American Character

American Character

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

Book - 2016
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The struggle between individualism and the good of the community as a whole has been the basis of every major disagreement in America's history, from the debates at the Constitutional Convention to the civil rights movement to 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 and Great Depression to the present day, and how different regions of the country have successfully or disastrously accommodated them.
Publisher: New York, New York : Viking, [2016]
ISBN: 9780525427896
0525427899
Branch Call Number: 323.440973
Characteristics: 308 pages ; 24 cm

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jeffreyochsner
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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