What’s the True Meaning of Americanism?

The spirit of the American republic, as conceived by its Founders, is Individualism.

There’s a battle in this country over its very meaning. The battle raises questions over whether America has such an animating philosophy as “Americanism,” and, if so, what principles it entails.

A recent CNN.Com headline frames it, “Obama and Trump fight for America’s soul,” as if these two leaders represent two opposite interpretations of Americanism.

Trump’s America is insular and monochrome. As he summarizes it, we are to be “one people, under one God, saluting one flag.” This ideology holds that Americanism amounts to blood and soil—a patch of land that must be walled off from outsiders who would pollute our nation by trade or, heaven forbid, come here to live.

Obama and progressive Democrats claim to offer the alternative to this insularity, extolling an ideology that insists that such a tolerant and open society can only be brought about if Americans come to see themselves as a collective, one in which the government must assert ever-increasing control to meet its objectives.

But neither interpretation is accurate. The spirit of the American republic, as conceived by its Founders, is Individualism. It explicitly rejects the false dichotomy in Obama and Trump’s visions.

It is no accident that Emma Lazarus, whose “New Colossus” poem graces the Statue of Liberty as it welcomes newcomers from abroad, wrote critically against the political Left. Attempts by the State to spread the wealth around—such as those Obama initially suggested when running for President in 2008—were, she deemed, “essentially unjust.”

Nor would the Founders defend Trumpian ethnocentrism. Anticipating “The New Colossus,” George Washington stressed, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions . . .” Hence, Washington wrote in one letter, praiseworthy newcomers to America “may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Atheists . . .”

True Americanism rejects both the collectivist welfare state that Obama espouses and the collectivist nationalism that Trump engenders. It was—and is—the freedom of the individual to do anything that is peaceful, not requiring the preapproval of any third parties.

In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal & independent . . .” In keeping with the burgeoning philosophy of its time, the Age of Enlightenment, this draft declared independence in a respect even more significant than independence from Britain: that each peaceful adult is independent in how he is to navigate his life. In more context than one, then, America was always to be the Independent Republic. This idea came to be known in the late nineteenth century as the spirit of Horatio Alger, and what twentieth-century historian James Truslow Adams later dubbed “the American dream.”

In contrast to both the Left and Right’s collectivism is the individualism championed by novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand: she came to the USA penniless in 1924, barely knowing English, to pursue wealth and, as a precursor to that, her creative expression.

In 1946 she began writing Textbook of Americanism, her political manifesto explaining the philosophy of the country she so dearly loved and understood. The Textbook had remained unfinished, until now, and is as desperately needed as ever.

As Rand explained, the basic principle of America is individualism. That’s what has made America great from the start. And the sooner Americans recognize this on the deepest level, the more prosperous we all will be.

Adapted from A New Textbook of Americanism: The Politics of Ayn Rand, recently published by Capitalistpig.com

Stuart K. Hayashi has worked as a legislative aide at the Hawaii State Capitol. He is the author of The Freedom of Peaceful Action and Life in the Market Ecosystem, both published in 2013, and Hunting Down Social Darwinism (2014), all on political philosophy and published by Lexington Books of Lanham, Maryland.

Comments
No. 1-9
Robert  Moore
Robert Moore

I'm still confused about an Ayn Rand article being allowed on this blog...

I cannot project the degree of hatred required to make those women run around in crusades against abortion. Hatred is what they certainly project, not love for the embryos, which is a piece of nonsense no one could experience, but hatred, a virulent hatred for an unnamed object. Judging by the degree of those women’s intensity, I would say that it is an issue of self-esteem and that their fear is metaphysical. Their hatred is directed against human beings as such, against the mind, against reason, against ambition, against success, against love, against any value that brings happiness to human life. In compliance with the dishonesty that dominates today’s intellectual field, they call themselves "pro-life."

-- Ayn Rand

58Edsel
58Edsel

Individuals with a common vision and that vision was a Christian nation. Diversity is the road to disaster if there is not a common vision. Twelve people on a football team are individuals with differing backgrounds, personalities, skin color, etc. but to win the game they must have a common vision. If they try to "do their own thing" it would be a disaster. That is where we are now; a people without a common vision, each "doing their own thing" and on the path to destruction. We are engaged in a civil war, but the weapons are different than those in a previous civil conflict. Who will "fire the first shot"? Perhaps it has been fired.

Chris4512
Chris4512

This article suffers from oversimplifications in various areas. One is the notion that the author's quotes from Washington and Jefferson represent their entire vision for America, and the vision of the other Founders. Washington, John Adams and James Madison all stated that American individualism would only work given certain cultural conditions. Jefferson certainly evolved in his views as Secretary of State and then President, where he was forced to confront the nasty realities of global affairs. In sum, the Founders held a balanced view that individualism would flourish only in the context of structural constants like shared Judeo-Christian presuppositions, a consistent economic system (they argued over the particulars such as a national bank), good credit, and a maturing military.

Now apply this to Trump. I didn't even vote for Trump (or anyone) for president. But I certainly understand his principles and don't see him as outside classic Americanism that embraces individualism. He seems to see individualism as currently threatened by three forces: One, a breakdown of the structural pre-conditions necessary for individualism to flourish, such as reliable borders and immigration, a strong military, and trade practices that don't threaten the longterm success of the American economy. Two, economic Marxism that allows government to become too big and feed a system of corruption (the "swamp"). Three, cultural Marxism that attacks the Judeo-Christian values necessary for individualism to succeed. He's almost governing as if Ted Cruz had won the election, something I certainly didn't see coming.

I think the Trump administration is a lot closer to the Founder's vision than Ayn Rand was.

duke492
duke492

John Winthrop said, “We shall be as a city set on a hill” . The whole world knows we are founding a nation based on Christianity. If we are not faithful to that vision, the whole world will know it.

John Adams said, “This constitution is designed for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other.”

Alexis de Toqueville wrote, “I do not know whether all Americans are sincere about their religion. Who can know the heart of a man? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” The American Revolution succeeded where the French failed.

AJ_Liberty
AJ_Liberty
  1. The truth is that Ayn Rand was a decent writer....but a pretty lousy philosopher.

  2. "True Americanism"....as defined by the author....has left the train station for the better part of a century. Our legislators, courts, and citizens (through tacit agreement) allowed redistribution to become a legitimate government action and for government to get into every nook and cranny of life. And so here we are....the question becomes do we strive to return to circa 1920....or do we chart a course forward? There's a reason that libertarians get 1% of the vote....the author tends to ignore the inherent contradiction that if "True Americanism" is libertarian, then why are there so few true libertarians in America?

  3. The American system of government...with all of its checks and balances....is based on opponents making compromises for the good of the whole....and was never envisioned to be dominated by political parties and tribalism...like we have today. We have to get back to being Americans first...and seeing what unites us, instead obsessing over what divides us.

Stories