The individual and the community: A productive tension in American history from the colonial era to 1860
Hoang, Quan Thach
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As a central, defining axis of American history and historiography, the individual-community dichotomy has polarized discussions about the nature of American society and produced endless dead-end debates. Interpreted from within this binary framework, many important issues in American history are simply different variations on the theme of America being either individualistic or communalistic. Through a critical reading of the historiography and a critical examination of the individual-community framework within which American historiographers have represented, wrestled with, or come to understand their history, this dissertation argues that it is the interplay between the two forces of individualism and community, connected and locked in an unstable tension as they are, that characterizes American history. To illustrate this method, this dissertation examines, in a series of case study essays, four particular topics, each originating in a particular period in American history and historiography. In each essay, I offer a critical survey of a well-developed discourse over a specific historical event from a particular historiographical vantage point, where sufficient historiographical mass had been achieved. In these four essays, I aim to transcend the individual-community divide and offer a synthesis by examining the tension and interaction between the individual and the community, as opposed to assuming an analytical/interpretive position on or close to either end of the dichotomy. In the first chapter, I re-visit a series of community studies that were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s in the New England region and re-view them, not through the binary framework of the individual versus the community to prove or disprove any particular thesis, as was done when these works were published, but through the lens of the tension between individual freedom and community cohesion. In the second chapter, I examine the debate over whether Benjamin Franklin should be characterized as an icon of self-reliance and individualism or altruistic virtue. By analyzing Franklin's Autobiography and his other writings, I demonstrate how the complexity of Franklin's character comes from his superb skills in blending private interests in public projects. In the third chapter, I examine the intellectual history of the American Revolution, using as primary sources major historiographical works that place the origins of the American Revolution in classical republicanism or an emerging economic liberalism. I then apply the resulting synthesis of the two to the question of whether the U.S. Constitution received any influence from the Iroquois political structures and ideals. The last chapter examines the political economy of the United States from after 1776 to the eve of the Civil War. By re-viewing the historiographical works that emerged in the two decades after the New Deal to justify government interference in the economy, I examine the complex relationship, supportive at one point and antagonistic at another, between the government and the private enterprise during the national period. In short, to overcome the conceptual weaknesses of the binary framework that pitted the individual against the community, this dissertation attempts a more integrated and synthetic conceptual framework that emphasizes the creative tension and interaction between the individual and the community. Employing this conceptual framework, it aims to present both American history and the story of how Americans have wrestled with this history through the primary source lens of American historiography.