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Is That All There Is? Rugged Individualism

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Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama

Rugged individualism is at the core of our civic religion. It's central to our belief structure as Americans, and it affects just about everything we do. And it's a fallacy.

So those of you who are feeling superior to the Catholic bishops as they struggle to assert their eternal verities in the realm of birth control (which the flock walked away from decades ago), think again. We all have beliefs that we act on, sometimes daily, that are false. -- Benjamin West

This story takes place on South Street in Philadelphia. It was late afternoon on a warm, pleasant day, and I was just finishing the drive home from my job in Delaware. On South Street I would start to relax. The Interstates -- I-95 and Schuylkill -- were behind me. And so was the last bear trap -- a large steel plate on the old South Street bridge that either covered or partially covered a huge hole in the pavement, depending on the day. Some days the sense of relief was almost euphoric, but on this day, as on many days, my mood was more contemplative, even elegiac.

Near the bridge there are two lanes of traffic on South Street, with parking in a third lane to the left. I was following a pickup truck in the right-hand lane.

Just ahead of the pickup, in the left-hand traffic lane, was a car. Ahead of the car, in the parking lane, was a simply enormous box truck. It took up all the parking space and a good chunk of the lane the car was trying to drive in.

For those of you who don't drive in Philly, this is a very common situation. If it's not an oversize truck, it's a badly placed pothole. The solution is to cheat into the other traffic lane. People do it all the time. Big vehicles do it more than small ones, but basically everybody does it.

If you don't do it, life can get expensive. Once I was driving on the Schuylkill in traffic and, because of the car in front of me, I didn't see a hole until it was too late. Some construction people had cut a hole about 3' x 3', maybe 2' deep. The man in my dealer's service department actually chuckled when he gave me the news. My tire was fine but my rim was so badly dented that it had to be replaced. (It turns out that a rim is the round metal part that I would ordinarily call a wheel.)

But that's another story. Back to South Street. The guy in the car, who is staring at the big box truck that's about to remove the left side of his car (I did see a bus get the entire left side peeled off once, but that's also another story), anyway the driver starts to cheat to the right.

But then he sees he can't, so he slams on the brakes. Fortunately there's nobody following him.

I'm pretty sure the driver of the pickup truck in front of me actually tapped his accelerator, instead of his brake, just to make sure the other guy couldn't borrow a couple of feet of his lane.

Anyway the fellow in the car fell behind us, and I think he must have turned off, because I don't remember seeing him again. At the next light, to my surprise, I found myself next to the guy in the pickup. As I said, it was a warm day, and I noticed that he had his driver's-side window down. I lowered my passenger-side window and said hello, in a friendly way.

The fellow seemed surprised that someone was talking to him, but he said hello back. I asked him if he'd seen the other driver getting jammed by the parked truck. He said he had. I asked him why he hadn't slowed down to let the car go by.

And that's when it happened. He told me what he actually thought. I don't know if it was the oddity of someone actually speaking to him, car to car, in the middle of South Street, in the big city, but he proceeded to give me, in stream of consciousness, well larded with profanity, what I later took to be his philosophy of life.

He owned the lane he was driving in, he said, and as long as he was in it he could do anything he wanted. And nobody else should try to get in his way.

When you're channeling someone else's psyche, possibly his id, I'm not sure it's possible to hold up your side of the conversation. I'm sure I said something, possibly about the brake pedal being a useful tool. And we parted amicably enough.

Walking home from the garage, I was still in a state of shock at my discovery. I had thought that all the discourtesy and mayhem on the highway was a result of negligence and testosterone. But I had been wrong. There was a higher principle involved. Our streets and highways are the last refuge of America's tradition of rugged individualism.

President Obama actually used the words rugged individualism in his speech to the joint session of Congress last September. "Yes, we are rugged individualists," he said.

It's interesting how often these two words get used to describe a core part of our identity as Americans. But what do they really mean? Is it simply, "Your liberty ends where my fist begins," as a college chum was wont to say?

Daniel Boone

I like to think of Daniel Boone as the Godfather of Rugged Individualism. With his cry of "Elbow room!" (it appears he did actually say something like this) Boone epitomized the view that the best neighbors were no neighbors. Apparently if he could see his neighbor's chimney smoke from his front yard, it was time to move.

Boone was born in 1734 near Reading, Pennsylvania (there's a high school named after him). His peripatetic life made him a leader in America's westward push through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and Tennessee, and out onto the Great Plains. His travels may have taken him as far as the lands that are now Yellowstone National Park. He died in 1820 in Missouri. And, yes, just like his younger contemporary Davy Crockett, he does seem to have been fond of coonskin caps.

So what was Daniel Boone after, really? Was it simply that, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, "Hell is other people"? That has to be a piece of it. But there has to be more. I think the pioneers looked into the woods and saw a new way of life.

The ideal is fairly clear: lots of hunting and fishing, some subsistence farming, and a good bit of spinning and weaving and sewing for clothes. Basically, if you do everything yourself, nobody else can put you under his thumb. Economists call this autarky.

We also need to talk about the conditions that the pioneers were leaving. The Emma Lazarus poem at the Statue of Liberty isn't a joke. People left the old country to get away from societies designed to provide a good living for the top 1 percent. Most of us know about this, but I'm wondering how many have heard of indentured servitude. This was a system where people paid for their boat ticket to America by agreeing to work as a servant for a master in the New World, for a number of years.

This situation was a lot better than slavery, if only because it had a time limit. Still, we need only look at the way Saudi Arabians today are accused of mistreating their Indonesian and Filipino servants to see the potential for abuse.

So it's not surprising that a lot of newly sprung servants were eager to move west, away from a society predicated on servitude.

The only problem with cutting yourself off from the old society was that it didn't work. Rugged individualism was an unworkable idea from the beginning. As he left for the west in his coonskin cap, the typical pioneer was carrying a Kentucky rifle in the crook of his arm. This rifle was cutting-edge technology in the 18th century, and no well-dressed frontiersman wanted to be seen without one. Think of it as the iPhone of its day. And don't be distracted by the coonskin caps.

So the pioneers took the modern world with them to the west. And very soon they found themselves headed back east, loaded with the fruits of the frontier, so they could trade them for more of the products of modern civilization.

The Whiskey Rebellion

One of these fruits of the frontier was whiskey. Farmers out west were growing corn and rye, but these were bulky crops, and the roads going back east were bad. So they took to distilling whiskey. It takes a lot of corn, or rye, or whatever to make a barrel of whiskey. So it was much easier to transport, and it fetched a fair price.

These forerunners of Jack Daniel and Jim Beam had a good thing going, so good that the new federal government decided to tax it. And hence we come to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

Militarily, the Whiskey Rebellion was a kerfuffle. Some farmers in western Pennsylvania intimidated a few tax collectors, and a few people were killed. President Washington sent in some troops, and peace quickly broke out. Psychologically, it's more interesting.

What were those farmers thinking? I'm thinking it's not so much that the whiskey tax threatened their business model. The real threat, I think, was to their identity as rugged individualists. If they couldn't be entirely separate, at least they could set the terms of their interaction with the outside world. Well, maybe not.

The Amish struggle with this issue today. Just about every week I walk over to the Reading Terminal Market and buy Lebanese bologna and other deli items from a nice Amish lady. She is in my world but not of it. The teenage Amish are not of my world either, but they wear really cool sneakers. I've heard some of the girls actually have cell phones, but I haven't seen that.

It's a tricky balance, and it shifts. I think the Amish will be okay, because they work together as a group. I suppose you could call them rugged conformists.

Come to think of it, I suppose you could call the Puritans in 17th century Massachusetts rugged conformists.

Anyway, the fact is that rugged individualism, despite its unworkability, has proved a remarkably popular and durable idea.

James Fenimore Cooper

Part of the reason for this has to be a writer named James Fenimore Cooper. In his five Leatherstocking Tales, published between 1823 and 1841, he gave the world the literary archetype of the rugged frontiersman -- Daniel Boone's fictional avatar.

Cooper's father, William, had founded a pioneering village at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, in New York state in 1786. He called it Cooperstown, and, yes, that's where the Baseball Hall of Fame is. Only it didn't come until later -- baseball had to be invented first.

Cooper grew up here, and it was very woodsy at the time. And it is in a fictionalized version of Cooperstown that we first meet Natty Bumppo, a.k.a Deerslayer, a.k.a Hawkeye. Through his hero, Cooper gave us the frontier, that liminal area between the primeval wilderness and modern civilization. And he gave us the frontiersman -- noble, resourceful, always somewhat out of place when he came to town. Cooper wrote it down, and America read it and wanted to be it.

There's a direct line between Hawkeye and Gary Cooper in High Noon. But then there are a lot of direct lines. Here's one of my favorites.

Towards the end of his life, in The Prairie, Hawkeye finds himself out of the woods and on the Great Plains, again mimicking Daniel Boone, who died a mere seven years before The Prairie was published. Unlike Boone, Hawkeye never married and had a family. So he had a problem. There was no Social Security or Medicare at the time, and society looked to each family to care for its own. And Hawkeye didn't have a family.

So he got himself adopted by the local Indian tribe. He did have other offers, but they would have involved him leaving the world where he was comfortable, and going back to town, where he had always felt out of place. I must say, the last few pages of this book (which has its tiresome moments earlier on) are pretty amazing. Natty Bumppo dies, saying of himself and his forebears, "We have never been chiefs; but honest and useful in our way, I hope it cannot be denied, we have always proved ourselves."

I don't think Cooper was aiming at the death of a Viking king, but that's what it felt like to me.

Fast forward to 1948, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Based on a novel by B. Traven, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, the movie follows a group of gold prospectors in Mexico in 1925, and manages a critique of capitalism along the way. Things go reasonably well when the miners trust one another and cooperate, and less well when they don't. Gold is found, gold is lost, people are killed, and at the end the Old Guy (played by Walter Huston, the director's father) decides he's had enough of the modern world and retires to the local Indian village. After two hours of capitalism red in fang and claw, we finally see a safety net in action.

Pardon the digression, but I do think Cooper's influence is underrated, both in the arts and in our culture generally. I don't think rugged individualism would be where it is today without him.

What We're Really Good At

Even in Cooper's time, there were those who saw that what Americans were really good at was cooperation. "To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854). This from a guy who was living by himself in the woods.

Even earlier, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations." He added, "I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it."

Why are we so good at cooperation? "Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest," writes de Tocqueville, calling it the "principle of self-interest rightly understood."

Professor Francis Fukuyama, who's a lot younger than de Tocqueville, says that we're just good at trusting one another. In his 1995 book Trust (which manages to be an even slower read than de Tocqueville), he has a chapter on us entitled "Rugged Conformists" (and yes, that's where I got the term). It turns out that we are better at this trust thing than just about anyone else - or at least we were back in the Clinton administration. In many societies, trust does not extend much beyond the family - as the Arabs used to say, "My brother against my cousin, and my cousin against the world."

Here things are different. Thoreau saw it; de Tocqueville saw it. Here's Fukuyama: "From the moment of its founding up through its rise at the time of World War I as the world's premier industrial power, the United States was anything but an individualistic society. It was, in fact, a society with a high propensity for spontaneous sociability, which enjoyed a widespread degree of generalized social trust and could therefore create large economic organizations in which nonkin could cooperate easily for common economic ends."

I can't resist. Here's some more: "It remains true that Americans tend to be antistatist, despite the substantial growth of big government in the United States in the twentieth century. But those same antistatist Americans voluntarily submit to the authority of a variety of intermediate social groups, including families, churches, local communities, workplaces, unions, and professional organizations. Conservatives, who are opposed to the state's delivering certain kinds of welfare services, usually describe themselves as believers in individualism. But such people are often simultaneously in favor of the strengthening of the authority of certain social institutions like the family or the church. In this respect they are not being individualistic at all; rather, they are proponents of a nonstatist form of communitarianism." (You have no idea what I had to plow through to get that.)

Where does this willingness to trust, this propensity for voluntary association, come from? Fukuyama wants to attribute it to religion. I'm inclined to think that's part of it, but I think we also need to look to the development of commercial law in this country, and the rise of the American business corporation, which allowed people to limit the risk that comes with cooperation. I'm guessing it's a bunch of things, but I would like to avoid "American exceptionalism" or "the genius of the American people" - although I will readily agree that these sound bites encourage more confidence than "we have no idea."

A Durable Fantasy

So it turns out that we're not rugged individualists after all. Still, it's been a remarkably durable fantasy.

Why is that? Beyond its roots in our early history, and the brilliant public relations work of James Fenimore Cooper, why has this idea found such traction?

Because it's useful. Who among us really wants to be a good bureaucrat? It may be what we do all day, but somewhere there has to be a place for personality.

Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this early on: "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its adversion."

This is from Emerson's essay on Self-Reliance, which appeared in 1841, the same year James Fenimore Cooper published the last of his Leatherstocking Tales, The Deerslayer. Wouldn't you much rather be the Deerslayer?

Different Strands

When I first started thinking about this article I knew I needed to talk about Emerson -- we studied him in school, and he was one of my heroes. I assumed he would fit neatly into the story. I was wrong.

Rugged individualism is mainly about economics, and it is intimately connected to the frontier. (In this, at least, I think that the historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his famous Turner thesis of 1893 show an insight of enduring value.)

Emerson was a minister, and he was more interested in philosophy than economics. He was trying to figure out how you can function in society without losing your soul: "...you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."

This is also from the essay on Self-Reliance, and it is a different train of thought from rugged individualism.

Manhood at Harvard

Here's another line of development that I initially confused with rugged individualism. In 1996 Professor Kim Townsend came out with a book called Manhood at Harvard. In it he explores the development of an ideal of manliness that was new in American higher education.

In the years after the Civil War, people looked back to the energy and the discipline the war brought forth in so many of the soldiers, and wondered if there wasn't some way to foster that in civil life.

William James plays a central role in Townsend's book. Near the end of his life, James set forth the issue succinctly in an essay called The Moral Equivalent of War (1906). He ends by calling for a form of civilian national service, an idea that still hasn't gained much traction. But in the late nineteenth century, America was industrializing, and it's hard not to see the attraction of this approach to the emerging corporate giants of the day. After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson would not have done well at a large American company. He spent too much time thinking, and, worse, he thought for himself.

So, military vigor it was, transferred to the civilian arena. As Townsend notes, Harvard "could not provide a war, but it could provide the next best thing - combat on playing rather than battle fields."

Enter football. Also rowing, wrestling, you name it. But mainly football. America's colleges haven't been the same since.

Nobody epitomizes this new manliness better than Theodore Roosevelt, who also plays a major role in Townsend's book. Because he's so quirky, we may be tempted to call him not only manly, but a rugged individualist. However, his career, from New York City police commissioner to the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill to the White House, shows that he was something different. He acted in and through organizations, often very large organizations. Teddy Roosevelt, and all the football players, and the soldiers of the Civil War, are rugged conformists.

The Closing of the Frontier

The superintendent of the 1890 Census declared the American frontier closed. We miss it. So much, in fact, that John Kennedy, one of whose favorite words was "vigor," found us all a New Frontier as we raced the Russians to the moon. Not a lot of rugged individualists at NASA, but several of the astronauts turned out to have personalities.

And rugged individualism continues to be a part of our mental makeup. It helps that it now has a name. This is an oddity, but for a very long time the term rugged individualism seems not to have existed. Frederick Jackson Turner should have coined it in his 1893 essay on the frontier, but he didn't. He called it "that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil." Too subtle by half.

Turner did provide a nice psychological profile of the individualist: "That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy" - he goes on, but you get the idea.

Back to the christening of rugged individualism. This apparently did not occur until October 1928, when Herbert Hoover, running for president, referred to "the American system of rugged individualism" in a speech in New York City. (He also said, "We are nearer today to the ideal of the abolition of poverty and fear from the lives of men and women than ever before in any land." We elected him and promptly took a detour called the Great Depression, but still it's nice to see a Republican talking about eliminating fear and want as if it were a good thing.)

The appeal of rugged individualism has continued to have practical effects in our daily lives. The move to the suburbs, back in the 1950's, looks suspiciously like the migration through the Cumberland Gap, with the road west being played in the remake by the Long Island Expressway. "Elbow room!" cried Daniel Boone. Or at least Levittown. And even today, what about those SUVs? If you own a vehicle that can go off-road at any time, how can you not be a rugged individualist, even if you never, ever go off-road?

And of course, we see it in our politics. In his speech to Congress last September, the one where he referred to rugged individualism, President Obama tweaked his opposition by describing their "notion that the only thing we can do to restore prosperity is just dismantle the government, refund everybody's money, and let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they're on their own."

It's a good thing that, when push comes to shove, we're really not rugged individualists. I'm thinking that it's almost time for us to accept who we are. If you don't like the moniker rugged conformist, here's a line from Thoreau for you: "Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men." I've been thinking about that sentence since I first read it as a teenager. It's incredibly archaic. We don't have noblemen, and we do have women. And we don't live in villages. But if you can get past all that, I think there's a nice insight there.

-- William K. West
westwordsphilly.blogspot.com