Book Review: ‘The Cult of Individualism’

Posted by | January 23, 2014

Daniel Boone. Clara Barton. Thomas Edison. Amelia Earhart. Pick just about any well-known American hero/heroine, and the first thing that comes to mind is what singular individuals each of them were, standing head and shoulder above the conformist herd of their day. American culture has always pushed its young citizens to pursue excellence as individuals.

Barlow cover

Contrast this with, say, Japanese culture, where group consensus and saving face within one’s peer group are more highly stressed. Indeed, in the late 1970’s Japan’s startlingly rapid rise in the international business community planted massive self-doubt in the American business community’s long standing belief in the individual’s centrality. Books such as “Japan as Number One: Lessons for America” appeared as correctives. “In the guise of pursuing freedoms,” observed author Ezra Vogel, “we have supported egoism and self-interest and have damaged group or common interests…we are more concerned with the rights of the deviant than the rights of the responsible citizen.”

Aaron Barlow’s recently published “The Cult of Individualism: a history of an enduring American myth” (Praeger Press, 2013) would seem to fall in line with Vogel’s way of thinking. How else to explain his use of ‘cult’ and ‘myth’ when discussing the topic? However, he also chose the term ‘individualism’ over ‘individuality’. Early in his book he cites Alexis de Tocqueville’s specific definition of individualism (one of the first to appear in print): “Individualism is a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.”

Barlow uses this starting point to discuss how Scots-Irish settlers, or Borderers, lovers of individualism, developed differently and in opposition to the other three strains of British settlers who were first to populate the American colonies: the Puritans, the Quakers, and the Cavaliers. The cultural/political differences within these four broad categories of white immigrants are explored at length by scholar David Hackett Fischer in “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” a source Barlow cites extensively.

Barlow’s argument is that the cult of individualism, exemplified in American culture by the Borderers, “is manifest today in the so-called Tea Party and the right wing of the Republican Party.” He goes on to say that white American political culture is represented by two strains: the Borderer and the secular-humanist, the latter made up of the Puritan & Quaker ‘folkways,’ and dominant in America’s Northeast power establishment. Secular-humanist attitudes emerged from “yeomen farms lettered and familiar with the Enlightenment Traditions”. What happened to the Cavaliers (not to mention subsequent non-British white immigrants to America over the centuries)?

Barlow’s discussion of the Cavaliers in relation to Borderer culture is fuzzy: on the one hand, he tells us “The cultural history of ‘white’ America details the evolution from Quaker and Puritan folkways into the northern-states culture of the time of the Civil War and the Cavalier culture into that of the antebellum South.” Ok, so we’ve got the soon-to-be-emerging secular humanist strain made up of Puritans and Quakers, and the Cavaliers developing separately. Further on, however, Barlow states: “Is it any wonder that the cultural descendants of the backcountry harbor resentments against the East Coast cultural descendants of Quakers, Cavaliers, and Puritans?” So he ultimately groups Cavalier descendants with the secular humanists; a close read of current American politics suggests this is a major misalignment!

Barlow presents Borderer immigrants to America, formed in “the crucible of the Scottish Lowlands, tempered in Ulster”, as misfits in their new country; but nearly all who came to America were misfits in one way or another, says Ezra Vogel in the book on Japan cited above.

They were driven here by religious or political oppression, or they came here to seek alternative economic opportunities. As such, they ALL were a highly self-reliant bunch, and leery of authority figures such as governments and churches. Their individualistic leanings were built into the fabric of the new American republic, as evidenced by the articles of confederation, the democratic form of government, and the Bill of Rights. While the Borderers conform to that individualistic profile, they are not unique in that respect.

The Borderer’s retreat to Appalachia created isolated pockets of that initial broader culture that were relatively unaffected by outside events until the Great Depression and the two World Wars – evidenced by strongly rooted values of self-reliance, as well as linguistic patterns that even today, though considered grammatically incorrect by current standards, are similar to the speech patterns of the mother countries from the period in which they emigrated.

As they came out of the mountains and emerged into the larger society, they were quickly stereotyped and caricatured – though a great many of them still reside in Appalachia. Only in the last thirty or so years have the Borderers’ descendants developed a cultural sense of pride in their ethnic identities (not to be confused by identification with hereditary family ties). As such, they still are not a coherent political force to be reckoned with.


Special thanks to Kent van Cleave of Knoxville, TN for his thoughtful input on this review. “My roots in the Borderer culture run deep,” he says. “When Daniel Boone moved out into the frontier, he brought Aaron Van Cleave, my several-greats grandfather – with him. Aaron’s daughter, Jane, married Daniel’s brother, Squire. And when Daniel moved to Missouri, he sold his holdings to Aaron.”

2 Responses

  • Aaron Barlow says:

    Thank you, Dave! You point out one thing I do not examine well, and that is the Cavalier/Borderer connection. In part, I leave that because the Cavalier culture is rather difficult to define or to even capture in time. It was a culture built on top of both slavery and the Borderers but that was, I would argue, pretty well destroyed by the Civil War, leaving Borderer descendants dominant in the Deep South and the Coastal Sout (those these differ to some degree from Appalachian Borderers). The whole question of the impact of the Civil War is one I would like to have considered but, frankly, did not have enough room for. I certainly warrants further exploration and discussion, as you indicate.

  • […] reasons I wrote the book and, in an off way, explains the “lapse” that Dave Tabler, in his own review, notes–that I do not really consider the southern “Cavalier” culture, favoring, […]

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