The beginnings of the word “individualism” in de Toqueville’s Democracy in America

Americans are often described as individualists. Where exactly did this term come from? It can be partly attributed to a famous work by French observer Alexis de Toqueville.

It is interesting to note that the word “individualist” wasn’t part of the vocabulary of the first colonists or even the revolutionaries. It is a 19th Century word, likely first used out of necessity by the translators of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America — an almost sociological work based on the author’s visit to America during the 1830s.

On the matter of American individualism de Tocqueville wrote: “There are more and more people who… have gained enough wealth and understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their destiny is in their hands. … Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone and there is danger that he might be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.”

Importantly, de Tocqueville saw several social forces that worked against the isolation of individualism and the danger of being locked in solitary: the family, the church and a set of civic virtues fostered, he believed, by American mothers. Whether or not we agree with this particular formulation, we might agree on a more general point. In discussions of American individualism, it is important to treat it as part of a balanced pair — often, yoked in a tense arrangement with one side headed for individual isolation and the other toward full immersion in a community. As long as the forces are fairly equal, the arrangement stays centered…

Three hundred years later, Herbert Hoover coined the now famous phrase “rugged individualist.” But he, too, saw a natural constraining partner for his American creation — the right of others to exercise opportunities arising from their own individuality.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists a translation of de Toqueville’s work, Democracy in America, as the second use of the term “individualism.” I wonder if this is an accurate translation of de Toqueville – what exactly did he intend to say?

Just because the word came along in the 1830s doesn’t mean that Americans were not individualists prior to this use. At the same time, could we argue that Americans have increasingly adopted this label and tried to live up to it? As labeling theory might suggest, Americans have acted in accordance with expectations and perhaps this has even become easier because of the country’s burgeoning wealth and power after World War II.

But as this commentator suggests, the individualism is often limited by ever-present ties to the larger community. We complain about taxes but don’t want the services paid for by taxes to disappear. De Toqueville’s work is partly famous because he also talks about the propensity of Americans to volunteer for organizations, a zeal that surprises him. But then we have more recent works like Bowling Alone that suggest Americans have largely lost this zeal, withdrawing into more personal networks and generally retreating from public life. Are we at the individualistic end of the pendulum swing now and will we soon swing back to a middle ground?

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