To Rule Oneself in Antebellum America
To Rule Oneself in Antebellum America

By almost any measure the decision by the thirteen British colonies to declare independence and create a new nation was a singular event. Not only were the colonies the first to rebel against their European masters, but they were also the first to propose a form of government that tested some long-standing principles about how nations should be governed. Many ideas on government and law, political contracts and individual aspirations grew out of published treatises of the previous century. By the middle of the eighteenth century the idea that government required a form of consent on the part of the governed had wide circulation and acceptance in the Atlantic World. As appealing as the idea was, the mechanics for establishing a system of governance based on consent were unknown and untested. The birth of this new nation provided a laboratory to test the concept of self-government.

There is little debate that Americans saw themselves in the vanguard of advocating a new and profoundly different form of governance. By stressing the capacity of the individual to govern himself, they redefined the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Governance should be arranged in such a fashion that it enhanced individual liberty rather than constraining individual action. Some were so terrified at the idea of unleashing the people to make their own political decisions that they remained rigidly traditionalists--that people should be ruled for the welfare of all. Theirs became a minority view, and within a decade an America government was established that offered an alternative to established governing conventions. Within America's evolving political ideology "To Rule Oneself," like a mathematical postulate, was assumed to be self-evident in a fundamental sense. Ruling oneself took precedence over being ruled with consequences that could not have been foreseen.

This study--To Rule Onself--begins and ends with the two events most written about in American History---revolution and civil war. The aim is to try to rethink how we moved from "the pursuit of happiness" to "the pursuit of separation". The nation slid back and forth between being governed and rebelling against being governed. The results speak for themselves.

[From Volume 2, GROWTH AND GOVERNANCE] Let me begin with what will probably be anticipated by those familiar with de Tocqueville and Jacksonianism – his introduction and examination of individualisme. When I started working on this topic more than four decades ago, individualisme was thought to be de Tocqueville’s creation and that Reeve, to anglicize it, simply chopped off the final e. Recent scholarship has established a far more complicated path for the origination and use of the word. Since individualism was concerned with individuals and rights, a pre-eminent manifestation of the eighteenth-century revolutionary spirit, in particular the French Revolution, French intellectuals and reformers shortly thereafter began to debate the role of the individual in the society. Initially a negative view emerged because too much individuality threatened the solidarity of the society. It is possible that in 1820 the counter-revolutionary essayist, Joseph de Maistre, originated the term individualisme to underscore the potential for atomization and fragmentation within society from too much individual activity, although the term was used in a conversation and not in a written text. Other anti-individualistic advocates, the Saint-Simonians, actually used the term in print in 1825, although their founder (Claude Henri de Saint-Simon) until his death preferred terms like egoism and anarchy to describe too much individual liberty. By the 1830s the term individualisme was in common usage and was added to the French dictionary in 1836. Surely, de Tocqueville knew the term and how it was used. It should be kept in mind that despite some radical ideas among social reformers, their reactions to expanding individual liberty were conservative, even religiously conservative, in defense of a preference for a better-functioning social order.

The path to realizing a society of self-governing individuals was never smooth and, of course, ended badly. The nation was born out of a belief that rebelling against unjust government in the name of the liberty of the individual was an inherent right, but the nation itself remained in battle over what was just and unjust. Under the American Constitution the potential for disagreement was elevated because the distribution of delegated powers between the national government and the state governments was never fully resolved, and as the disagreements over slavery in an expanding nation intensified, the appeal paradoxically on all sides was to recognize and guarantee the freedom of the individual to choose and decide. Many issues, not necessarily originating in the slavery controversy, pitted the proponents of strictly limited governments against advocates of more broadly-construed limited government. Few Americans ever took a position that the individual should surrender the right to rule to perpetual, centralized authority, but some prominent Americans accepted the positive as well as the negative role for government. Those in the former camp argued that a constructive government could enhance the liberty of the individual, while the opposing camp argued for a government that stuck strictly to protecting and defending the individual. Because the Constitution was ambivalent about how much inherent power could be claimed by the national government, almost every major initiative not clearly specified in the charter had to be finessed. Slavery, however, proved to be unmanageable within the existing framework.

To Rule Oneself is in three volumes preceded by an Introduction and followed by an Assessment (Conclusion):
INTRODUCTION (10 pages, 75K, pdf)
VOLUME 1: WHO SHALL RULE (1775-1810) (235 pages, 2.1 megabytes, pdf)
VOLUME 2: GROWTH AND GOVERNANCE (1810-1850) (500 pages, 3.70 megabytes, pdf)
VOLUME 3: GOVERNING IMPASSE (1850-1860) (300 pages, 2.10 megabytes, pdf)

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“Who Shall Rule”

“Growth and Governance”

“Governing Impasse”