Copyright © 1999 the Canadian Journal of Sociology

The Origins of American Individualism:
Reconsidering the Historical Evidence

Edward Grabb, Douglas Baer, and James Curtis

Canadian Journal of Sociology 24, 4 (1999): 511-533.

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.

Resumé: La thèse de S. M. Lipset considère que l’origine des valeurs dominantes Américaines se rapporte à l’épique de la Révolution Américaine. Cette étude prend comme sujet principal l’aspet “d’individualisme” et que c’etait accepté par la majorité de la population Américaine lors des années de la révolution. En premier lieu, nous suggèrons que l’idée centrale du systéme des valuers Américaines ce représente mieux par la définition du terme “individualisme liberal”. Deuxièmement, nous allons évaluer la recherche de nos experts contemporains puisque leurs données soutiennent qu’il y a de l’incrédulité envers le lieu de naissance et d’existance des valeurs individualistiques Américaines telles que le démontre Lipset. Néanoins, trois points faibles des faits historiques de Lipset sont suggérés: la faillite de distinguer entre les differents types d’individualisme; la manque de différencier entre les croyances du publics et ceux des élites; et le manque de preuve pour soutenir que les Americains étaient plus communales qu’individualistes à l’époque révolutionaire. Ce papier se termine avec une discussion expliquant certaines raisons du le mal-entendu de la thése d’origine de Lipset sur l’indifidualisme Americain.

*We thank Samuel Clark, Dominique Goulard, William Johnston, and the anonymous reviewers for their help and suggestions.

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).

In developing this argument for America’s uniqueness or “exceptionalism”, Lipset has been particularly interested in delineating what he believes is a special set of American values, what he calls “Americanism” or the “American Creed” (e.g., Lipset, 1963b: 178; 1979: 25). His view is that American values have always been distinct in fundamental ways from those of other populations. Once again, he sees the Revolutionary era as the time in which the distinctive values and institutions of the United States were firmly established or “set”, with no appreciable changes in their composition or emphasis since that time (e.g., Lipset, 1968: 51; also 1990: 8).

Along with a number of other sociologists, we have long shared a keen interest in Lipset’s interesting and provocative claims for American exceptionalism, especially his views on America’s dominant value system. A generally consistent finding in our research, however, has been that, at least in the present day, there is little or no evidence, based on attitude and opinion surveys, in particular, that distinguishes American values from those of the populations of other industrialized societies, most notably Canada. On the contrary, where there are differences, they are typically minor and, more often than not, run in the opposite direction from that suggested by Lipset’s thesis (e.g., Baer et al., 1990a, 1990b, 1993, 1995, 1996; Curtis et al., 1989a, 1989b, 1992; Grabb, 1994; Grabb and Curtis, 1988).

It is partly because of these contemporary patterns that we have come to wonder whether the historical basis for Lipset’s argument is also in need of reconsideration. Like many other sociologists, we have until now generally accepted this element of his exceptionalism thesis, despite having disagreements about its applicability in the modern era (see, e.g., Grabb and Curtis, 1988: 129).Thus, in the present paper, we take another look at the historical evidence for this “origins” or “formative events” explanation for American values. Our principal concern is the suggestion in Lipset’s argument that Americans, from the time of the Revolution, have placed an overriding emphasis on the importance of individualism, especially individual freedom of thought and action. We begin with a review of the key points in the historical analysis that Lipset has provided and that until now has been accepted, in whole or in part, by a number of other writers, especially sociologists. As part of this review, the core values Lipset attributes to the population of Revolutionary America are contrasted with those that he believes predominated among the “counter-revolutionaries” who did not join in the war with Britain, especially those colonists who lived in or fled to the Canadian territories during and after the Revolution. Next we consider the list of fundamental differences in values and beliefs that, in Lipset’s view, emerged out of the historical experiences of the United States, and from which he identifies the exceptional value system known as the American Creed.

We depart from previous analyses in arguing that the major defining element in Lipset’s version of the American Creed is the belief in what we refer to as “liberal individualism”, or the idea that each person should have the right to think and act in a way that is largely free from communitarian or collectivist restrictions. We suggest that the essence of Lipset’s thesis is that this form of individualism is what really distinguishes American values from those espoused by the other peoples of the world. In the remainder of the analysis, we consider recent historical research that has hitherto been largely overlooked by Lipset and other sociologists studying this topic. We might also note that most of these historians have likewise made little or no reference to Lipset’s work in sociology. Our analysis leads us to the identification of three key problems in Lipset’s widely-accepted historical account. The three problems involve: the failure to delineate and distinguish among different forms or types of individualism in Lipset’s analysis; the tendency to conflate values at the elite level with values at the mass level when describing the American Creed; and the apparent lack of awareness of the considerable evidence suggesting that collectivist or “communalist” beliefs were far more salient than liberal individualist ideas for most of the population of Revolutionary America.

The Formative Events Thesis

Given its wide popularity and its emphasis on the exceptional nature of American society, Lipset’s analysis of American culture, almost inevitably, has greatly influenced the way that Canadian observers understand Canadian culture. Either through the acceptance of his portrayals of both historical and contemporary Canadian-American differences, or through the many critiques of his depictions of contemporary national differences, Lipset’s conclusions have provided an important point of reference for Canadian social scientists working in this area (e.g., Horowitz, 1966; Truman, 1971; Clark, 1975; Bell and Tepperman, 1979; Crawford and Curtis, 1979; Grabb and Curtis, 1988; Curtis et al., 1989a, 1989b, 1992; Baer et al., 1990a, 1990b, 1993, 1995, 1996).

Lipset’s origins thesis emphasizes a number of related historical events, the facts of which are not in dispute. First, of course, the United States did emerge as an independent nation in the late 1700s, after a protracted military conflict in which many of the settlers living in the Thirteen Colonies to the south of the St. Lawrence River combined to overthrow British monarchical rule in that region. Second, most of the remaining colonists to the north, both English- and French-speaking, did not join in or actively support this War of Independence and continued to live, instead, as subjects of the British Crown. Third, during and after the Revolutionary period, a significant number of the southern colonists, who came to be known as the United Empire Loyalists, emigrated to the north and settled in parts of what are now the Canadian Maritimes, Ontario, and Quebec. Although Lipset briefly touches on other historical episodes, including the opening of the American frontier and certain differences in the patterns of development in the western regions of both countries (e.g., Lipset, 1963a: 521; 1964: 183), it is the formative events of the Revolution that are the keys to his historical assessment. His primary concern is to determine what these early occurrences tell us about the guiding principles and fundamental beliefs of the American people, especially in comparison to their northern neighbours.

First of all, Lipset contends that, especially among the Loyalist emigres and the British settlers already living in Canada, the choice not to support the American Revolution reflected their strong commitment to the mother country and to the British values and institutions that they had traditionally known. In much of his early work on this question, Lipset uses a variation on Parsons’ “pattern variables” to characterize the differences between this British way of life and its American counterpart (e.g., Lipset, 1963a, 1963b, 1964; see Parsons, 1951). Thus, according to Lipset, the colonists who maintained their ties with Britain were especially guided by a belief in “elitism” and “ascription”. These beliefs, in Lipset’s view, led to a Canadian acceptance of established social hierarchies in government and politics, as well as in religion, the economic system, and most other spheres of existence. British cultural influences allegedly fostered in Canadians a high level of respect for those in authority, coupled with a supposed preference for letting elite leaders, especially in government, make most of the crucial decisions. Thus, Canadians were said not to oppose government intervention in their lives, but, on the contrary, to expect and depend on government assistance for a range of services and support (see, e.g., Lipset, 1968: 37–42, 44–50; 1990: 13–18, 21–22).

Lipset sees stark contrasts between these values and those upon which the United States was founded. Indeed, for Lipset, the ideals and principles of the American Revolution were almost the exact opposites of the old British-style values. Rather than elitism and ascription, the United States was born of “equality” and “achievement”. Thus, Lipset suggests that Americans did not tamely accept aristocratic hierarchies and systems of authority, but put their faith in “populist democracy”, or popular decision-making by the mass of individual citizens. Moreover, rather than concede elite superiority and ascribed privilege as part of the natural order of things, Americans allegedly stressed equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of personal background or family lineage. This also meant an American rejection of noblesse oblige or government largesse, and a strong belief in self-reliance and personal responsibility (e.g., Lipset, 1968: 37, 44, 50, 60; 1990: 20–21; 1996: 31). With this line of argument, Lipset emphasizes that the United States is the first important country to be created without a feudal past, unfettered by the pre-modern institutions and traditional ways of thinking in Britain and other European states (Lipset, 1996: 77–78; see also Hartz, 1955, 1964). As a result, the nation that emerged from the American Revolution was “the most ‘modern’ and purely bourgeois culture” in the world, and “the most democratic country” (Lipset, 1996: 79; also Wood, 1992: 7).

Lipset’s Portrayal of the “American Creed”

Lipset contends that the historical beginnings of the United States gave rise to an exceptional society, one guided by an ideology or value system that is unique in the world. He calls this modern, bourgeois, and democratic value system “Americanism”, or “the American Creed” (e.g., Lipset, 1963b: 178; 1979: 25; see also Myrdal, 1944). In his most recent work, Lipset offers a succinct rendering of what he means by the American Creed (1996: 19–23, 31). He asserts that the American belief system can be described using five key terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire. It is difficult to find complete and consistent definitions for some of these concepts in Lipset’s various discussions.1 Another conceptual issue to consider is that the first three of these concepts are general in nature, while the other two terms, populism and laissez-faire, refer more specifically to the political and economic spheres of life. However, it can be contended that there is a single common conceptual thread linking all five of these descriptors of the American Creed. The crux of these five ideas is a paramount belief in the notion that all people should be allowed to pursue their own desired goals and interests, in a society that encourages open competition, even conflict, and that is largely free of collective constraints on individual citizens (see also Lipset, 1968: 57–58).

Americans are said to be especially averse to having their individual liberty infringed upon by “statist communitarianism” or the intrusions of government (Lipset, 1996: 31). More generally, though, Americans are portrayed as being suspicious of any organization or collectivity that limits their personal freedom.2 Lipset suggests that the American desire for personal freedom even shapes what some would say is the most communitarian of all human endeavours — religious activity. Religious involvement is particularly significant in the case of the United States because, as Lipset and many other analysts have noted, Americans exhibit a much greater devotion and commitment to religion than do most other peoples of the world, including Canadians (e.g., Lipset, 1963b: 150; 1996: 19, 62; Bibby, 1987; Bellah et al., 1985; Finke and Stark, 1992). However, in this case, as well, Lipset suggests that it is personal freedom — to worship one’s own God in one’s own way — that is sacrosanct for Americans, overriding any pressures for group constraint or conformity imposed by the church organization or religious community. To Lipset, the “Protestant sectarian” nature of American religion is a key indicator of this emphasis on individual choice, and is reflected in the large and varied range of churches that exists in the United States. The diversity in American religious organizations is contrasted with the allegedly more monolithic, authoritarian, and often “state-supported” Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches that Lipset says are dominant in Canada and most other Christian nations (Lipset, 1996: 19; also Lipset, 1968: 52–53, 248–251).

To the extent that there is any control over individual conduct in Lipset’s version of the American value system, it appears to be a type of self-restraint, in which each person’s moral code stems mainly from within and is not imposed by some external force or agent (e.g., Lipset, 1996: 14, 275–277). Appleby (1992: 1–7) has noted a somewhat similar idea in the work of some early American historians, who appear to have accepted, largely uncritically, the assumption that their nation’s world view at the time of the Revolution stressed “individual self-control” (typically combined with “rational self-interest”) as the prime mechanism of social control. Such a view is also broadly consistent with the Weberian notion that self-regulation, especially as exemplified in ascetic Protestant religious beliefs, is a key feature of modern value systems (see Sayer, 1991: 123).3

In portraying the American Creed, Lipset states that the set of dominant values in American society is basically synonymous with the concept of “liberalism”. However, here he is referring specifically to liberalism in the “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings” of the term (Lipset, 1996: 31). It is important to be clear on this point, because liberalism in this sense contrasts sharply with the common present-day use of the word, which suggests a more collectivist or “left-liberal” belief in promoting “equity”, or equality of condition across social groups. On the contrary, in Lipset’s view, the American Creed explicitly stresses that each individual should enjoy “equality of opportunity and respect,” but not necessarily equality “of result or condition,” and that people should be treated primarily as individuals in this regard, not as members of collectivities (1996: 19). In effect, then, Lipset’s use of liberalism is almost the opposite of what is now meant by the concept, amounting to what many present-day writers call “conservatism” (see Pocklington, 1985: 63–64, 72; Gwyn, 1985: 162).

The sometimes confusing meanings attached to the concept of liberalism indicate the need for an alternative expression to label the set of core values that Lipset identifies with the Revolutionary era. As noted earlier, the central idea pervading Lipset’s version of the American Creed is an essential belief in the proposition that individuals should be free to live and act with little or no collective restriction or community control on their behaviour. We argue that, rather than use the term, liberalism, to denote this idea, it is more appropriately referred to as a form of individualism. Of course, like many other general concepts, individualism is not without potential problems of its own. Some of these difficulties stem from the fact that, as in the case of liberalism, the concept of individualism has sometimes taken on disparate meanings, because of its inconsistent use or application by different writers. There is also the problem, as we discuss later, that the word has sometimes stood for ideas in the past that are different from what it denotes today. Even so, we suggest that Lipset’s rendering of the American Creed is best described as a belief in “liberal individualism”. This label avoids much of the confusion produced by the word, liberalism, while at the same time being terminologically similar to it. The term, liberal individualism, also connotes Lipset’s emphasis on individual liberty and freedom from collective constraints as the key feature of the American value system.4

The Myth of American Individualism?

To this point, we have suggested that liberal individualism, or what might be called “the freedom to do what one wishes” (e.g., Shain, 1994: xiv), is the core concept that underlies Lipset’s portrayal of the American Creed. In his view, this idea has been the pervasive element in the nation’s value system since the founding of the United States. In the remainder of the paper, we consider three related analyses that cast serious doubt on this contention. First, we discuss the need to distinguish between Lipset’s liberal or self-interested individualism and another, more socially responsible, version that has links to the Revolutionary American ideal of “republicanism”. Next, we consider the very real likelihood that the values of the Revolution’s elite leaders were significantly different from those of the larger population and, hence, should not be seen as accurate reflections of the beliefs held by Americans in general at that time. Third, in conjunction with these two considerations we look at evidence recently generated by historians, suggesting that the values of most Americans during and after the Revolutionary era have been incorrectly characterized in Lipset’s analysis, due to an incomplete reading of the historical record and an apparent misunderstanding of the meaning of individualism when this concept is taken out of historical context.

(a) Individualism: Liberal versus “Republican”

Although there are other writers who have argued that individualism has been a core American value from the very beginning of the United States, a closer examination reveals that most of these analysts are referring to an orientation that is quite different from the self-interested desire for personal freedom that Lipset’s liberal individualism implies. These researchers suggest that the American value system, at least during the period of the nation’s founding, was not anchored in or defined by such extreme self-interest. On the contrary, most of these authors identify a far more group-oriented and socially responsible set of cherished ideals at the core of Revolutionary American society. In this portrayal of the early American value system, personal liberty is highly prized and encouraged, but, at the same time, is consistently moderated by a regard for civic responsibility and a respect for the rights of others (e.g., Bellah et al., 1985: vii–viii, 143; Shain, 1994: 157; Williams, 1960: 451–452; see also Hartz, 1955; Ladd, 1981). In fact, for genuine “liberty” to be realized, it was essential that “citizens were virtuous — that is, willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the community” (Wood, 1992: 104). The difference between Lipset’s representation and the latter depiction is reminiscent of Durkheim’s useful distinction between a narrowly self-interested personal freedom or “egoism”, on the one hand, and a moral or socially responsible freedom, which Durkheim sees as true “individualism”, on the other hand (Durkheim, 1893: 172–173; see also Baer et al., 1990a: 96; 1996: 302).

We suggest that this alternative view of individualism also shares much in common with another crucial Revolutionary idea: the belief in “republicanism”. As with some of the other concepts we have already considered, republicanism is an idea that has taken on multiple definitions (see Wood, 1992: 95–96; Appleby, 1992:320–324). In the present context, however, the term is used in the classical Greco-Roman sense, or in the Renaissance meaning associated with Rousseau. In either of these usages, republicanism rests on a belief in the responsibility of free individuals to participate in serving the public good, so as to promote both a better society and, ultimately, a form of individualism that is far removed from narrow self-interest (Bellah et al., 1985: 252–254, 335; Shain, 1994: 272–273; Wood, 1992: 104; Appleby, 1992: 21–23, 290–291). Clearly, then, many of those who argue for individualism as a founding American value are not referring to the liberal or self-centred version suggested by Lipset’s analysis.

(b) Individualism: An Elite or Mass Value?

A second contentious point that needs to be addressed concerns the question of whether this more socially responsible or republican brand of individualism was itself widespread among the population in the Revolutionary period. Although this form of individualism seems to have been highly valued by key members of the national elite, especially the Revolutionary leaders, recent research indicates that it may not have been strongly espoused by the American people as a whole (Wood, 1992: 189, 216, 222; also Shain, 1994: xvi, 137). Some of the evidence that raises questions in this regard can be found in the comments of the Revolution’s leading figures. For example, virtually all of the prominent founders of the American republic expressed extreme disillusionment later in life, because of the apparent failure of such ideals as selflessness and a belief in public service to take a sustained hold on the American citizenry (Wood, 1992: 365–367; Bellah et al., 1985: 252–256).

Many early religious and political leaders in the United States also expressed concern about the markedly unrestrained self-interest that they observed in the population, especially after the first few decades of the nineteenth century (e.g., Wood, 1992: 333–335). It is true that the latter pattern of behaviour, if it were widely evident in the American populace at the time, might be seen as supportive of Lipset’s claims, at least in the sense that it would signal the kind of self-interest that seems essential to his particular conception of individualism. At the same time, though, as noted earlier, such a pattern of behaviour would run counter to the “moral” self-control or self-restraint that also appears to be integral to Lipset’s depiction of American individualism (1996: 275). In either event, there is good reason to conclude that neither Lipset’s brand of liberal individualism nor the republicanism that was apparently favoured by most of the Revolution’s leading figures was pervasive within the general population of the United States in the Revolutionary period.

Before proceeding, we should note that there are those who will assert that, in spite of the possible discrepancies between the values of the Revolution’s leaders and those of the general populace, it is the ideas of the leaders that should be seen as the crucial indicators of America’s founding values in any case. In many respects, this assertion amounts to a “dominant ideology” argument not unlike that found in early Marxism (see Marx and Engels, 1846: 59; Gramsci, 1928). From this perspective, the ideas of the dominant group, along with the major institutions and organizing principles these ideas represent, are assumed to be the best gauges of a society’s central values and beliefs. It is interesting that much the same viewpoint seems to have been shared by a number of Revolutionary leaders. Thomas Jefferson, for example, once stated that the ideas of ordinary Americans “must never be considered when we calculate the national character” (see Wood, 1992: 28; also Shenkman, 1988: 32–33). John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington are some of the other famous figures who offered similarly elitist opinions about the American people, at times describing them as “the common herd”, “the unthinking populace”, or “the grazing multitude” (Wood, 1992: 28; see also Bryson, 1994: 54–59).

It is misleading to assume, however, that the values of a society are basically identical with the values of its elite. Equally problematic is the idea that the perspectives and attitudes ingrained in the wider population are somehow irrelevant or secondary as barometers of a country’s core value system. On the contrary, we suggest that, if the purpose of studying a nation’s values is to learn what is truly important to its general citizenry, then it is the ideas and perspectives expressed by this wider population that are the most crucial evidence to consider. Furthermore, in much the same way that contemporary writers have criticized the dominant ideology thesis in Marxism, we suggest that a simple equation of elite and mass values almost certainly leads to serious misrepresentations of the principles that generally operate in a society and that guide the activities of its people (see, e.g., Abercrombie et al., 1980; Wright et al., 1992: 44; Grabb, 1997: 150–151). The latter point is amply illustrated in studies of the United States and Canada in the present day, most of which suggest that what the majority of the population thinks or believes about important issues is frequently at variance with the policies and pronouncements of the nation’s leaders or elites (see, e.g., Pocklington, 1985: 403; Ornstein, 1985, 1986; Grabb, 1994: 123, 129–130; Sniderman et al., 1996: 15–19; Perlin, 1997: 105–107). Thus, in order to fathom a society’s values, it is essential to know as much as possible about the views and beliefs held by the general populace. While these views may not represent the ideology of the dominant class, they clearly are at the core of what could be called the “popular” or “common” ideology, the values that prevail among the majority of the people in the society in question.5

(c) Assessing Individualism in the Larger Population

A growing body of survey data and related evidence has made it increasingly possible to describe and compare the ideas of present-day national populations (e.g., Inglehart, 1990; Nevitte and Gibbins, 1990; Nevitte, 1996; Frizzell and Pammett, 1996; Adams, 1997; Sniderman et al., 1996). Obviously, though, the same task is far more difficult when, as in the present analysis, the period of study lies in the distant past. Available evidence from the Revolutionary era is necessarily restricted to written records, virtually none of which provides direct information on the values of that large majority of early Americans who could not read or write. Nevertheless, it is still possible to establish a more informed sense of the beliefs of the general population by considering indirect evidence. Apart from the written accounts of the Revolutionary leaders or national elite, at least two other sources of documentation are available. First, there are the writings of outside observers and, second, there are the records of literate but non-elite Americans themselves.

Using these types of evidence, several leading historians over the past decade or so have reconsidered the image of Revolutionary American society suggested by previous research (e.g., Appleby, 1984, 1992; Diggins, 1984; Rodgers, 1992). Although the conclusions of these more recent analyses are not always in complete agreement, one consistent outcome of this work has been to raise questions about the assumption that a high level of liberal individualism prevailed during the Revolutionary period. One of the most thorough recent studies is based on a detailed content analysis of printed materials from the time of the Revolution, including newspaper editorials, political pamphlets, religious sermons, “political” sermons, diaries, and various public documents (Shain, 1994). These written records were produced by individuals who occupied positions between the elite and the mass of the population. Though not precisely representative of the people as a whole, the “lived testimonies” of such individuals almost certainly offer a more accurate reflection of the commonly-held values and beliefs of the time than do other sources (see Shain, 1994: xvi, 6–8). This research has led to the unequivocal conclusion that the dominant ideas in the thinking of most Americans during the Revolutionary era were marked neither by the self-interested individualism suggested in Lipset’s American Creed, nor by the spirit of service to the larger society associated with classical republicanism. Instead, there is generally strong and consistent evidence that the predominant belief system of the time was a form of “local communalism” (Shain, 1994: xviii, 37–38, 48–49). In other words, American culture in the Revolutionary period was steeped in a set of values that placed primary emphasis on an adherence to the standards of small-town community life, or what has been called “collectivism within a smaller group” (Pekelis, 1950: 67). In this setting, neither unconditional personal freedom, nor a strong commitment to a wider national polity, was widely encouraged (Wood, 1992: 20).

This characterization is increasingly plausible if we consider the composition of American society throughout the time of the Revolution. The vast majority of Americans in this era were rural settlers, dependent on a predominantly agricultural economy for survival and living in scattered and relatively isolated communities. Estimates suggest that only 5 per cent of the population lived in towns and villages of more than 2,500 people (e.g., Chandler, 1977: 17; Stuart, 1988: 46, 55; Wood, 1992: 58, 131, 312). Even as late as 1870, less than 25 per cent of Americans resided in centres of this size (Bender, 1978: 12). These figures imply that, for decades after the Revolution, only a small proportion of citizens lived in the kinds of settings where they would be likely to have the same experiences and develop the same outlooks as their more informed, cosmopolitan, and urbane national leaders (e.g., Wood, 1992: 189, 229).6

Crucial to the small settlements that characterized virtually all of the United States during the Revolutionary period were the community churches. Most churches and religious organizations fostered reformed-Protestant or broadly similar Protestant-sectarian beliefs, which played a major role in shaping the orientations to life of the local populations. It is true, as Lipset and others have noted, that there was a wide and diverse range of sects from which American colonists could choose their preferred denomination (Lipset, 1996: 19–20; Wood, 1992: 1, 112, 332–333; Appleby, 1974: 312). However, it is also the case that, within each of these denominations, the religious teachings themselves were “morally demanding” and “restrictive”, and did not place a high value on individual freedom and self-expression; on the contrary, most of these churches regarded the “autonomous self” as “at the core of human sinfulness” (Shain, 1994: xvi, 3, 37–38, 86). In addition, in spite of professions of religious tolerance by many sects, most seem to have been quite intolerant of groups that differed from themselves (e.g., Hanna, 1902, Vol. II: 1–2, 17–19; Wood, 1992: 17, 20; Appleby, 1974: 312).

One factor that helped to counterbalance the pressures for communal conformity and constraints on individualism was the opportunity for resettlement provided by the openness of the country at the time (e.g., Wood, 1992: 311). In other words, those persons who sought freedom from a particular community’s restrictions on their beliefs and behaviours could often relocate in or establish a completely different settlement. Nevertheless, while this capacity to move elsewhere provided a degree of personal freedom, especially in the opportunities for many to achieve economic independence by owning their own land, such freedom was probably not a function of an individualist value system per se. In fact, one likely consequence of the relative ease of mobility and relocation was to promote the spread of local communalism even further, creating a myriad of diverse and distinct settlements, each with its own particular set of communalist values (Shain, 1994: 95; see also Bender, 1978: 69; Appleby, 1974: 312). One historian has noted that, for decades after the Revolution, even along the expanding American frontier, most communities, especially religious ones, “took a downright dim view of individualism” and discouraged “individuals who wished to be different” (Shenkman, 1988: 117–118).

Although individual autonomy typically was not encouraged within communities, the analysis of written sources suggests there was a widely accepted belief that the community itself should be autonomous. Thus, most people put their faith in local decision-making and harboured “a marked distrust of elites” situated outside their communities, including those who operated at the national level (Shain, 1994: 55). Clark (1968: 209–210) has similarly commented on the “intense localism” of the American frontier settlements and their desire to be free of external political interference. This pattern of localism and parochial independence appears to have continued for many years beyond the time of the Revolution. In fact, not until the American Civil War, and the various disputes over state autonomy or “states’ rights”, is there much evidence that local communalism began to be superseded by a moderate individualism and a more republican-inspired national vision. Even into the twentieth century, much of everyday life in the United States continued to reflect a strong communalist orientation (see, e.g., Shain, 1994: 55, 64–65, 115, 243; Leuchtenberg, 1958; Appleby, 1974: 337–338, 415–416; Wood, 1992: 120; Bellah et al., 1985: 42; Foote, 1989; Reed, 1982, 1983; Gibbins, 1982: 12–13; McPherson, 1990: viii, 7–8).

A potential objection that might be raised about this communalist depiction of Revolutionary America is that it seems to contradict the image offered by some leading commentators from that era, most notably Tocqueville (1840). Even here, however, there is good reason to believe that the communalist portrayal is generally consistent, not only with the views of Tocqueville, but also with those of other outside observers in that period.

One telling point to consider, first of all, is that the term, individualism, did not even appear in the English language until 1839, more than 50 years after the War of Independence (Shain, 1994: 84, 91–92). The timing of this initial usage in itself raises questions about how influential the idea of individualism could have been in the thinking of the American people at the time of the Revolution. Interestingly, the initial appearances of the term can be traced to works written in French by Tocqueville and, before him, by one of his compatriots, Chevalier (1840). It is probable, though, that the uses of individualism in these instances amounted to unwitting misrepresentations by two foreign observers. As Europeans who had never quite experienced the small-town community orientation of Revolutionary America in their own country, both Chevalier and Tocqueville chose the French word, “individualisme”, in an attempt to label what was essentially local communalism. The French word easily, if mistakenly, became “individualism” in English translation. However, the present-day sense of this idea was not the meaning that these writers wished to convey in their original descriptions of the prevailing American ethos during the period of the Revolution (Shain, 1994: 84–85, 90–93, 117).

This point seems especially clear in Chevalier’s analysis, which stresses the “spirit of locality” as the utmost concern among Americans in that era, and which contrasts this orientation with the more centralized, national conception of democracy found in France at the time (Chevalier, 1840: 116; see also Shain, 1994: 93–94). Tocqueville describes the “individualism” of Americans in similar terms, as the tendency of “each citizen to isolate himself ... and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (Tocqueville, 1840: 506; see Bellah et al., 1985: 37). Observations by other European writers, including the Swiss-German churchman, Phillip Schaff, provide a similar image of a localized, communal, and Protestant society, in which tolerance of individual differences was far from prevalent (Schaff, 1855: 60, 214; see Shain, 1994: xvii, 120–121). Several decades after these commentaries, Lord Bryce, the noted English historian and observer of the United States, continued to remark on the issue, again emphasizing the “purely local” nature of American society in that period of history (Bryce, 1887: 24 ; see also Errington, 1994: 15; Stuart, 1988: 29; Wood, 1992: 229). All of these observations by early historians and visitors parallel the documentary evidence of literate Americans noted earlier. In both instances, we are presented with an image of the American population that, on the whole, was much more strongly committed to localized, small-town collectivist values than to liberal individualist beliefs.


In the present analysis, we have reconsidered the historical case for the origins of individualism in American society. Our focus has been on the influential thesis of S.M. Lipset, which argues that liberal individualism, or the belief that the individual should generally be free from collectivist or communitarian constraints, has been a predominant value in the United States since the formative events of the American Revolution. We have found that most of the evidence and analysis, especially the more recent research of a number of leading historians, casts considerable doubt on the claim that liberal individualism was a widely-held orientation in this period of American history, either among the elite leadership of the Revolution or in the general population. First, most of the Revolution’s leaders appear to have embraced a more socially responsible or “republican” individualism, a view of individualism that we contend bears a close resemblance to the conception found in Durkheim’s work more than a century later. Second, among the general citizenry in the Revolutionary period, neither the liberal nor the republican form of individualism seems to have been particularly central to the values of Americans. On the contrary, a major inference to be drawn from recent historical research is that most Americans at that time were in fact guided by small-town collectivist orientations. In many cases, these orientations were particular to local settlements and undoubtedly varied in content from community to community. What these sets of localized values and beliefs shared in common, however, was a strong emphasis on conformity to communally-sanctioned, rather than individually-determined, standards of thought and behaviour.

This is not to say, of course, that no one among the populace of the early United States would have harboured what we would now label liberal individualist beliefs. Neither is it to argue that such beliefs or values would not become more and more central to Americans’ sense of themselves and their nation in later decades. We do argue, however, that there is little evidence that the modern liberal conception of individualism, “the freedom to do what one wishes”, was an especially important consideration among the mass of the population in that era. Indeed, the evidence suggests that this idea was not fully developed or explicitly articulated by the relatively small number of literate people within the general populace, let alone the non-literate majority. The fact that the very word, individualism, seems not to have appeared in print until several decades after the Revolution is especially significant in underscoring this point.

Our conclusion that Revolutionary America was not a bastion of liberal individualism becomes increasingly credible as we consider more closely the social circumstances in which most people found themselves. Almost everyone resided in small and relatively isolated rural settlements, where the religious teachings and general moral tone of the reformed-Protestant and other Protestant-sectarian community churches worked against the flourishing of liberal individualist ideas. Moreover, while it is true that a significant proportion of Americans were not formal church members (see Appleby, 1974: 312), it is unlikely that even the non-religious members of the local citizenry could have ignored the pressure to conform to the prescriptions of church authorities and like-minded community leaders. Of course, the habituation of people to these small-town collectivist circumstances need not have encouraged a sense of subservience to national elites or deference to national state authority, but neither would these circumstances have been conducive to a liberal individualist style of thought and behaviour.

As briefly noted earlier, the best case to be made for the existence, or at least the nascence, of liberal individualism in this era is not in the area of religion, nor in community life more generally, but rather in the economic sphere. Throughout the Revolutionary period and beyond, most Americans made their livings in agriculturally-based hamlets, or in free-standing farmers’ homesteads of one or a few families. These material circumstances seem likely to have encouraged a clear sense of economic self-reliance or independence in much of the population, which, in turn, may have eventually promoted a generally more individualistic outlook among many settlers. Still, it is unlikely that economic independence by itself would have been sufficient to overcome the influences of the communitarian religious and family values that prevailed in that period. We should recall, first of all, that economic or material self-sufficiency would have been effectively denied to the majority of the population, particularly to the propertyless, to women, and to most non-whites (see Wood, 1992: 236). In addition, even for those who were independent property owners, it is probable that various communal economic practices, such as the sharing of labour, implements, and other resources among neighbours, as well as the provision of mutual assistance and security in times of material hardship, would have mitigated against a purely individualist outlook or value system.

All of these considerations suggest strongly that liberal individualism would not have become a core element of the American value system during the Revolutionary period, and probably for many decades afterward. Such a change in people’s orientations and outlooks almost certainly took longer to emerge and occurred more gradually than Lipset’s “founding events” thesis suggests. A number of longer-term and interrelated historical, demographic, and economic developments would have to take place before this way of thinking would be instilled in the minds of most Americans.

One notable initial factor in this regard was the increase in economic opportunities for individuals in the early 1800s, especially in the territories west of the Thirteen Colonies, because of the end of British rule and of the old British restrictions on settlers’ incursions into aboriginal lands (e.g., Stuart, 1988: 35–38, 108). Coupled with this factor was the massive influx throughout the nineteenth century of new, mainly European, immigrants, who were a major force in the western expansion, who greatly enhanced the religious and cultural diversity of the society, and whose search for a prosperous life in their adopted country underscored both the image and the reality of the United States as a land of individual freedom, opportunity, and achievement (see Bureau of the U.S. Census, Historical Tables, 1975). In addition, there were the cathartic events of the Civil War, which moved the people of the United States further toward a truly national vision and identity and which, through the formal abolition of slavery, enabled the American people to embrace with somewhat greater conviction their cherished beliefs about individual liberty and freedom of choice for all. On the latter point, in fact, a number of historians have argued that the Civil War was really the key defining moment of modern American society, the “Second American Revolution” as some have called it (see, e.g., Beard and Beard, 1927; McPherson, 1990; see also Foote, 1989; Reed, 1982, 1983). Taken together, these later developments were more significant for promoting the rise of American individualism than were the events and circumstances of the Revolutionary period itself.

Why, then, has the assumption that liberal individualism thrived in Revolutionary America acquired a wide currency, especially among many of the sociologists who have studied this topic? There is probably no single answer to this question. As we have discussed, some of the misunderstanding may stem from certain inadvertent misrepresentations of American society in the writings of early observers, including Tocqueville. Probably the most important source of confusion, however, is Lipset’s influential work on this subject.

There is little question that Lipset’s claim for the Revolutionary origins of American individualism has an appealing directness and simplicity, and these features of his thesis have undoubtedly enhanced its plausibility and persuasiveness in the minds of researchers and commentators. It is interesting, as we have noted, that even those sociologists who criticize other aspects of Lipset’s research, especially his portrayal of values in the present-day United States, have tended nevertheless to accept his historical depiction (see, e.g., Grabb and Curtis, 1988: 129; Baer et al., 1990b: 694). Given our review of recent historical research in this paper, we might expect that historians, at least, would be more sceptical of Lipset’s account. However, it has been argued that many historians have also granted credence to Lipset’s thesis, if only because their evaluations and critiques of his analysis have typically been “soft” or “tepid” (Nelles, 1997: 749, 754; see also Nolan, 1997).

In conclusion, we would note that Lipset’s historical argument seems to suffer from a more general difficulty that can arise in historical research. This problem concerns what has elsewhere been referred to as the “anachronistic” interpretation of historical evidence (see Shain, 1994: 117). In other words, it appears that, in Lipset’s rendering, past references or allusions to individualism have generally been read with “modern” eyes. As a result, the precise meanings that individualism and related ideas (such as liberty, for example) were intended to convey in the original historical accounts are lost or confounded with more recent usages. Thus, when individualism is mentioned or alluded to anywhere in the historical record, the assumption is made that the word meant essentially the same in those cases as it does today, i.e., to signify the liberal belief in the individual’s right to be free from external communal or collective constraints. As we have seen, however, to impose this modern and quite specific sense of individualism on past applications or intimations of the term is to risk overlooking the several different meanings that this idea can have, and has had, in different historical and social contexts. Such a procedure becomes especially problematic if it is also applied in a selective way, by focussing the discussion on those prominent persons or groups whose words and deeds seem to fit the individualist imagery, but disregarding the signs of communalism and anti-liberalism apparent in the actions and avowed beliefs of sizeable segments of the larger population, including the various Protestant religious sects and their followers, for example.

As with most historical analyses, then, it is important in this instance to pay heed to “the history of history” itself. As Appleby (1992: 11) has commented, “historical scholarship resembles nothing so much as a layering of cities on an ancient site,” with the result that historical understanding necessarily involves “digging through the remains of previous historical accounts.” In the present paper, we have found that such digging produces a sense of the origins of American individualism that is quite different from that suggested by Lipset, and from that which has been widely accepted by contemporary sociologists. In our view, this depiction amounts to a recurring myth, a time-honoured but largely inaccurate and distorted representation of the actual situation in Revolutionary America.

1The problems of definition and conceptual consistency are apparent if we consider earlier versions of the American Creed provided by Lipset, including relatively recent treatments. In Continental Divide, for example, only four concepts are included in the list for the Creed, with “antistatism” added, but liberty and laissez-faire excluded (Lipset, 1990: 26–34).

2Numerous illustrations of this alleged American resistance to communitarian restraints and regulations can be found in Lipset’s analyses of the present-day United States. For example, Lipset sees this resistance as the explanation for why Americans are more likely than Canadians and other peoples to get divorced, to commit crimes, and to refrain from voting in elections. That is, he interprets these differences as evidence that collective considerations and obligations, such as maintaining a stable marriage or family life, obeying society’s laws, or participating in the political system, are less important to Americans than their individual freedom to do as they wish (e.g., Lipset, 1996: 13, 26, 46).

3 As an aside, however, we might note that, assuming Lipset is correct in seeing self-restraint as integral to the American Creed, it then becomes difficult to explain his use of evidence dealing with quite unrestrained behaviours, most notably the higher levels of American criminal activity, to support this depiction (see Lipset, 1996: 269–270).

4 We should be aware, of course, that various other terms, including”utilitarian”, “rugged”, “modern”, and even “narcissistic” individualism, have also been used by other writers to indicate much the same idea (see, e.g., Bellah et al., 1985; Christian and Campbell, 1983; Lukes, 1973; Shain, 1994; Triandis et al., 1990; Williams, 1960).

5 In spite of Lipset’s occasional comments to the contrary (e.g., Lipset, 1996: 24–25), it can be argued that he also subscribes to this viewpoint. For example, Koschmann (1997: 763) has suggested that, although Lipset believes his thesis is an essentially historical argument, and one that focuses on values as they are reflected in large-scale institutions, the thesis in fact relies heavily on present-day surveys of mass public opinion for supporting evidence.

6 A very similar picture emerges if we consider the Loyalists and other British Canadian colonists of this period, who lived much the same rural and isolated existence as their American counterparts. In fact, on this point and many others, it is clear that Canadians and Americans were far more alike in this historical period than has usually been appreciated (see Grabb et al., 1999).


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