Although the term “Individualism” was not in general use until the 1820s, the foundational principles behind the concept were established by the mid-eighteenth century. Enlightenment philosophers like Newton and Locke argued that the universe is arranged in an orderly system, and that by the application of reason and intellect, human beings are capable of apprehending that system. This philosophy represented a radical shift from earlier nations that the world is ordered by a stern, inscrutable God whose plans are beyond human understanding and whose will can only be known through religious revelation. Enlightenment philosophy encouraged thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson to turn to Deism, a religion that privileges reason over faith and rejects traditional religious tents in favor of a general belief in a benevolent creator. By privileging human understanding and the capacity of the individual, these new ideas recorded the way people thought about government, society and rights.
Thus the Declaration of Independence is taken as the embodiment of the eighteenth-century regard for the interests of the individual. Taking as unquestionably “Self-evident” the idea that “all men are created equal” P503, the Declaration of Independence made the rights and potential of the individual the cornerstone of American values. The fact that these lines from the Declaration of Independence are among the most quoted in all of American letters testifies to the power of this commitment to individual freedom in American culture.
The second continental congress affirmed the Declaration’s privileging of the individual by making the signing of the document an important occasion. That is, by using the representatives’ signatures as the means of validating this public document, they attested to the importance of individual identity and individual consent to government. These famously large signatures are thus the graphic emblems of the revolutionaries’ commitment to individualism. “Of course, the Declaration of Independence conspicuously left out women and did not even seem to include all men”. P243. When America achieved independence, many individuals found that their rights to liberty were not considered self-evident. For African American slaves, Native Indian Americans, and many others, the New Nation’s commitment to individual rights was mere rhetoric rather than reality.
But even though slavery and systematic inequality were an inescapable reality for many Americans, the nation embraced the myth of the “self-man” as representative of its national character. According to this myth, America’s protection of individual freedom enabled anyone, no matter how humble his beginnings, to triumph trough hard work and talent.
One of the earliest and most influential expressions of this version of the “American Dream” is Benjamin Franklin’s narrative of his own rise from modest beginning to a position of influence and wealth. It is not excessive to say that the earliest embodiment of American Individualism was Franklin. He promoted the notion of “God helps those who help themselves” P183. He not only said so but also act like this. Franklin self-consciously uses the autobiographical form to foreground his narrative self-construction as an ideal American citizen. He repeatedly played on the potential for self-making that print and authorship offer the individual likening his own life to a book that can be edited, amended, and...