The Myth of American Individualism

Eric C. Miller in Religion & Politics:

In America, so the myth goes, freedom favors the bold and ambitious individual. From Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs, our national mythology has lionized and celebrated bright, plucky, self-motivated characters who work hard to realize innovative ideas. Though born and raised in families, communities, and other collectives, the story goes, these singular personalities rise above the crowd, buoyed by the protected freedoms and rights that American laws have conferred and intent on filling the public space with their own ballooning potential. Those who succeed do so of their own volition, and those who fail prove themselves simply incapable. America is, in other words, the world’s only true meritocracy.

And yet, powerful as this narrative is, it is also, according to University of Vermont political scientist Alex Zakaras, deeply “utopian.” In the real world, individual achievements are won or lost amid a matrix of crisscrossing forces including race, sex, and class, politics, economics, and religion, dedication, sacrifice, and luck, all of which are rooted in the currents of history. In his new book, The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson, Zakaras zeroes in on the first half of the nineteenth century to explore how the myth of American individuality arose and spread in the early republic.

More here.