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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to their Florentine mansion, where the girls had been attended by butlers, governesses, and cooks. Rand’s own family evacuated to the Crimea for three years until it too fell to communist forces. When they returned to Petersburg, they discovered that the family home and business had been expropriated and that all their savings—hoarded in tsarist rubles—had become worthless. Rand enrolled at Petrograd University, where the works of Friedrich Nietzsche were among her favorites, and in a lucky break

estate—that allowed one to live without working. Ungenteel people—even those rich individuals who had to attend to their businesses to keep their income flowing—were believed incapable of rising above their self-interest and so were denied the privilege of standing for office. Thus Virginia and Maryland set stiff property prerequisites for anyone seeking to take part in the election of legislators: a hundred acres of undeveloped land or twenty-five acres, a home, and a working farm in Virginia’s

thereafter, Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, and the Deep Southern–controlled states—and only the Deep Southern states—seceded. In February 1861 they held a meeting at which they established the Confederate States of America. Tidewater- and Appalachia-controlled areas, meanwhile, wished to remain in the Union or to join with Midlanders to form a third federation, a buffer state between the Deep Southerners and Yankees. (New York City’s mayor, Fernando Wood, proposed seceding as well to create

the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No

In Chicago, where fourteen hundred families were evicted in 1931, social worker Louise Armstrong watched “a crowd of some fifty men fighting over a barrel of garbage that had been left behind a restaurant. American citizens fighting for scraps of food like animals.” Thousands sought shelter in public bathrooms and bus stations or “Hoovervilles,” the sprawling shantytowns that sprang up in cities across the country, where families lived in huts constructed from discarded packing crates, tarpaper,

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