A Feature Review of
The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson
Review by Jamie A. Hughes
For Christmas in 1991, I received a five-disc CD changer, the greatest gift a teenager could ask for in those halcyon days of hip-hop and grunge. It didn’t matter that it was difficult to move and would likely take up every square inch of space on my dresser. Heck, it didn’t even matter that my family had only thought to get me one CD that year—R.E.M.’s masterwork Out of Time.
I ripped off the cellophane, gently settled the disc into the first tray, and began punching buttons at random. Somehow, I managed to get the thing stuck on “repeat track,” so while I read the instruction manual (as I should have done in the first place), I was treated to six performances of “Radio Song.”
Reading The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson by Alex Zakaras, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, felt a little bit like that long-ago holiday morning. Not because his work is repetitive but because, while I was reading it, I had to check multiple times to make sure I’d grabbed the right book and wasn’t reading one about current events.
Much of the material Zakaras covers in painstaking detail feels like it’s been ripped from the headlines of today’s newspaper, and more than once, I couldn’t help but think of the weary wisdom of Qoheleth:
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them” (Eccl. 1:9-11 CSB).
Like most children in this country, I was raised on a steady diet of myths about everything from the Pilgrims and the Revolutionary War to World War II and the Civil Rights movement—all of them half-truths and obfuscations that form the framework of our national “history.” For instance, I always believed the very American ideas of individualism and our meritocratic society have been there since the earliest days. However, Zakaras argues that these ideas took hold in the Jacksonian Era (1820-1850), a period of tremendous economic and social change I knew precious little about before beginning this book.
Instead of thinking of American individualism “as a single dogma or creed,” Zakaras explains it using “three overlapping myths, each containing its own idea of personal freedom and its own distinctive story of American exceptionalism.” These foundational myths, each of which is analyzed and expanded upon at length, are the myth of the independent proprietor, the myth of the rights-bearer, and the myth of the self-made man, and they have all been utilized by individuals on both sides of the political aisle for a century and counting. I don’t think I even need to define them in detail because it’s likely an image of each came to mind already. That’s how pervasive these foundational myths are, how deeply they’ve penetrated the American psyche.
Zakaras writes, “The myths were not owned by any one side of the controversies that roiled Jacksonian politics—rather they came to define a shared terrain on which anyone hoping for a broad audience was constrained to argue. … Their dominance ensured that all sides were competing to position themselves as the true defenders of individual liberty.” And that battle still rages on today in various forms. The enemy can be big government or big business, imperious majorities or powerful oligarchs. Anything that challenges individual rights fits the bill.
But that flexibility isn’t necessarily a bad thing according to Zakaras. Yes, these foundational myths have been used to justify racism, sexism, xenophobia as well as slavery, genocide, and class oppression, but they have also been utilized by reformers and abolitionists (both then and now) to assert the moral dignity and equal worth of all individuals. They are powerful resources to utilize and cannot simply be surrendered to those who would use them for darker and more nefarious purposes.
That’s one of the most interesting and valuable aspects of this very information-rich work. Zakaras examines every element of his argument from a variety of angles and perspectives. In each chapter, rather than simply wax rhapsodic about the American ideal, he clearly shows who these myths were created to benefit (white Christian men, usually landowners or businessmen) and who they excluded (women, Native Americans, and Black people among others). He touches on economics, religion, class structure, immigration, politics, and a host of other ideas and shows how they’ve been intertwined together over time to create what feels like the New World’s iteration of the Gordian knot.
The Roots of American Individualism: Political Myth in the Age of Jackson is a work of impeccable scholarship that I will admit was dense at times since my academic muscles were a tad atrophied when I volunteered to review it. But reading it helped me gain a much better and more nuanced grasp of American politics. I now have a clearer idea of how we got to this specific moment in time, which I refuse to call “unprecedented” any longer because, as Zakaras proves, we have indeed been here before as a nation and likely will be again. I can now dispute many of our foundational myths in a more robust way, and hopefully I can use this knowledge to teach my sons a truer story of our nation and what role they play in it.
James Baldwin—in a 1963 speech titled “A Talk to Teachers”—said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” With this book, Zakaras has made a substantial attempt to tell the whole truth of one era of American history. And those of us who love this country not for what it was or is, but for what it could one day be, would do well to heed the lesson he teaches.
Jamie A. Hughes
Jamie A. Hughes is a writer/editor living in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, two sons, and a trio of needy cats. She has written for Christianity Today, The Bitter Southerner, CT Women, Comment Magazine, Ink & Letters, Fathom Magazine, The Perennial Gen, You Are Here Stories, and Restoration Living. You can read more of her writing at tousledapostle.com and follow her on Twitter at @tousledapostle.
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