American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good

Colin Woodard

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 0525427899

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The author of American Nations examines the history of and solutions to the key American question: how best to reconcile individual liberty with the maintenance of a free society

The struggle between individual rights and the good of the community as a whole has been the basis of nearly every major disagreement in our history, from the debates at the Constitutional Convention and in the run up to the Civil War to the fights surrounding the agendas of the Federalists, the Progressives, the New Dealers, the civil rights movement, and the Tea Party. In American Character, Colin Woodard traces these two key strands in American politics through the four centuries of the nation’s existence, from the first colonies through the Gilded Age, Great Depression and the present day, and he explores how different regions of the country have successfully or disastrously accommodated them. The independent streak found its most pernicious form in the antebellum South but was balanced in the Gilded Age by communitarian reform efforts; the New Deal was an example of a successful coalition between communitarian-minded Eastern elites and Southerners.

Woodard argues that maintaining a liberal democracy, a society where mass human freedom is possible, requires finding a balance between protecting  individual liberty and nurturing a free society. Going to either libertarian or collectivist extremes results in tyranny. But where does the “sweet spot” lie in the United States, a federation of disparate regional cultures that have always strongly disagreed on these issues? Woodard leads readers on a riveting and revealing journey through four centuries of struggle, experimentation, successes and failures to provide an answer. His historically informed and pragmatic suggestions on how to achieve this balance and break the nation’s  political deadlock will be of interest to anyone who cares about the current American predicament—political, ideological, and sociological.

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Hopkins University Press, 1994), 46–49, 53. 18. Ronald Reagan, speech delivered at the Detroit Economic Club, May 15, 1980, text available at http://www.kwrendell.com/full-description.aspx?ItemID=20202017. 19. Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New York: Arlington House, 1969), 15; William Rusher, “A New Party Eventually: Why Not Now?,” National Review, May 23, 1975, 550–51. 20. The $111 billion figure is in 1968 dollars; it would be $738 billion when adjusted to 2010 dollars.

surprisingly, it received enthusiastic backing from the libertarian-minded sections of the country (the Tidewater, Deep South, and Appalachia) and from dissatisfied minorities in the more collectivist ones (the Scots-Irish enclaves in southern New Hampshire and midcoast Maine, the distressed farmers of western Massachusetts, and the artisans of Philadelphia and New York). When speaking for this coalition, Jefferson and other aristocrats cast themselves not as gentlemen slave lords but as “honest

common good, to stamp out poverty, end Jim Crow, build up its infrastructure and health care commitments, and send men to the Moon.30 John F. Kennedy promised to do all that. He called on Americans to renew their sense of national purpose, “to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” In his brief presidency, he secured passage of a wide range of social and economic reforms: the creation of the food stamp program, the Peace Corps, and the Clean Air Act; and

its day—General Motors, Dow, Pfizer, Chase Manhattan Bank, Mobil, and Sears—as well as from South Carolina textile magnate Roger Milliken and Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to Andrew Mellon’s fortune and an important donor to the Nixon slush fund that paid for the Watergate burglaries. Within a decade, Heritage would have a staff of over a hundred, and would serve as an informal recruitment agency for the Reagan administration.11 It wasn’t alone for long. In 1974, Charles Koch established an

maintain a society in which all people can be free and self-governing. Doing so requires a preponderance of autonomous individuals who are committed not just to their own selfish ends, but to sustaining an environment conducive to every child having the tools for and a fair chance of also becoming autonomous. Without such customs, without a commitment to the public goods and civic institutions that foster the attainment of individual freedom for those who are not so well-born, without a citizenry

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