What Is Individualism?
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” -Henry David Thoreau
Are you an individualist? To some extent, you probably are, whether you realize it or not. After all, individualism is baked into American culture.
We value independence, creativity, and self-expression, for example. We admire those who stand out from the crowd for their unique personalities and distinctive talents. We reward high achievers and celebrate heroes.
And rightly so. Whether they be artists, philosophers, explorers, or entrepreneurs, non-conformists can be revitalizing agents of change in a world gone stagnant.
But what exactly is individualism, and how does it fit in the American tradition? Let’s explore this topic, starting with a definition:
Individualism is a philosophy that views people first and foremost as unique individuals rather than as members of a group. It emphasizes the importance of independence, individuality, and autonomy.
Individualism in American Culture
Many people throughout history, and American history especially, have embodied the spirit of individualism. These people stood out by going where others had not gone before, even when it required an inordinate amount of bravery.
Some of the first people in America to embody this spirit were the Western European explorers who settled the New World in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Unlike the vast majority of their countrymen, these explorers were willing to leave their homes and create new lives for themselves in the budding colonies. Of course, life in North America was anything but easy. They faced countless hardships, like disease, cold, and famine. Yet despite all this, the promise of being able to chart their own course propelled them forward. For all its challenges, the New World offered them something that the Old World simply couldn’t match: an opportunity to build a new society.
By the 18th century, the individualistic ethos of the early explorers had evolved into a fully fledged culture of its own. Then, being more independently minded, the colonists insisted on a significant degree of autonomy from Great Britain. When King George III refused to grant them this autonomy, the American Revolution was born, instigated by the Declaration of Independence, a veritable individualist manifesto.
The Revolution ushered in a new nation: the United States of America. And though the system of government created by the Founding Fathers had many flaws, it was rooted in a philosophy of political individualism (more on this later), enshrining people’s rights to live their lives as they see fit.
As the 18th century gave way to the 19th century, a new generation of individualists boldly ventured west into the unexplored territory beyond the frontier. Facing harsh conditions and tremendous uncertainty, these “pioneers” were resolute and resilient, embracing an attitude of self-reliance that came to be known as “rugged individualism.”
Such self-reliance was explored and celebrated in the works of 19th-century American philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who were pivotal figures in the development of individualistic societies.
But the history of American individualism hardly stops there. Indeed, as the last reaches of America were being explored, other kinds of explorers, pioneers, and revolutionaries began to emerge, such as inventors and entrepreneurs.
One of the most famous entrepreneurs from this time period was Henry Ford. Born in 1863, Ford was an incredibly talented and successful businessman, in large part because of his new and innovative ideas. He revolutionized the automobile industry by introducing assembly lines and mass production, making cars affordable even for the middle and lower classes.
But Ford was hardly the only individual making bold changes. Another well-known figure from this time was Thomas Edison, an American inventor and businessman. Famous for inventing the phonograph, the light bulb, and numerous other products, Edison also founded the first investor-owned electric utility company in 1882 in New York City. As with Ford and many other inventors of his time, Edison’s curiosity, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking helped create many of the technologies we now take for granted. Indeed, the willingness to stand out and explore new ideas characterized nearly all of the great inventors of that time, from the Wright brothers to Alexander Graham Bell and countless others.
Aside from technology and science, there have been many other individuals who have stood out in cross cultural fields such as arts, athletics, and moral leadership. There was Bob Dylan and John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and Amelia Earhart. And then there was Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Feynman. Though these people had radically different stories and impacts, the one thing they had in common was that they were all uncommon. Indeed, it was their uniqueness, their differentness, their individuality, which caused them to have the influence they did.
One of the earlier moral leaders was Frederick Douglass, an outspoken abolitionist. Douglass was one of the best orators of his time, and he spoke persuasively about the need to end the institution of slavery at a time when slavery was still widely practiced.
Isabel Paterson was another influential individual, though she is not as well known as she perhaps deserves to be. A journalist and novelist, Paterson was one of the first proponents of libertarianism in its modern form. Along with Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand—who are also outstanding individuals in their own right—she helped lay the foundation for the freedom philosophy as we know it.
More recent mold-breakers include Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp, Dave Chapelle, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs.
Jobs was not only an individualist himself, but infused individualism into the brand of his company Apple. He especially appealed to people who stood out from the crowd. This approach was famously captured by Apple’s 1997-2002 “Think Different” ad campaign, which featured many of the iconic figures mentioned above. The text of the campaign’s TV ad says it all.
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
From the early settlers to the leaders of today, many individuals have indeed changed the world. But the change they created never came by means of conformity. It always came because of the things that made them stand out.
Individualism in American Politics
Individualism has had a tremendous impact, not only on culture, but on social theory as well, and political philosophy in particular. We owe much of our freedom to that influence. The first ten amendments to the Constitution (collectively known as the Bill of Rights), for example, are all about protecting individual rights from government power. Such sweeping protections for personal freedoms were practically unheard of before the American Revolution.
In most cultures in the past, a person’s rights were largely determined by their group identity. In ancient Rome, for example, there was a patrician class and a plebeian class. Patricians had considerably more rights and power than plebeians, but membership in the class (or caste) was determined by ancestry, so no amount of individual effort could change the power imbalance. Feudal societies likewise had strict distinctions between lords and serfs, making it nearly impossible to change one’s social status.
All that changed, however, in the 18th century with the rise of classical liberalism, a thoroughly individualistic political philosophy (not to be confused with the modern liberalism associated with the political left). The main tenets of liberalism were simple, yet revolutionary. According to the philosophy, all people have equal rights as individuals regardless of their group identity, and they should be free to make use of their own persons and property however they see fit so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others to do the same.
The most famous codification of the principles of liberalism is found in the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In framing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and his co-authors drew largely on the philosophy of John Locke, who is known as the father of liberalism. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke argued that individual rights are the foundation of a liberal society, beginning with the right of self-ownership.
“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”
Drawing on this foundation, Locke concluded that it is wrong to violate the property rights of others.
"The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Governments, Locke said, are instituted by citizens “for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”
Though the Declaration of Independence used the phrase “pursuit of happiness” instead of “estates,” it is clear that the protection of property rights is in view. This protection is articulated more explicitly in the Fifth Amendment, which states: “No person shall...be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
These individualistic principles became the pillars of the social institutions that now characterize what we call the “free world” (hence the term “liberal” democracies). And though it may seem self-evident that people’s rights shouldn’t depend on their group identity, it’s worth remembering that this view was practically unheard of before the rise of classical liberalism.
Regrettably, the transition to treating people as individuals was not as swift as it should have been. Though the ideals espoused in the founding documents of America were noble, the early Americans were reluctant to apply them consistently. Racist and sexist policies in particular (read: vestigial forms of collectivism) were still widespread, and it would take many decades before the laws recognized that women and blacks were just as equal as anyone else. However, with the overthrow of caste systems like slavery, Jim Crow, and the legal subjugation of women, America has come much closer to living up to its individualistic founding principles. And hopefully, this progress can serve as an inspiration for further steps toward the protection of individual rights in the future.
A Philosophy for the Future
In just a few short centuries, the philosophy of individualism has radically reshaped how we relate to one another. It has created individualistic cultures that celebrate individual accomplishment, and political and economic structures that protect individual rights. As a result, generations of mold-breakers and trailblazers have renewed and improved our world, as explorers, pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, and moral leaders.
But individualism is not merely something that happened in the past. As time marches forward, new innovators have the opportunity to rise up and make a difference. By resolving to chart our own course, we too can become revitalizing agents of change in a world gone stagnant. We can blaze new trails where others have not gone before, and we can set an example for those who come after us.
The opportunity to boldly venture into uncharted territory is more real today than it has ever been. The only question is whether we will seize it.