American Individuals – A Conversation with Alex Zakaras

Alex Zakaras is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont. In his new book, The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson, he returns to the early nineteenth century to trace the mythology of the self-made man in the United States, an ideological tradition that has shaped our national identity ever since.

ECM: Your book grounds American individualism within three political myths. Can you tell us about them?

AZ: My approach to Jacksonian America is focused on the political stories that were told over and over again in the newspapers, sermons, and political speeches of the time. In considering these, I found myself drawn to certain foundational myths—narratives that establish what America is and who its people are. These glorified stories claim to reveal what is exceptional or distinctive or virtuous about the nation, and they ground powerful forms of collective identity that help Americans understand who they are as citizens. At the same time, they usually dramatize some sort of urgent threat. So, in celebrating and idealizing American liberty, for example, they foreground the danger that liberty might be extinguished. The more I immersed myself in these texts, the more I came to believe that there were three powerful myths, in particular, that structured the political arguments of the period.

The first of these is the myth of the individual proprietor, which says that America is distinctive for the ubiquitous presence of the property-owning farmer. This is a man who owns his own plot of land, who is not beholden to anyone economically, and who is, therefore, independent in both body and mind. The second is the myth of the rights-bearer, which is grounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Bills of Rights, and which says that Americans are distinctive because they enjoy a broad slate of rights, understood primarily as immunities from interference by government. The third is the myth of the self-made man, which emphasizes social and economic mobility. It says that Americans can be who they want to be, they are not restricted by the limits of inherited social caste or station, and, if they work hard and live frugally, there is no upper limit on what they can achieve. It imagines America as an essentially fluid society in which the talented and meritorious are constantly rising while the lazy are falling, which creates a relentless churn that ensures everyone is always where they ought to be. 

ECM: Are these ideas rooted in America itself? Were they imported from Europe or elsewhere?

AZ: Americans certainly borrowed and adapted European ideas, especially from British political culture. But they changed when they arrived in America, and it’s fascinating to trace the ways that they evolved and were reformulated for a new political, social, and economic reality. In England, for example, the idea of the independent proprietor often described a middle-class minority, a middling sort of farmer or artisan wedged between the landed gentry and the propertyless masses. But in America, independent proprietorship was much more widely accessible. It melded with the democratic idea and was asserted as an entitlement for all white men that then anchored the populist politics of the Jacksonian Democratic Party. The idea of natural rights followed a similar trajectory: White men in America used it, increasingly, as a weapon against social and economic inequalities. The idea of the self-made man was more of a distinctly American bit of lore, traceable to Benjamin Franklin and others who authored and exported the claim that anyone could succeed in America.

ECM: Were they influenced by the religious currents of the time?

AZ: The Jacksonian Era was a time of tremendous religious upheaval. The Second Great Awakening was sweeping through and transforming America into a much more devoutly religious nation. One of the tendencies that you find among the popular evangelical preachers of the time is a real emphasis on individual conscience and judgment. Theirs was an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian religious movement that was constantly criticizing the religious establishment and the book-learning and the paternalism of the religious elites who dominated the churches of the Eastern Seaboard. Its message was simply that the only reliable way to know God was through your own experience and your own direct encounter with Scripture. Religious authorities were denounced, more often than not, as sources of corruption. Evangelical preachers placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that Christ was the son of a carpenter, Peter was a fisherman, and the Gospels were conveyed by men who did not have a great deal of education but who were chosen to receive and share God’s word. The example suggested that individuals should cast aside received truths, heed their own intuitions, follow their own prophetic visions, and that the individual might read Scripture for himself and receive instruction directly from it. This sort of anti-elitism featured prominently in the political rhetoric of the time as well—in the belief that politics, like religion, was a simple affair, that everyone is equally qualified to weigh in, that we should trust our own judgments, etc. Many evangelical preachers also embraced Arminianism: They criticized the old Calvinist notion of election and replaced it with the claim that individual conversion is a matter of individual choice. This too fit with the ethos of the emerging market economy and with a political culture centered on individual rights and liberties.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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