Individualism is the most important part of American culture. From the arrival of the pilgrims to the fight for gay marriage, the struggle to be authentically and freely oneself is a cornerstone American value, so much so that American history is most often chunked up and categorized by the revolutions and social protests of the time. The fight for individualism is the thread that ties all these events together. Though there have always been significant social barriers to achieving the kinds of change that Americans desired at different points in the country’s history, the American spirit of love for freedom and individualism tended to prevail in the end. America as we know it started off as a few English colonies on the east coast of North America.
The main religion of England was, in the early 16th century, mostly Catholic and heeded to the rules and suggestions of the Pope. During this time, however, there was beginning to be quite a few religious dissenters in England. Calvinism and Puritanism began to become so popular that groups of ardent Puritans started to arise and cause trouble. These Puritans decided that the Church of England was not pure enough for them, and large groups of them decided to emigrate to what is now America to start their own community, or as John Winthrop calls it, their own “city on a hill.” In Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon, he requests that the new citizens be ” Evidence (Source, Cited)Anne Hutchinson lived during a time when religion was the most important thing in any individual’s life (the early 16th century to be precise), and cultural religious norms and customs were unquestionable. Anne Hutchinson also was a woman with a strong sense of self who put faith above all, even above the religious norms that were so sacred in that time. When Hutchinson heard the voice of God speak to her, she chose to listen, and formed her own bible study group that she would host at her house on weekends.
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Hutchinson would later have to face the town’s governor in a trial/interrogation to answer for her crimes. In her trial, she comes to her own defense and assures the governor that “I do acknowledge no such thing neither do I think that i ever put any dishonour upon you,” and insists that rather than have performed an act of rebellion, she has instead “honor upon them as the children of God and as they do honor the Lord.” (Trial and Interrogation of Anne Hutchinson 1637). This was a pretty bold move for Hutchinson, especially considering that she was a woman in a deeply patriarchal society with no tolerance for religious dissent. This was a landmark moment for many Americans, in that it marked a shift from not only being able to freely practice a chosen religion, but to practice in a way that suited their own individual preferences. This was a shining example of individualism in early America. Once the topic of religious freedom had been adequately addressed, the American conscious moved onto the topic of abolition.
Though the abolition movement had more to do with physical freedom than personal freedoms, its biggest movers and shakers were still an example of that classic individualistic struggle, as they focused on the most important American value- freedom of the individual- and used it to make a case for abolishing slavery. One of the most visible examples of this is William Lloyd Garrison’s “The Liberator,” an abolitionist paper in the 19th century. In a published essay, “The Liberator: To the Public”, Garrison addresses the public and, as he begins to address the depravity of slavery, states that “On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation,” and relates ignoring the horrors of slavery or even being moderate in speaking against it is akin to “telling the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen.” (Garrison, “The Liberator: To The Public”) He insists, in a poem, that he swears “while life-blood warms his throbbing veins, /still to oppose and thwart, with heart and hand, /thy brutalising sway — till Afric’s chains/ are burst, and Freedom rules the rescued land.
” (Garrison, “The Liberator: To The Public”) This is a prime example of the American struggle for individualism. While Garrison himself is not fighting for his own individual freedom, he is ardently fighting for the individual freedoms of those who are oppressed by the un-american system of slavery, insisting that it is their right to enjoy freedom as others in America have enjoyed.Following a long and bloody civil war, America finally abolished slavery and began to provide its African American citizens with (some) of the rights which they had been denied. But of course, the African American citizen was not yet truly free; the average African American citizen was sorely lacking in individualistic freedoms, and even more so lacking in personal safety. After the civil war, there was a period of reconstruction put in place after the bitter war in order to repair the country’s infrastructure and social structure. African Americans had a small period of reparations, in which they were provided much needed services like education and job training by the government. However, after the assassination of President Lincoln, reconstruction in the south went, well, south.
Black codes and Jim Crow laws began to take over in the 1830’s, effectively separating the races in the south and creating a devastating divide between whites and blacks. Lynching began incredibly commonplace, leading Ida B. Wells to step up and write about the African American experience in “Southern Horrors.” In her newspaper editorial “Southern Horrors,” Ida B. Wells talks about the tragic and uncalled for lynching of two black store-owners (who had been close friends of hers), and six other black men who had been accused of rape.
She addresses the attitudes of the lynchers and their defendants, who claimed the lynched men had raped women, stating “the thinking public will not easily believe freedom and education more brutalizing than slavery, and the world knows that the crime of rape was unknown during four years of civil war, when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one.” (Wells, Southern Horrors) .In turn, she was exiled from her community. Even though Wells laments her exile, she does not lament the actions she took. She insists that “one by one the Southern States have legally disfranchised the Afro-American, and since the repeal of the Civil Rights Bill nearly every Southern State has passed separate car laws with a penalty against their infringement.” (Wells, Southern Horrors) This is essential to the development of individualism in the United States, as Wells took a stand against the system of discrimination in the South for hopes that one day she and other African American citizens could live as their own authentic selves without inequality, or fearing for their lives.Concurrently, after religious freedom and abolition had been won, women’s’ movements began to take the spotlight.
Abolition was perhaps one of the hardest fought battles for individualism (and freedom) in the United, leading to an entire civil war in the country. Thankfully, the country had collectively changed their mind and (through a very long and sometimes backtracking process) decided to recognize the African American citizen’s right to vote. That is, if they were male. American woman, however, regardless of race, still had no place at the voting polls. This led to the start of a more recognizable women’s movement in the United States, and the iconic Declaration of Sentiments. In the Declaration, the members of the Seneca Falls committee claimed that “government should not be changed for light and transient causes… but when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces reduce women under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government.” (Stanton, Declaration of Sentiments) The Declaration of Sentiments was a revolutionary document drafted at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.
At this time, it was not socially acceptable for women to be active in politics, or outside their own sphere at home at all. So when Cady Stanton and the other members at the Seneca Falls Convention petitioned for men change how they view women and for the government to recognize women as intelligent individuals who deserve the right to vote, it was earth shattering for the nation. Instead of stay quiet and settle for their current status, these women decided that it was their right as individuals to be able to educate themselves and cast their vote in the country they live in, which was a huge display of individualism that moved the country one step forward towards equality for all of its citizens, and an essential part of winning women’s suffrage. After women’s suffrage was put into motion, women were still having trouble pursuing individualism. Even though it was possible for them to cast their vote and have their own say in government, they oddly had very little say over their own bodies. Abortion and birth control, although unspokenly commonplace throughout history, suddenly became quite offensive and “immoral.” As (male) doctors became more commonplace and midwives disappeared into obscurity, home birth control and abortion was frowned upon and shamed. This was simply horrendous in the eyes of Margaret Sanger, who watched immigrant mothers and low-income families struggle with the births of unwanted children who could not be properly cared for in their environments.
Sanger tired of this reprehensible injustice, and in her 1920 book “Woman and the New Race,” actively fought against birth control restrictions, insisting that even if women “attain an unrestricted choice of mate, they are still in a position to be enslaved through their reproductive powers,” and that “a free race cannot be born of slave mothers.” (Sanger, Woman and the New Race) Sanger, during this period in which even talking about birth control was deemed lewd and offensive, stood up to the restrictive expectations of women’s bodies in an attempt to secure the right for women to do with their bodies as they please, and to be whole individuals with the right to choose how to live their own lives (with or without children!) The next significant period of reform in American history was the civil rights movement, whose premise of nonviolent action through civil disobedience originated from one of America’s most famous individualist philosophers, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau wrote his book Civil Disobedience following the Mexican American war, which he had disagreed with. Faced with the task of paying a tax meant to supplement the war and manifest destiny, Thoreau chose to civilly disobey by choosing to not pay the tax. Thoreau was thrown in jail in response, and asked for his imprisonment to be publicized in order to make one of his most important points.
In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau writes “”all men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inef?ciency are great and unendurable.” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience) Thoreau summarized years of American struggle for individualism, and provided a tool for later generations to further their campaigns for personal freedoms and liberties. One of the most important figures that Thoreau inspired was Martin Luther King Jr. In the early 1960’s, the Cold War was brewing and so were the racial tensions in Montgomery, Alabama. African Americans in Alabama were tired of the “separate but equal” policies put in place by Plessy v. Ferguson, and a grassroots community of African Americans and allies called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to take action in the famous Montgomery bus boycott of 1963.
Many of the residents in Alabama found the actions of the SCLC to be poorly timed and unnecessary. While in jail for his own act of civil disobedience, King wrote a letter in which he explains that the injustices in Alabama had prompted him to take action, claiming “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” King knew that “separate but equal” laws infringed upon the African American’s right to individualism, and he stood up to the injustices of the times, knowing that Americans regardless of race deserved the opportunity to be themselves and pursue their dreams. A