Why do people struggle when it comes to our political system? Why is it so confusing to some and basically second nature to others? Why do some people feel strongly towards the government while others prefer a more individualistic approach? The dilemma of how we think about our political system is not a new problem. Individuals have been debating on what system is the right one, which beliefs should be the dominant ones and so on for generations. I presume this problem lies in our individualistic tendencies and the want for the colonists to have a government that is completely different from Great Britain.
We place so much weight on individualism and doing things by ourselves, without the governments help, that we don’t realize how complex our problems are. The government needs to play a larger role in our society, especially with this cultural melting pot that we have created. But as James Q. Wilson argues, some things about our government need to change. Even though many of the public have a suspicion of the government and think that all this power could become corrupt, we need to trust in those we have elected to help us when our inalienable rights have been infringed.
Also, we have checks and balances in place for that specific reason. So with that being said, how can we solve this dilemma of American political thought in our society? Ever since the dawn of America, people have been against the government or centralized power. They do not want to conform or go back to the same political system of which they just fled from. Because of this fear for a centralized power becoming corrupt, the colonists of the new world decided to go against that route and develop many smaller town and state governments.
There are many different examples throughout history of persons or groups with individualist mindsets. In some cases, they were widely popular, in others, they tried to do things all on their own and were overwhelmed. Jeffery Prewitt really touches on some of these individualists and even a few who prefer the strong central government. A few examples of these individuals include Puritans Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, Thomas Paine and John Locke, as well as groups like the Anti-Federalists and Anti-Federalists and a more modern example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. All of these parties played a key role in the development and shaping of individualism, however, they all were looking for the role of government to be limited, some more than others. Now it is imperative to understand that the idea of individualism has changed and morphed throughout the ages. The way individualists thought and acted in the time of the Puritans would be completely different than, say, the libertarians would today. Back in ancient times, Indian tribes believed that the status of the individual was due to what had occurred in their past life.
And with this status and current life, they believed the individual had a path laid out, but it was up to them whether or not they wanted to follow it. Socrates also displayed a type of individualism that he spoke constantly by saying “Know Yourself. ” By this, he meant that nobody was able to tell an individual what he or she could or could not do, it was up to the individual to find out for themselves. And finally, a name we all know, Augustine of Hippo gives us yet another example of individualism. He exclaims that, in a matter of free will, man has a right to choose what they want and the direction they want to go.
They are not totally dependent on God’s grace alone. Today, I would argue our thoughts of individualism are not anything like those. Today we are more focused on the individuals right to have a gun or the individuals right to get an abortion. I would argue that today’s world is more material and not as deep of a topic. The change, however, is interesting to look at. To begin, the government of the Puritans was fairly authoritarian and because of this, it was not widely accepted by all of its members. To characters like Hutchinson and Williams, this possibility for strong authority also came with a possibility of corruption or abuse of power.
Not only did they believe in individualism when it came to government, but Hutchinson expressed her opinion on an individual response to religion. She displayed that one did not have to rely on the church to obtain grace, it was more about achieving a personal communion with God. Her counterpart who criticized the centralized government, Williams, displayed his belief of a separation of church and state in order to let the superior conscience of the individual take effect. I think both of these Puritans show us, early on in American history, the first real signs of individualistic tendencies in our young country.
They both express extreme beliefs in the power of the individual and the ability to get the job done without the need of help. Especially for Hutchinson, she almost claims that the church is useless, in a sense, because one can be in a relationship with God without it. I think this part is fairly relatable in today’s world due to the bad reputation Christianity and the church is receiving. Many Christians are deciding against joining a church because of some of the things it involves itself in. They decide that they are most definitely followers of Christ but not members of a church.
I find Williams view to be particularly interesting as well. In my opinion, this is the essentially the first time that the request of separating the church and state is put forth. His claim that the individual conscience is superior to the communities is puzzling to me. I don’t understand how one mind could be superior to multiple especially when it comes to decision making. The more viewpoints you have, the more thought about certain topics usually are. Another example that isn’t found within the texts of Prewitt’s book is John Locke.
Born in a small English town, Locke was a genuinely smart young man studying to pursue a career in medicine. A strong advocator for limited government, John Locke is commonly know as one of the founders of classical liberalism which is essentially an importance of individual freedom. This idea is a fairly popular idea in the western nations like the United States, Australia, Canada etc. The idea of classical liberalism is where we find similarities to the first amendment. Locke famously states “Everyone is insured the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
At this point in history, the United States hasn’t been founded yet. It is mid 17th century England when Locke puts forth his ideas. Little known to him, his fundamental values would soon become a big part of the backbone of the United States of America. Personally, I think the Lockean views or ideas are individualistic but at the same time, still hold some weight in the hope of a strong federal government. He wants each individual to have these certain inalienable rights, but who is going to be there to enforce and make sure these rights are held true?
A power that is able to make decisions and enforce laws is needed in a Lockean system to make sure his individualistic ideas stand firm. However, it is not certain if Locke intended there to be this type of spin placed on his beliefs, being a strong imposer on a limited government, but I feel like something along these lines needs to be in play in order for his views to work. Continuing to move into more recent history, the creation of the Constitution of the United States brought forth many competing viewpoints. When our “law guide” if you will, is being created, we need to make sure that we get things right.
Thus the two major political groups of the time were formed. The Federalists and the Anti-Federalists both had contesting ideas of which would best suit our country. In Prewitt’s chapter on these two factions, he portrays both sides along with key figures on each side. The Federalists, as Prewitt explains, agreed with what was written in the Constitution. Members like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, etc. agreed that a strong central government was a necessity in moving the country forward. However, the Anti-Federalists, as its name implies, completely disagreed.
Individuals like Patrick Henry and George Mason thought that the Constitution allocated to much power to the central government and not the individual. These two different groups of individuals are really one of the first times in America’s history that the demand for a more individualist society and want for a strong central government really butted heads. Personally, I think the radical choice was the Anti-Federalist viewpoint. In a sense, it was almost like Individualists Anarchism. The idea that the individual and the will of the individual is the most important. A strong opposition to authority.
I think the majority of the people decided against less power in the central government because they knew, going forward, they were going to need a governing body strong enough to be able to make certain decisions and be able to enforce these rules or decisions made. I think the Federalists were definitely being more futuristically minded in their decisions of how the Constitution should look, but at the same time, thinking about the here and now. The Anti-Federalists, I think, were more concerned about not being like Great Britain, straying away from that government supremacy that oppressed all of the views and rights of the individual.
They were so focused on how not to be similar, they basically just threw everything else out the window. Lucky for America, the Federalists were able to maintain the strong central government influence in the Constitution. Now on to a more modern figure. When you ask most people who, arguably of course, is the most successful President of the United States, many would respond with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR was one of the most popular and well liked persons ever to hold office. A big indicator of that is the fact that he served four consecutive terms.
He is responsible for many different welfare reforms in our country like the Social Security Act; unemployment compensation and AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children). Not only is he recognized for these, but he is hugely admired for his relationship renewal between individual liberty, government authority and private property with his New Deal. Prewitt explains that this New Deal authored by FDR accepted Capitalism, but also the government accepted the responsibility for the health and stability of the national economy.
So basically, when the individual realized this Great Depression was too much, that it is not physically possible to dig ourselves out of this hole alone, it turned to FDR and the government for help. So what does FDR do, he formulates this plan that allows the government to step in and make sure something like this doesn’t happen. The love and trust that the general population had in FDR at this point in America really laid the groundwork for a huge expansion in federal government.