The Course of American Democratic Thought

By Ralph Henry Gabriel; Robert H. Walker | Go to book overview

Chapter 29
THE DOCTRINE OF THE FREE INDIVIDUAL IN THE MIDDLE PERIOD OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

THE EMERGENCE of the Jefferson in the 1930's and 1940's involved a paradox. The author of the Declaration of Independence had been the most important American philosopher following the social thought of the Enlightenment. Into that famous document Jefferson had written by implication a theory that portrayed society as made up of an aggregate of discrete individuals, the individual standing in polar relation to society. Out of this Enlightenment view had grown the doctrine of the free individual, as understood in the early nineteenth century. The free individual was a social atom. In the simple agricultural-commercial society of the time freedom was both symbolized and confirmed by the achievement of universal manhood suffrage. But when the Jefferson Memorial was built beside the Potomac, American society was vastly more complex. Both theory and practice had changed. The revival of Jeffersonianism suggested a determination on the part of Americans to hold fast to the essence of the Enlightenment doctrine.

Changes in the social scene preceded shifts in social theory. The America of the first half of the nineteenth century was a country in which most of the population lived in small communities where people knew their neighbors and usually their family histories. Aside from a few small cities, the United States was a land of villages and of scattered farmsteads. The pattern of the isolated farmstead, so different from the European peasant village and the early New England town, had been fixed in American life by the land survey

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