The County Election by George Caleb Bingham, Saint Louis Art Museum (Photo by Francis G. Mayer/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)

In America, so the myth goes, freedom favors the bold and ambitious individual. From Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs, our national mythology has lionized and celebrated bright, plucky, self-motivated characters who work hard to realize innovative ideas. Though born and raised in families, communities, and other collectives, the story goes, these singular personalities rise above the crowd, buoyed by the protected freedoms and rights that American laws have conferred and intent on filling the public space with their own ballooning potential. Those who succeed do so of their own volition, and those who fail prove themselves simply incapable. America is, in other words, the world’s only true meritocracy.

And yet, powerful as this narrative is, it is also, according to University of Vermont political scientist Alex Zakaras, deeply “utopian.” In the real world, individual achievements are won or lost amid a matrix of crisscrossing forces including race, sex, and class, politics, economics, and religion, dedication, sacrifice, and luck, all of which are rooted in the currents of history. In his new book, The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson, Zakaras zeroes in on the first half of the nineteenth century to explore how the myth of American individuality arose and spread in the early republic.

Eric C. Miller spoke with Zakaras about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: Your book grounds American individualism within three political myths. Can you tell us about them?

Alex Zakaras: My approach to Jacksonian America is focused on the political stories that were told over and over again in the newspapers, sermons, and political speeches of the time. In considering these, I found myself drawn to certain foundational myths—narratives that establish what America is and who its people are. These glorified stories claim to reveal what is exceptional or distinctive or virtuous about the nation, and they ground powerful forms of collective identity that help Americans understand who they are as citizens. At the same time, they usually dramatize some sort of urgent threat. So, in celebrating and idealizing American liberty, for example, they foreground the danger that liberty might be extinguished. The more I immersed myself in these texts, the more I came to believe that there were three powerful myths, in particular, that structured the political arguments of the period.

The first of these is the myth of the individual proprietor, which says that America is distinctive for the ubiquitous presence of the property-owning farmer. This is a man who owns his own plot of land, who is not beholden to anyone economically, and who is, therefore, independent in both body and mind. The second is the myth of the rights-bearer, which is grounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Bills of Rights, and which says that Americans are distinctive because they enjoy a broad slate of rights, understood primarily as immunities from interference by government. The third is the myth of the self-made man, which emphasizes social and economic mobility. It says that Americans can be who they want to be, they are not restricted by the limits of inherited social caste or station, and, if they work hard and live frugally, there is no upper limit on what they can achieve. It imagines America as an essentially fluid society in which the talented and meritorious are constantly rising while the lazy are falling, which creates a relentless churn that ensures everyone is always where they ought to be.  

R&P: Are these ideas rooted in America itself? Were they imported from Europe or elsewhere?

AZ: Americans certainly borrowed and adapted European ideas, especially from British political culture. But they changed when they arrived in America, and it’s fascinating to trace the ways that they evolved and were reformulated for a new political, social, and economic reality. In England, for example, the idea of the independent proprietor often described a middle-class minority, a middling sort of farmer or artisan wedged between the landed gentry and the propertyless masses. But in America, independent proprietorship was much more widely accessible. It melded with the democratic idea and was asserted as an entitlement for all white men that then anchored the populist politics of the Jacksonian Democratic Party. The idea of natural rights followed a similar trajectory: White men in America used it, increasingly, as a weapon against social and economic inequalities. The idea of the self-made man was more of a distinctly American bit of lore, traceable to Benjamin Franklin and others who authored and exported the claim that anyone could succeed in America.

R&P: Were they influenced by the religious currents of the time?

AZ: The Jacksonian Era was a time of tremendous religious upheaval. The Second Great Awakening was sweeping through and transforming America into a much more devoutly religious nation. One of the tendencies that you find among the popular evangelical preachers of the time is a real emphasis on individual conscience and judgment. Theirs was an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian religious movement that was constantly criticizing the religious establishment and the book-learning and the paternalism of the religious elites who dominated the churches of the Eastern Seaboard. Its message was simply that the only reliable way to know God was through your own experience and your own direct encounter with Scripture. Religious authorities were denounced, more often than not, as sources of corruption. Evangelical preachers placed a lot of emphasis on the fact that Christ was the son of a carpenter, Peter was a fisherman, and the Gospels were conveyed by men who did not have a great deal of education but who were chosen to receive and share God’s word. The example suggested that individuals should cast aside received truths, heed their own intuitions, follow their own prophetic visions, and that the individual might read Scripture for himself and receive instruction directly from it. This sort of anti-elitism featured prominently in the political rhetoric of the time as well—in the belief that politics, like religion, was a simple affair, that everyone is equally qualified to weigh in, that we should trust our own judgments, etc. Many evangelical preachers also embraced Arminianism: They criticized the old Calvinist notion of election and replaced it with the claim that individual conversion is a matter of individual choice. This too fit with the ethos of the emerging market economy and with a political culture centered on individual rights and liberties.

R&P: How was the market economy comparable?

AZ: I have always been interested in the roots of free market ideology in the United States, and working on this project persuaded me that the Jacksonian Era was decisive. It was the time when inland subsistence economies were being linked together into an emergent national market economy. It was also when free market ideas were being popularized, often in strikingly religious terms. For example, many of the early economists understood themselves to be practicing “natural religion,” which sought to understand God through rational inquiry into the architecture of his creation. Like scientists, economists believed that they were uncovering the hidden laws, regularities, and harmonies that God had instituted to govern life on earth. Their thought process becomes evident when you notice how often they refer to the economy and its inequalities as “natural” entities, part of God’s design, while referring to government as an “artificial” entity, a human creation. The economists of the day would often critique government intervention into the economy as an artificial subversion of the naturally harmonious design of the universe itself. Part of what one learns through the study of natural religion as it was taught and popularized during this time is that God evidently designed human beings to want to be happy, to want to improve their condition, and so he established economic laws that—if unimpeded—would make individual strivings fruitful and productive for everyone. One striking feature of the free market rhetoric of the period is that you find people accusing those who want to impose tariffs on imports or otherwise regulate commerce of committing a sort of heresy. They were trying to impose limits on God’s plan. 

R&P: The self-made, rights-bearing, independent proprietor cuts a sharp contrast with both the enslaved African-American and the displaced American Indian. Were these myths ever accessible to the non-white?

AZ: One of the key themes of the book, that I return to time and again, is how the individualist discourses of the period were deeply entangled with racial and gender hierarchies. The free individual who is lionized in these myths is almost always a white man, and the broad freedoms that these white men assert almost always include the freedom to subordinate women, to expropriate Native American lands, and to enslave or oppress Black Americans. The expansive freedom of the privileged is taken to encompass all sorts of power over others. Those who would encroach on these powers, whether they be abolitionists or woman’s rights reformers or Cherokees pushing back against incursions into their land, are accused of assailing the freedom of white Americans.

Another aspect of this that historians have written a lot about recently is the construction of white identity during this period. Individualistic traits like rationality, self-reliance, and self-discipline were baked into ideas of whiteness and masculinity. These were understood to exist specifically within the purview of white men, beyond the capability of women or racial others to achieve, making them fundamentally unfit for freedom or self-government. For many Americans at the time, these individualist myths provided a means for asserting a white supremacist vision of territorial expansion, of racial domination, and of gender hierarchy.

R&P: Did the reform movements of the day—abolitionism, woman’s rights, temperance, for example—employ individualist rhetoric? Did they oppose it?

AZ: Though I am quite critical of American individualist myths and many of the uses to which they have been applied, I do think it is worth noticing how flexible they have been and how often reformers have used them to underwrite egalitarian arguments. The myth of the rights-bearer, in particular, was absolutely essential to abolitionist advocacy. Reformers argued again and again that America is the land of the free, that it ought to be dedicated to the protection of human rights, and that these ought in principle to be available to all humans. In this way, they drew upon the rhetoric of rights to excoriate the country for its hypocrisy. Not only had America failed to realize that aspiration, but it had actually slid backwards into deeper entanglement with slavery, among other sins.

Here too, there are strong links to Protestant religion: One of the reasons that natural rights discourse became so popular in America initially is that it was appropriated by religious reformers as early as the colonial era. Though we tend to associate such discourse with the Enlightenment—with Jefferson and Paine and others of that ilk—there is an important complementary story in which religious dissidents in colonial America, as part of their argument for toleration and disestablishment, adopted natural rights language, grounded it in Scripture, joined Jefferson’s coalition in 1800, and continued to deploy that language from Baptist and Methodist pulpits so that it was available when abolitionists and other later religious reformers went looking for rhetorical resources. So, yes, these individualist myths can be—and were—appropriated for egalitarian ends, and prudent reformers throughout American history have understood how to harness them.

R&P: In the book’s final section, you trace these nineteenth-century currents into the twenty-first century. How do you assess their legacy?

AZ: In this moment it’s hard not to be pessimistic about that legacy. We’re now at the tail end—at least one hopes—of an extended neoliberal moment in American politics that has been dominated by highly individualistic rhetoric and that has seen that rhetoric wielded as a weapon against egalitarian reforms. Welfare, taxation, public spending on healthcare, and sensible public health measures during the pandemic have all been targeted by these strident claims on behalf of individual liberty. We live in a time of expansive gun rights and apparently uncontrollable gun violence. So there are some really toxic side effects to all of this individualist discourse, and in the closing chapters of the book I have tried to demonstrate how, especially since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, individualism has been wielded in very inegalitarian ways—to defend the property rights of the wealthy while attacking a whole raft of sensible policy options that other modern democracies have pursued to advance the common good.

That said, I don’t want to argue that individualism is entirely bad or corrupt. Part of what the Left needs to do, I think, is to rediscover and reappropriate some of the more egalitarian iterations of this individualist mythology. We’ve seen them, obviously, in the abolitionist movement and the early feminist movement of the nineteenth century, but we can also find them in some of the economic discourses of Black Americans after the Civil War, as they insisted on property ownership as a means of liberating themselves from white employers. The ideal of personal independence, in particular, has expressed a very expansive ideal of equality, suggesting that a well-ordered society is one in which individuals own their own property, own their own tools, are not beholden to anyone else, and so control their own economic lives. That economic independence lays the ground work for civic respect and equality with their neighbors, freeing them to speak their own minds. Of course this mythology needs to be reformulated to fit the circumstances of the twenty-first century economy.  But because these myths are so powerful, and because they continue to exercise such power over the American imagination, it’s incumbent on those who want to press for greater equality to do what reformers have done throughout American history—to reclaim, reinterpret, and redirect that language.