American Character

American Character

A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good

eBook - 2016
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The author of American Nations examines the history of and solutions to the key American question: how best to reconcile individual liberty with the maintenance of a free society

The struggle between individual rights and the good of the community as a whole has been the basis of nearly every major disagreement in our history, from the debates at the Constitutional Convention and in the run up to the Civil War to the fights surrounding the agendas of the Federalists, the Progressives, the New Dealers, the civil rights movement, and the Tea Party. In American Character , Colin Woodard traces these two key strands in American politics through the four centuries of the nation's existence, from the first colonies through the Gilded Age, Great Depression and the present day, and he explores how different regions of the country have successfully or disastrously accommodated them. The independent streak found its most pernicious form in the antebellum South but was balanced in the Gilded Age by communitarian reform efforts; the New Deal was an example of a successful coalition between communitarian-minded Eastern elites and Southerners.

Woodard argues that maintaining a liberal democracy, a society where mass human freedom is possible, requires finding a balance between protecting individual liberty and nurturing a free society. Going to either libertarian or collectivist extremes results in tyranny. But where does the "sweet spot" lie in the United States, a federation of disparate regional cultures that have always strongly disagreed on these issues? Woodard leads readers on a riveting and revealing journey through four centuries of struggle, experimentation, successes and failures to provide an answer. His historically informed and pragmatic suggestions on how to achieve this balance and break the nation's political deadlock will be of interest to anyone who cares about the current American predicament--political, ideological, and sociological.

Publisher: New York, New York : Viking, [2016]
ISBN: 9780698181717
Characteristics: 1 online resource
text file
Call Number: eBook

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Sep 29, 2018

American Character is really a sequel to American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (also by Colin Woodard), and I think it would be important to read American Nations first. There is a short recap of American Nations in this book, but you would miss a lot if you had not read the previous book. (I liked American Nations better, but this book has much food for thought.)

Most of this book is a review of American history while focusing on whether individual liberty or the common good is being emphasized. As readers of American Nations will know, different regions of North America do not even agree on what the definition of liberty (freedom) is. And in some of the regions, there is little or no appreciation of the common good.

I think both individual freedom and the common good are important, but when they conflict, I tend to favor the common good. As this review of American history shows, ordinary people do a lot better when the common good is a top priority. Sadly, that has not happened very often in our history. It was somewhat depressing to read about selfish greedy people taking what they wanted and screwing the majority, over and over again. And even in situations where significant actions were taken for the common good, the political realities of the times meant that some dreadful “compromises” were made, even by political leaders we revere today.

In the last section of the book, A Lasting Union, Colin describes an agenda he believes could command a super-majority and lead to a happier USA. He points out that the cultural differences in the eleven nations mean that national elections are swayed by a relatively few voters (mostly Midlanders). Yankeedom, New Netherland and the Left Coast have faced off against the Deep South, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia and the Far West over civil rights, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, health care and financial reform.


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