The Origin of Individualism

As is mentioned in Introduction, the origin of American Individualism can be traced back to the beginning years in its history, when first American immigrants came to the North American continent looking for better life and shaking off they yoke of European feudal tradition and the oppression from all kinds of powerful classes. It is determined that there were elements of Anti-oppression and searching for freedom in American people’s character. This was the original explanation of American Individualism.

Although the term “Individualism” was not in general use until the 1820s, the foundational principles behind the concept were established by the mid-eighteenth century.

Enlightenment philosophers like Newton and Locke argued that the universe is arranged in an orderly system, and that by the application of reason and intellect, human beings are capable of apprehending that system. This philosophy represented a radical shift from earlier nations that the world is ordered by a stern, inscrutable God whose plans are beyond human understanding and whose will can only be known through religious revelation.

Enlightenment philosophy encouraged thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson to turn to Deism, a religion that privileges reason over faith and rejects traditional religious tents in favor of a general belief in a benevolent creator. By privileging human understanding and the capacity of the individual, these new ideas recorded the way people thought about government, society and rights. Thus the Declaration of Independence is taken as the embodiment of the eighteenth-century regard for the interests of the individual.

Taking as unquestionably “Self-evident” the idea that “all men are created equal”[12] P503, the Declaration of Independence made the rights and potential of the individual the cornerstone of American values.

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The fact that these lines from the Declaration of Independence are among the most quoted in all of American letters testifies to the power of this commitment to individual freedom in American culture. The second continental congress affirmed the Declaration’s privileging of the individual by making the signing of the document an important occasion. That is, by using the representatives’ signatures as the means of validating this ublic document, they attested to the importance of individual identity and individual consent to government. These famously large signatures are thus the graphic emblems of the revolutionaries’ commitment to individualism. “Of course, the Declaration of Independence conspicuously left out women and did not even seem to include all men”. [13] P243. When America achieved independence, many individuals found that their rights to liberty were not considered self-evident. For African American slaves, Native Indian Americans, and many others, the New Nation’s commitment to individual rights was mere rhetoric rather than reality.

But even though slavery and systematic inequality were an inescapable reality for many Americans, the nation embraced the myth of the “self-man” as representative of its national character. According to this myth, America’s protection of individual freedom enabled anyone, no matter how humble his beginnings, to triumph trough hard work and talent. One of the earliest and most influential expressions of this version of the “American Dream” is Benjamin Franklin’s narrative of his own rise from modest beginning to a position of influence and wealth.

It is not excessive to say that the earliest embodiment of American Individualism was Franklin. He promoted the notion of “God helps those who help themselves”[14] P183. He not only said so but also act like this. Franklin self-consciously uses the autobiographical form to foreground his narrative self-construction as an ideal American citizen. He repeatedly played on the potential for self-making that print and authorship offer the individual likening his own life to a book that can be edited, amended, and corrected for “errata”.

Franklin’s conception of self thus hinges on the idea that the individual is the author of his own life and destiny, with full power to construct as what he wills. Franklin’s presentation of himself as the ideal American individual was widely accepted. While he lived in France, he was celebrated as the embodiment of the lived in France, he was celebrated as the embodiment of the virtue, naturalism and simplicity that supposedly characterized the new world—-an image he carefully maintained by shunning French fashion to dress plainly and wearing a primitive fur hat around Paris.

So effective was Franklin’s physical self-presentation he became a kind of cult finger in France. Paintings, prints, busts, medallions, clocks, vases, plates, handkerchiefs and even snuff-boxes were manufactured emblazoned with Franklin’s portrait. His American Individualism had become a popular commodity. “ American Westward Movement and life in the border area promoted greatly to the development of American Individualism, therefore, some people believed that Individualism was actually a certain kind of cultural heritage of frontier life. [15] P53 The American famous historian Frederick J. Turner held that the vast land in the west area had endowed American people a deeply understanding of freedom. It can be easily found in American history of Westward Movement that those pioneers tried their best to contribute their hometown, set up many school buildings and search for a better life for their families. They would fight for their liberty and freedom willingly and gladly with the oppression against all the intervention by foreign nations once they realized the value of liberty.

It was this sense of freedom the first innovation entrusted by the west life to the Individualism. On the other hand, American pioneers lost their comfortable life when they were trying to break away from the fetters of the old social order caused by the civilized society. Hence, they had to live by themselves with their independent spirit of pioneering which was considered the second innovation entrusted cultivation, individualism emphasized the concept of bountiful freedom and independence of people’s living by their own lifestyles. 3. 2 The development of individualism during the history

The American people’s belief in Individualism was as old as the nation. But prior to the 1960s, American individualism focused mainly on the political domain—-freedom to speak their minds, to pursue their own religious beliefs, to live where they choose to live. In the 1950s, America was a nation of political individualists but social conformities. The 1960s ushered in a racial extension of individualism, broadening it from the political domain to personal life styles. The 1960s could be considered as the dividing line of the development of American individualism. The Declaration of Independence also made it clear that government is instituted for the purpose of protecting the citizen’s rights. If a government failed to do that, the people had the right to abolish it. So Americans firmly believed that each individual could pursue his or her happiness with limited interference from the government. [16][P367] In the 1960s, individualism developed to a new stage where restrains on individual intuitions and feelings were greatly reduced by the various rights revolutions such as the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the youth movement and the sexual revolution.

All these movements succeeded in breaking down the traditional value system about sex and family and attributed a lot to the expansion of individualism. For the youth generation, self-fulfillment and self-expression became very important. As a result, they joined the Civil Rights Movement to break down the racial segregation, rebelled against authority, experimented with drugs and indulged in free competition. At the same time, individualism also meant self-reliance, independence, and responsibility. Hence, people became more active in fighting for their rights and interests.

They formed various interests groups to force the government to adopt policies they like. With the achievement of American industrialization during the early years of 20th century, people gradually understood that the development of society and economy added new interpretations to Individualism. During this period, American people believed in free competition and advocated that the government with was voted by the public should not intervene in economy but left individual to hold their own destiny in the fierce competition through their own capacity and intellect, diligent and progress.

This concept really promoted greatly to the economic growth during this period but at the same time, brought the large-scale monopoly of occupations and capital, which means that a large number of small enterprises would be in face of the survival crisis. Therefore, in the last years of Industrialization, Roosevelt government executed the New Deal in order to sustain the rational interference in the Nation’s economy, and spend most of their efforts to create equal opportunity for every economic unity with the aim of realizing the recovery of original free competition.

The conception of individualism in this term seemed very sophisticated. On the hand, it emphasized the equality of opportunity and social justice. These two factors were an entity while seemed contradicting. With the clipping development of capitalistic industry and the initiation of large-scale social organizations, the key factor to success was no longer the personal fighting by one’s own force but the collective unity. Under this historic circumstance, varieties of theories about organizing society and its producing according to the principle of cooperation came to the historic stage.

Accordingly, the definition and intension of Individualism has been shifted from the notion lurching on individual to the notion of collective individualism. It avoids much of the confusion produced by the word collectivism, while at the same time being terminologically similar to it. In this term, people’s character and creativeness was required to correspond to the will of collective. Adding “collective” before “Individualism” did not mean that “Individualism” was defeated or replaced by collectivism.

In American’s eyes collectivism also focused on individual’s importance and praised highly the individual’s spirit of creativity. It was the only difference that collectivism required that individual’s value should be reflected by participating in social or collective activities. Because the final aim of involving oneself in social activities and cooperation with others is to attain one’s own goal or satisfy one’s desire. Once the expectation failed, one would get out of this collective to search for another in which he could achieve his goal.

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The Origin of Individualism. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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