Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Origins of American Individualism: Reconsidering the Historical Evidence

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Origins of American Individualism: Reconsidering the Historical Evidence

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper reconsiders S. M. Lipset's well-known thesis that the origins of America's dominant value system can be directly traced to the formative events of the American Revolution. Our specific concern is with one core value, individualism, and the suggestion that individualist ideas and beliefs were widely held in the American population in the Revolutionary era. A central claim of the present paper is that the crux of Lipset's depiction of the American value system, or "American Creed", is a particular version of individualism, which we call "liberal individualism". We assess research by leading recent historians, all of which casts serious doubt on the assumption that individualist values were prevalent among Americans in the late 1700s and early 1800s. We suggest three key weaknesses in Lipset's historical account: the failure to distinguish between different forms of individualism when characterizing American values; the conflation of elite beliefs and mass beliefs; and the lack of attention to evidence suggesting that Americans were more communalist than individualist in the Revolutionary era and beyond. The paper concludes with a discussion of possible reasons behind misunderstandings concerning the origins of American individualism.

Resume: La these de S. M. Lipset considere que l'origine des valeurs dominantes Americaines se rapporte a l'epique de la Revolution Americaine. Cette etude prend comme sujet principal l'aspet "d'individualisme" et que c'etait accepte par la majorite de la population Americaine lors des annees de la revolution. En premier lieu, nous suggerons que l'idee centrale du systeme des valuers Americaines ce represente mieux par la definition du terme "individualisme liberal". Deuxiemement, nous allons evaluer la recherche de nos experts contemporains puisque leurs donnees soutiennent qu'il y a de l'incredulite envers le lieu de naissance et d'existance des valeurs individualistiques Americaines telles que le demontre Lipset. Neanoins, trois points faibles des faits historiques de Lipset sont suggeres: la faillite de distinguer entre les differents types d'individualisme; la manque de differencier entre les croyances du publics et ceux des elites; et le manque de preuve pour soutenir que les Americains etaient plus communales qu'individualistes l'epoque revolutionaire. Ce papier se termine avec une discussion expliquant certaines raisons du le mal-entendu de la these d'origine de Lipset sur l'indifidualisme Americain.

Virtually all analysts would agree that the American Revolution represents one of the most significant episodes in the history of the United States. Any differences of opinion regarding this observation tend only to be about whether the War of Independence was the first in a series of other equally salient occurrences (such as the Civil War, for example) or whether, instead, the Revolution stands as the single most important formative event in America's past (for some discussion and debate, see, e.g., Foote, 1989; Granatstein and Hillmer, 1991; Nelles, 1997; Reed, 1982, 1983; Wood, 1992). Among prominent sociologists and political scientists who have addressed this question, S. M. Lipset probably is the leading proponent of the latter perspective. Lipset's research is well-known for promoting the thesis that, from the outset, the United States has been a unique society, and that it was the unprecedented events of the Revolution that established its special place among nations. According to Lipset, the United States emerged as "the first new nation" of the modern world, because it was "the first major colony successfully to revolt against colonial rule" (Lipset, 1963b: 2; see also Lipset, 1968). Perhaps the most telling evidence of the importance Lipset attaches to the Revolution is that he sees its "indelible marks" on American society even today (Lipset, 1990: 1-3). Thus, despite acknowledging that there are now many similarities between the United States and other western democracies, most notably Canada, Lipset maintains that, largely because of its revolutionary origins, the contemporary United States is still "exceptional" in the world, "qualitatively different from all other countries" (Lipset, 1996: 18). …

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