder of life". Jefferson's concern stemmed from the fundamental American assumption that sovereignty emanates from the people and is only granted temporarily and conditionally to the incumbent.


The dynamic and conflicting nature of the American political process is intended to offer a guarantee against entrenchment in office. No party or individual should be entrusted with the authority of an office for too long, as people are corruptible and political measures are quickly outdated. If a party is in the White House too long, the unrest among the voters increases - they are not permanently loyal to any political idea or leadership. The dynamics of the system itself give Americans what they need and what they trust: a balance of forces, a surveillance of the truth through challenge and exposure, a reminder of the conceit and dangers of power, the benefits of change, growth, and experimentation and last but not least, the appeal of a new start.

Paradoxically, then, the United States achieves continuity by insisting on change and stability by allowing conflict. This is not just a crude electoral system, but rather a strategy built into the government framework. The historian Michael Kammen described the system set in motion by the drafters of the constitution in 1789 as a "conflict in consensus". Another historian, Marcus Cunliffe, puts it this way: "They purposely built tensions into the document as a safeguard against corruption and dictatorship."

That is certainly not a recipe for efficiency. Although efficiency is seen as an ideal to be striven for in the American technology and management sector, the nation as a political culture harbors a deep distrust of long-term planning, concentration of power and smooth decision-making processes. The constitutional government, through the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, deliberately thwarts united actions. This political system can and does lead to conflict, frustration and temporary stagnation in the absence of statesmanlike compromises or in the absence of agreement in the political philosophy of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. But it is also almost a guarantee against unjustified presumption of power.

The political system also promotes the balancing act of the distribution of power among state, state and local authorities, which leads to great reluctance at the national level to prescribe political measures in numerous areas. The United States does not have a uniform education system, no department of education, and to this day no health system controlled directly from Washington. Political decisions in these and other areas are mainly brought about through persuasion, coordination, coalition building, cross-party negotiations and work in constituencies, interest groups and regions. The large private sector, reflecting the released energy of an open market of ideas, programs and resources, plays a very important role. The suspicious press is another major player.

American original:
Religious freedom

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a strong advocate of political and religious freedom and the author of the United States' most valuable document, the Declaration of Independence. The lines, "We take these truths for granted, that all human beings are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness" - are among the first to be heard by American students learn by heart. Jefferson's Law on Religious Freedom (Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, 1786) guaranteed freedom of worship and forbade the state from mandating support for a particular religion or providing public funding for a particular religion. Jefferson was the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809. He was previously Secretary of State and Vice President, as well as US envoy to France. A trained architect, linguist, and scientist, he should be remembered for three things: as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Freedom of Belief Act, and the founding father of the University of Virginia.


Despite the tradition of restrained government, many Americans in the past century have proposed a new way of looking at the role of the state. If a society needs only to be released from the yoke of government in order to enjoy the benefits of freedom, the task of political reform is accomplished when government's worst tendencies are balanced and social energies are unleashed. But this presupposes that the underlying political, social and economic circumstances allow fair participation in all the benefits of freedom or, conversely, that only certain members of a society are eligible as active participants. Generations of American reformers have demanded that their societies recognize those whom they have excluded in the past and that the government then guarantee their freedom to partake of the American promise. They have consistently been attacked by others who fear an increase in government power as an attack on freedom. Ultimately, the question of American democracy has always been easy to ask but difficult to answer: What is the relationship between equality and freedom?

Measured by the standards of the 18th century, the new nation had radicalized the idea of ​​political unity, with the final decision being made by the citizens who, according to the Declaration of Independence, were "created equal". Actual participation in the new United States political community, however, was limited in ways that most modern Americans would find intolerable and even incomprehensible.

The civil war of the 1860s ended the obscenity of slavery in a free society and was supplemented by the 14th and 15th amendments that granted political rights to half of the African-American population. The female half of the population had to wait for the 19th amendment to be passed in 1920, which finally accepted the largest group of disenfranchised Americans into the political community.
Political rights were further enshrined in law with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But even after several years of conscious, targeted enforcement of basic political rights and the urgent demands of the American civil rights movement, the most fundamental question of equality as a prerequisite for freedom in American culture remained unanswered in the middle of the century. Fair and equal access to political rights, when finally resolved, was not enough to guarantee the full participation of all citizens in the promise of American life. Any argument that this inequality of circumstances was due to "immanent" restrictions on excluded communities and categories of Americans threatened the idea of ​​American individualism. The very idea that a person might be caught up in the fate of narrow-minded dramas of class, race, and gender seemed despicable. If instead they were man-made obstacles set up by society - primarily racism, but also sexism and social and economic factors - some argued, the question should rather be: What is the nation's responsibility?

Reformers have generally advocated intervening within the framework of the American dynamic. Introduced as an active player in the nation's economic life during the progressive era of the early 20th century, the government was transformed into a counterbalance to the social and economic forces driving justice in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's [mid-century] government Threatened society. In the second half of the 20th century, the sociopolitical sentiment became even more activist, and attempts were made to influence the conditions in which Americans prepare, assert, and interact. In the recent past, social policy has reflected the fundamental question of the role of government: how and to what extent can social institutions be regulated, and how can, in a society that rewards individual freedom and is actually based on this principle Initiative, motivation and independence are recognized?

When most Americans talk about equality, they mean equality of opportunity, not equality of results. From the beginning, Americans have rarely advocated or advocated for a society of equal property or conditions. Part of the American Dream is the belief, "value," that individuals who differ in initiative, energy, and talents should reap the various fruits of their success. There is no guarantee that the results will be the same. Most Americans don't want an equal society, they want a level playing field.

Or not? It is an ongoing dilemma in American life that generalizations about society's goals, values, and conditions fail when confronted with the persistent legacy of racial segregation. But it is also true that Americans have long used sharp self-criticism, passionate rhetoric, and the clash of social forces to propel themselves forward. The lament of warnings of the decline of individual communities or of the nation as a whole goes back to the days of the Puritans. Then and in the times thereafter, it served as an incentive for change and action and as a measure of American impatience and unyielding expectations.

General activism in the late 20th [and early 21st] centuries calls for the logic behind American democracy to be fulfilled. The question has not only a political and economic, but also a cultural dimension. Even if the general values ​​of society defined "being American" rather than participating in a social contract on a certain inheritance, the assumption persisted that the true, real American had a certain ethnic and cultural origin (Anglo-Saxon, later expanded to European), had a certain faith (Protestant, after years of hostility to the Catholic faith and, even more hesitantly, the Jewish faith expanded) as well as a certain gender for reasons of political and economic status (male). The notion of the melting pot, prevalent in the early 1900s, meant, at least for some communities, that they did not need to be born into a particular heritage, but that they were expected to become culturally and politically American in order to ultimately discard the differences from the majority of Americans .

The argument for recognizing the diversity of cultures and backgrounds as the foundation of not only American reality but also American ideals forced society to re-examine the implications of its unusual concept of national community as a process and interaction. Since the 1960s, advocates of diversity have vied to find an appropriate metaphor for American society that is inclusive rather than marginalized or melted down. Every generation of Americans took the concept of the American amalgamation of opinions, peoples, beliefs, cultures and, more recently, languages ​​to such an extent that many feared that the center was no longer stable enough. So far, the record of national cohesion gives hope for the future, but this future is far from obvious to everyone. There is concern among some members of the large population that the national fabric will disintegrate; some members of minority groups believe that they will never really get into the American melting pot.


The current [debate about] American values ​​does not represent their rejection in other areas either, but a review of their applicability to expanded circumstances. The influx of the American women's movement is a reminder that biological characteristics should prevent more than half of Americans from participating in the dynamic of American life politically, professionally, and economically. The gender barrier has not yet been completely overcome, but it is under constant attack. In the ongoing cycle of American expectations, there are also social constructs such as the family, which are always susceptible to scrutiny against the ethics of freedom of choice and self-actualization. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, the Americans changed their marriage traditions and introduced the free choice of partner. This concept has expanded over time to include the right to live together, marry and then divorce without the "blessing of the church", or even to debate the definition of family within or outside of legal frameworks. Today, the relationships between children and their parents, as well as younger and older generations, are redefining the boundaries of authority and maturity that would previously have been unthinkable.

All of these are current American tendencies, in some ways, if to a lesser extent, but symptomatic of all democratic industrialized nations. Americans need to start worrying about the extent to which the culture that once made them unique has become, in at least some aspects, the culture of global modernism. It was a shock to see that (some Asian countries) are being celebrated as nations of the 21st century due to their technological and industrial developments, that Western Europe is equated with the concept of a large confederation and a dynamic community of nations and the emerging, albeit tormented, democracies Central and Eastern Europe to be identified with the hopes of enthusiastic voters.

Despite everything, Americans recognize the benefits of their long history of political openness and change, tolerance, argument, entrepreneurship, and cultural diversity. Their history of adaptability can serve as a formula for stability during the ongoing tremors of global modernism, confirming rather than undermining national traditions.

Marc Pachter is director of the National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He was previously assistant director of external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution, author and editor of several books, and has participated in numerous radio and television programs on American cultural and historical topics. This article is an abridged reprint of Identities in North America, The Search for Community, edited by Robert L. Earle and John D. Wirth. Copyright © 1995 by the Board of Trustee of Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. Used with permission from Stanford University Press

Original text: The American Identity; The United States in 2005: Who We Are Today. December 2004.