Individual Freedom and Self-Reliance

6 HP he earliest settlers came to the North American continent to establish colonies

A which were free from the controls that existed in European societies. They wanted to escape the controls placed on many aspects of their lives by kings and governments, priests and churches, noblemen and aristocrats.1 To a great extent, they succeeded. In 1776, the British colonial settlers declared their independence from England and established a new nation, the United States of America. In so doing, they defied[13] [14] the king of England and declared that the power to govern would lie in the hands of the people. They were now free from the power of the kings. In 1789, when they wrote the Constitution for their new nation, they separated church and state so that there would never be a government-supported church. This greatly limited the power of the church. Also, in writing the Constitution they expressly forbade titles of nobility to ensure that an aristocratic society would not develop. There would be no ruling class of noblemen in the new nation.

7 The historic decisions made by those first settlers have had a profound[15] effect on the shaping of the American character. By limiting the power of the government and the churches and eliminating a formal aristocracy, the early settlers created a climate of freedom where the emphasis was on the individual. The United States came to be associated in their minds with the concept of individual freedom. This is probably the most basic of all the American values. Scholars and outside observers often call this value individualism, but many Americans use the word freedom. It is one of the most respected and popular words in the United States today.

8 By freedom, Americans mean the desire and the right of all individuals to control their own destiny without outside interference from the government, a ruling noble class, the church, or any other organized authority. The desire to be free of controls was a basic value of the new nation in 1776, and it has continued to attract immigrants to this country.

9 There is, however, a price to be paid for this individual freedom: self-reliance. Individuals must learn to rely on themselves or risk losing freedom. Traditionally, this means achieving both financial and emotional independence from their parents as early as possible, usually by age eighteen or twenty-one! It means that Americans believe they should take care of themselves, solve their own problems, and “stand on their own two feet.” Tocqueville observed the Americans’ belief in self-reliance in the 1830s:

They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to[16] imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

10 This strong belief in self-reliance continues today as a traditional basic American value. It is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the American character to understand, but it is profoundly important. Most Americans believe that they must be self-reliant in order to keep their freedom. If they rely too much on the support of their families or the government or any organization, they may lose some of their freedom to do what they want.

11 Often adult children return home to live with their parents because of economic conditions or a failed marriage. Parents are usually happy to help out, but most members of the family expect this to be a short-term arrangement. When people are dependent, they risk losing freedom and they may also lose the respect of their peers.[17] Even if they are not truly self-reliant, most Americans believe they must at least appear to be so. In order to be in the mainstream of American life—to have power and/or respect—individuals must be seen as self-reliant.

12 Although Americans provide a lot of financial support to people in need through charities or government programs, they expect that help to be short-lived. Eventually, people should take care of themselves. Although receiving financial support from charity,[18] family, or the government is allowed, it is generally not admired. Some people believe that such individuals are setting a bad example, which may weaken the American character as a whole. The sight of beggars on city streets and the plight[19] of the homeless may inspire sympathy but also concern, for the same reason.

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