Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?

Rugged Individualism: Dead or Alive?

by David Davenport, Gordon Lloyd


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817920241
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Pages: 136
Sales rank: 1,253,717
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He previously served as president of Pepperdine University, where he was also a professor of law and public policy. Gordon Lloyd is a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center and the Dockson Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He also serves on the National Advisory Council for the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center.

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Rugged Individualism

Dead or Alive?

By David Davenport, Gordon Lloyd

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-2026-5



RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM and American character are inextricably intertwined, the one essentially defining the other. Perhaps no expression better describes the uniqueness of America and its people than rugged individualism and a dictionary definition of that term would lead back to a study of American character.

When sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset sought to understand America, rugged individualism, accompanied by its first cousin American exceptionalism, was his path. "The emphasis in the American value system, in the American Creed," Lipset wrote, "has been on the individual." Political scientist Louis Hartz searched for a unifying theme that would capture the essence of an American political philosophy. He, too, landed on individualism (and exceptionalism), calling "the reality of atomistic social freedom" the "master assumption of American political thought." The economist F. A. Hayek argued that individualism was first a theory of society, then a set of political maxims, and the underlying basis for the economy.

To be sure, individualism was planted deeply in the American soil in its founding era. The Declaration of Independence is thoroughly based in individual liberty; the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is drafted in such a way as to protect it. The thinking of the founders, as revealed in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere, was fully grounded in American individualism. The American Revolution itself set the rugged tone of fighting for freedom. Truly something new and originally American was born in the founding period, something that came to be called American rugged individualism. As professor of religion C. Eric Mount Jr. has said, "Nothing is more American than individualism."

Pre-American DNA of Individualism

Few things are created entirely from whole cloth, and antecedents to American rugged individualism should be acknowledged. Historically, the search for the roots of individualism would have traveled back to the Renaissance, when a spirit of discovery and creativity allowed individualism to flourish. In the last fifty years or so, however, historians have developed a case for the discovery of individualism much earlier, during the medieval era.

Both the longest and oldest strand of DNA carrying principles of individualism into the American founding is religion, especially Christianity. The essential message of scripture, particularly in the New Testament, is the individual as a child of God, alone responsible to God for the way he lives his life. According to Jesus, God knows each individual sheep and calls them by name (John, chapter 10). The Apostle Paul pointed out that individuals receive different spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6–8) and, according to Jesus's parable of the talents, will be held accountable for their use (Luke 19:15). Free will and accountability, with individuals accepting God's gift of grace or not, are touchstones of biblical Christianity through the ages that provide a lasting basis for the individual as the basis of society. In the recent and valuable treatment Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop argues that the key to Western liberalism — individualism — has been strongly supported throughout the ages by Christianity. The Protestant Reformation reinforced — we would say reopened — the individual unmediated relationship between man and God.

Religious individualism was very much present and influential in the colonial period and the founding of the United States. More than 90 percent of the colonists identified themselves as Protestant Christians. Another estimate holds that, at the time of independence, 98 percent or more of European Americans identified with Protestantism, primarily of the Reformed tradition. Puritans and others of the Reformed theological tradition believed they, like the Israelites, were God's "chosen people," called to be a light unto the nations, a city set on a hill. A study by Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz of documents published between 1760 and 1805 reveals that quotations from the Bible dominated those from sources such as political philosophers Montesquieu, Locke, Blackstone, and others. The book most often cited in their study was the Old Testament book of Mosaic law and history, Deuteronomy, which some found to be a model of civil government. Sermons of the colonial and founding era citing "liberty" (Galatians 5:1), a "city on a hill" (Matthew 5:14), and other biblical phrases became a regular part of the conversation of that era.

As a consequence, the role of religion in the ideology and thought of the founding was strong and uniquely American. This was clearly acknowledged by the founders themselves. George Washington devoted a third of his first inaugural address to the role of providence in the founding, calling it "the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men" so strongly in the United States. John Adams acknowledged that the "general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity." Daniel Webster noted that Christian principles had become the foundation of civil society and said that "the Bible is a book ... which teaches man his own individual responsibility." This spirit of American individualism became part of the American mind through the colonists' and founders' devotion to Christianity and Protestantism.

At the same time, it is important to note the moderating influence of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington who, together, led a movement to disestablish and privatize the role of religion in America. During the colonial period, governmental regulation of, and reliance on, religious practices was considered a legitimate role of government. But once Madison and others laid down the principle of individual right of conscience, the role of government in the area of religious practices was reduced and confined. State constitutions and bills of rights in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia, for example, all recognized religious practice as a private right, not a matter for government support or interference. Privatizing religion made it a matter of personal consent, thereby increasing its character as a part of rugged individualism.

A second strand of DNA contributing to American rugged individualism was the philosophical individualism that came from Europe. Here the story becomes more complicated as different strains of European individualism led in various directions. The French individualisme carried a largely negative connotation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau attacked individualism — right along with private property, which he regarded as theft — in the eighteenth century, arguing that the general or collective will should predominate over that of any individual. French philosopher and political economist Pierre Leroux, writing in the same general time frame, referred to individualism as laissez-faire and atomization, saying it produced "'everyone for himself, and ... all for riches, nothing for the poor,' which atomized society and made men into 'rapacious wolves.'" Meanwhile, in Germany the idea of individualism was more one of individuality, connoting unique characteristics or originality. As Steven Lukes observed, the French notion was "negative, signifying individual isolation and social dissolution," whereas the "German sense is thus positive, signifying individual self-fulfillment and ... the organic unity of individual and society."

But of the European approaches to individualism, the work of John Locke and other Scottish Enlightenment political philosophers greatly influenced the American founding and its understanding and appreciation of individualism. Writing in the seventeenth century, Locke identified the individual — not the class or the society or the state — as the central unit from which all analysis should begin. Everything else — class, customs, norms, rules, regulations — is acquired, Locke observed, so we should imagine the individual free of all those things and figure out what restraints enlightened individuals would consent to impose on themselves. Locke's reasoning was that the individual came first, with individuals then creating a society and ultimately a government, but only through the consent of the governed. Individuals are endowed with reason and freedom, underscoring that rights come before duties. A good summary of Locke's view might compare it to the Old Testament book of Genesis, though Locke would have said that in the beginning was the state of nature and that the Garden of Eden is a future garden of plenty if humans apply themselves and become productive.

According to Locke, the primary purpose of government, then, was to safeguard the natural rights of individuals. Governments were formed with the idea that the common good was a matter for public conversation and decision — the consent of the governed — not something preordained by the divine right of kings. Both political and religious arrangements, which had long dominated societies, were a matter of custom, Locke felt, and should give way to individual choices about them. Since government power was deemed to be a primary threat to natural rights, both natural law and social contract stressed protecting individuals from government power. Locke and those who followed in his classical liberal tradition tended to be suspicious about the search for the public good, as determined by some wise administrator or government official, and preferred individual liberty pursuing its own interests. One could summarize his view of the role of government as securing life, individual liberty, and private property, a phrase that would resonate and reverberate in the new nation's Declaration of Independence.

A third strand of DNA influential with the founders was economic, especially the work of Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (1776) further developed John Locke's thinking about liberty, property, and individualism. In Book 1 of his work, Smith presented what he called "the System of Natural Liberty," in which he asked the reader to imagine what might happen to an economy if individuals were left to their own "natural" inclinations. In modern terms, Book 1 discusses how individual initiative, with a limited economic role for government, could increase the overall economic pie. He argued that the natural inclinations of individuals who grow and extend markets are more important in the story of human liberty and improvement than the planning and implementation of some centralized human wisdom. The free barter and exchange of individuals is a form of consent in a natural market system and is not planned. This sort of peaceful and productive state of nature allowed Smith to entertain an even more limited government than did Locke. Smith's notion of government is that it should be involved in defense, justice, and public works, the latter breaking down into facilitating commerce and educating youth.

Private property is the essence of this economic strand of individualism. In effect, goes the argument, God gave the world to man in common in the form of land. God intended that we should live well and gave us the means to do that. As rational and industrious people, we see the benefits of ruggedly working the land and, indeed, that also makes us happy. We privatize the land we work on, which makes us even happier because the land is ours. As we feed ourselves, the economy grows and we can trade our surplus. The right to own, then, what we have earned becomes a fundamental premise of American individualism.

The principles of individualism developed by these thinkers and others were not just a set of philosophical ideas but were believed to produce concrete benefits to a society that would follow them. Most practical was Adam Smith, who believed that individuals pursuing their own ideas and interests would create the wealth of a nation, what today we would call gross domestic product (GDP) or growing the economic pie. Only beggars, said Smith, rely on the benevolence of others for their daily bread. Free individuals were naturally inclined to "truck, barter and exchange" and thus participate in the project of improvement. John Stuart Mill, in his "On Liberty," would later elaborate on how individuals who are closest to the economic action will be more dedicated and innovative and will make better decisions than remote government officials. Locke believed that individuals who were free to pursue their own interests would be far happier and more productive. Indeed, when combined with the strong Protestant work ethic of colonial and revolutionary America, these ideas were especially powerful.

It is not surprising, then, that from these roots — Christianity and the political and economic philosophies of John Locke, Adam Smith, and the Scottish Enlightenment — would grow a spirit of individual liberty that permeated the American founding. It would be the intertwining and combining of these apparently diverse strands that would make American rugged individualism both so distinctive and so powerful. Thinkers from one dimension reinforced the contribution from the others. Private property, the core of economic individualism, is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Without the ability to make private decisions, the other forms of individualism are just misty dreams. Both political and economic individualism appreciate the importance of character and virtue that come from the religious strand. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" may be religious, we are not sure; George Washington's "invisible hand" most certainly was. So it was all three strands joining together that created American individualism. We agree with Yehoshua Arieli who said in his study of individualism in America that the term meant something very different from previous understandings: "self-determination, moral freedom, the rule of liberty, and the dignity of man." These are the very themes one finds in the American founding, as America developed the notion of individualism into more than a philosophy of personal and societal life but rather into a political philosophy and system of governance. Americans exercise their rugged individualism when they consent to the government, church, and economy of their choosing.

The Founding: The Declaration of Independence

Long before the American frontier, which is popularly credited with the creation of American rugged individualism, came the settlers, the colonists, the revolutionaries, and the founders. In the rugged environment of new territory, they would begin to hammer out a philosophy of American individualism. As the writer G. K. Chesterton observed when he visited the United States: "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." That creed, centered on individual liberty, would ring clearly from its founders and permeate its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Declaration documents a revolution, making a case to the "Supreme Judge of the world" for America's secession from England. From the first few sentences, the rationale developed by lead author Thomas Jefferson and others in the Declaration is England's failure to uphold individual rights, which are essentially the natural rights developed by John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers. The very birth of the American republic, then, was defended on the basis of individualism. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," begins the second sentence of the Declaration, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The document continues that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," adding that "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles...."

From the first words of the Declaration, the case for the new country was that the Creator had endowed individual men and women with certain natural rights and that securing those rights was the fundamental purpose of government. Since the king of England was abridging those rights, and other alternative means of redress having been exhausted, it was now appropriate to install a new form of government that would take these fundamental rights as their foundational principles. Indeed, by this way of thinking, individuals gave government its very power to exist, not vice versa. The era of republicanism had arrived in America.

Jefferson acknowledged his intellectual debt to John Locke, proclaiming Enlightenment thinkers Locke, Isaac Newton, and Francis Bacon "the greatest men that have ever lived without exception." In a letter to Roger Weightman, Jefferson wrote that the "form we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ... [T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs." All at once, America was publicly committed to a Creator, to natural rights, and to a republican government whose purpose was the protection of individual rights and whose very creation depended on individual consent. This was revolutionary, indeed, since no nation had been formed on such a profound philosophical statement.


Excerpted from Rugged Individualism by David Davenport, Gordon Lloyd. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Birth of American Rugged Individualism 5

Chapter 2 The Near-Death Experience of Rugged Individualism 25

Chapter 3 Rugged Individualism (Barely) Survives Modernity 55

Chapter 4 Rugged Individualism Hangs in the Balance Today 79

Chapter 5 Rugged Individualism: The Way Forward 107

About the Authors 129

Index 131

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