Two Types of American Individualism

In this classic piece, Richard Weaver takes to task two different types of individualism that have been present in the American experience.

Reinhold Niebuhr has written that there are two ways “of denying our responsibilities to our fellow men. There is the way of imperialism, seeking to dominate them by our power. The other is the way of isolationism, seeking to withdraw from our responsibilities to them.” It is my purpose to study two characters from the American past who exemplify in their lives and their thought different responses to this exorable situation. Niebuhr was expressing a dilemma which arises perennially out of the question of the individual’s degree of commitment to society. One way to meet a dilemma, as logic tells us, is to seize a horn; that is, to accept one of the alternatives offered but to cast doubt on the causal reasoning which underlies it. This was the method attempted by Henry David Thoreau, whom I am citing as one of the two major prophets, in the bulk of his social philosophy. Thoreau stood for individual isolation, but failed to see the consequences. Another way of meeting a dilemma is to slip between the horns, which means to find a third alternative without the painful consequences of the other two. The exponent of that method was John Randolph of Roanoke, now a half legendary figure, termed a “political fantastic” by one of his recent biographers and called a dangerous person by another critic, yet a figure of unique interest to one who has studied his career. Randolph stood with equal firmness against imperialism, especially in its  disguised form of government welfarism, but he found an alternative to this and to simple withdrawal. I shall take up my examples in the order in which they appeared on the world’s stage.

It’s a great article and highly worth reading.  Enjoy.

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