Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Old West & American Individualism


I remember listening to my grandmother talk to some county official on the phone, and how my grandfather leaned over to me and softly said, "The man on the phone doesn't know what he's up against. Your grandmother is the strongest woman I've ever met."

When I asked why he thought so, I remember that he replied, "She won't let people take advantage of her good heart, she's strong enough to hold on to what she believes is right."

Later he would say, "She's so strong that she lets me keep thinking that I wear the pants in the family!"

Whether he knew it or not, he was talking about grandma's sense of individualism. He was talking about her personal value system, her belief in self-reliance and independence -- how she acts out her beliefs as a person. 

Individualism is defined in many ways. One way is as one who advocates freedom from government regulation in the pursuit of one's goals -- a doctrine that says that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the State.

For my grandmother, that made sense since since her family fled an oppressive government in Portugal around 1900. She was brought up to believe that America was a place where quality meant equal opportunity, and that one's life is dependent on how hard you work for what you want without hurting others in the process.

My grandfather once said that in America, in our culture, we are not predestined to be peasants. Instead we are equal in that we all have the equal opportunity as citizens to work hard to succeed in life. If there is injustice in one place, we have the right to be mobile and move to another until we find a place that suits our needs. Of course, we also have the option of staying put and fighting injustice -- fighting for what's right.

Those coming West knew that in order to succeed and achieve and get ahead in life, we must put forth our personal best. They knew full well that we must be strong and independent, self-reliant, and steadfast in our convictions because no was there to bail us out.

Life was tough and one had to be strong and resilient. And yes, in case you've wondered where our values as a nation come from, these were the people who gave us our uniquely American cultural values.

Those pioneers, those who came West because they wanted better lives for themselves and their families, those who didn't want to be peasants, they all understood that liberty and independence meant that the individual could make of himself what he wanted to through hard work. Because of them, and of course those who bravely fought for our independence during our Revolutionary War, we Americans value individualism and independence, respect and privacy, honesty and personal responsibility, equal opportunity, the importance of time and our ability to be mobile, hard work, competition, and our right to free enterprise.

One of the most pervasive cultural values in the United States, in our uniquely American culture, is individualism. Individualism is the key component to human rights and personal dignity. And frankly,these are so basic to American thinking that we assume everyone else must think the same way.

In the American Revolution, America as a nation said to Britain, "Enough is enough!" That is, "You have ruled us for long enough. You will not rule us any more!" And today just as then, Americans do not want people interfering in their lives. When we sense interference, we push back and resist being regulated like peasants under a "ruler."

In more collective cultures, such as a Socialist/Communist nation, those states discourage individualism, personal accomplishment, and successes. They see the "collective" as the only thing that matters. They see the individual as slaves to the state -- and subsequently slaves to the "collective." This is against everything that American believe in

In the United States, an American’s success is due to their own hard work. Yes, their perseverance. Americans believe that each person is an individual and can go for anything he or she wants in life.

In an individualistic culture, decisions made to benefit one's self, such as moving far from one’s parents to go to your preferred choice ofcollege would not be as likely to be considered selfish -- but would instead be supported. In fact, a children's independence is encouraged in our American culture.

Teenagers of all sociology-economic classes, rich, middle class, or poor, might be expected by their parents to have an after school job to promote responsibility and a sense of worth. After graduation from high school a child is considered a "young adult" and could be asked to pay rent, or may be encouraged to move out from the family home for more independence. This is how we instill drive and a yearning to be self-sufficient, independent, on their own, not beholding to anyone.

So how different was this in the 1800s? Ever wonder what life was really like in the American Frontier?  When you think of the Old West, do you have the image of a lone cowboy on the endless prairie riding tall in the saddle, strong and silent with only his horse as his soul companion?

For some, image is what epitomizes the American ideal of self-fulfillment and self-reliance. To them that is the picture of the rugged American individual.

Whenever social conditions tended to worsen in the East, whenever labor or political restraints tended to impede the freedom of Americans in the cities, there was this gate available to escape to the free conditions of the frontier. There the cowboy or the farmer, the store keeper, or the doctor lived free to live their dream.

But there is one twist to the image of the lone cowboy on the endless prairie riding tall in the saddle, strong and silent with only his horse as his sole companion. Fact is, on the Great Plains, very few single men attempted to operate a farm or ranch alone. Those who wanted to start a farm or a ranch truly understood the need for a hard-working wife and numerous children.

Besides needing help to handle the many chores, including child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family, managing the housework, and feeding the hired hands, families meant stability. So during the early years of settlement, American women played an integral role in assuring family survival. In most cases, they were the glue, the strength, that held families together.

After a generation or so, women increasingly left the field work to the men, subsequently these rugged individuals redefined their roles within the family. New conveniences such as sewing and washing machines encouraged women to turn to domestic roles. The scientific housekeeping movement was promoted across the land by the media and government extension agents, as well as County Fairs which featured achievements in home cookery and canning, advice columns for women in the farm papers, and home economics courses in the schools all contributed to this trend. But make no mistake, the women were always the strength that kept the families on course.

Happy wife, happy life is not a new term. Men back then understood the importance of the wives because while he may have been concerned with his job and working, she ran things. And yes, if you are thinking that this is not what is portrayed in the movies, that's because Hollywood lies. Hollywood infamously depicts American women as somehow slaves to their husbands. This is not the way it was with the vast majority of families in America. Most do not realize that those married back then were true partners, not only standing side by side, but more often back to back to take on the world and prevail.

Although the folks back East had an image of the Western farm family on the prairies as having lives that emphasized isolation of the lonely farmer, in reality rural folks created a rich social life for themselves. They often sponsored activities that combined work, food, and entertainment such as barn raisings, corn huskings, quilting bees, Grange meetings, church activities, and school functions.

Women organized shared meals and potluck events, as well as extended visits between families. It really wasn't a whole lot different than in rural communities today. And friends, even as far back as the California Gold Rush, there are stories of the wives of miners going to meet other wives socially just as they do today.

As you can see, American individualism is not solely a male cultural value. It is an American cultural value. Knowing all of this, and since I just finished reading an essay which basically said that our idea that America was built on rugged individualism is all wrong -- I wondered where the writer got his information from?

Since it goes against the grain of truth, I figure the essay is an effort to re-write history and give big government the credit for what took place so many years ago. In summary, it states: "The U.S. government played a vital role in settling the West, including massive land purchases and giveaways, the Homestead Act, the Pony Express, agricultural colleges, rural electrification, telephone wiring, road-building, irrigation, dam-building, farm subsidies, and farm foreclosure loans. Without such help, settling the West would have been nearly impossible."

Who are they kidding? Nearly impossible? I completely disagree. As for agricultural colleges, rural electrification, telephone wiring, road-building, irrigation, dam-building, farm subsidies, and farm foreclosure loans, with the exception of agricultural colleges, known as "land-grant universities," those were all products of the Great Depression and the 1930s and 1940s, not the Old West.

And though farm foreclosures were high during the Great Depression, today farm foreclosures are higher than ever before because of the cost involved to meet government over regulation.

While it is true that the Federal Government did in fact have more interest in the West after the Civil War, it took rugged American individualism to settle the land and use it to its full potential. Government may have created the Homestead Act to get people to move West, but the government did not till the land, plant the crops, and make it a go. And no, the federal government did not build roads, homes, bridges, railroads, or markets for goods, individual people did. Actually, the Federal government did very little in the way of opening the West other than sending surveyors and the military.

We somehow forget that the Federal highway system that we all get stuck in during rush hour traffic wasn't even started until the 1950s. Most roads were here long before the government, either state or federal, got involved with putting them in and maintaining them.

Those who went West had the belief that one can make it against the odds - on their own and without the government. The men and women who went out to settle the West truly lived lives that would decisively shape the American character.

The people who settled the Great Plains were a varied lot. Most were farmers, skilled and unskilled laborers, miners and prospectors, and, after the Civil War, former soldiers all looking for a better life. Among them were drifters and of course there were those with criminal records or a past they wanted to escape.

Many were blacks who were attracted to the greater opportunity and freedom from prejudice out West. The West did not have the racism that the South had during that period. That's not to say there wasn't racism, but it just was less and different in that in the West the Chinese were also targets.

Among the blacks who went West were men who became well-known cowboys, like the ranchhand Nat Love, famous for his horsemanship, or the former slave Base Ikard who rose to become foreman of one of the biggest ranches in Texas.

Many European immigrants came to settle the West. Some were miners from England and Wales, Germany, Poland, from Eastern European countries, and Russia. Scandinavians also came in large numbers. In California, the Chinese came to work as laborers on the transcontinental railroad. The major divisions among all these people were the miners and prospectors, the ranchers and cowboys, and the farmers.

The miners and prospectors went West to find gold. The first great gold rush was in the Far West in 1848 triggered by the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California. From 1856 to 1875, silver was found in southern Arizona, then Colorado and Nevada. Eventually, mining prospered in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mining gave rise to boom towns, some of which eventually became stable and prosperous towns and cities, but many of which became ghost towns when the mines gave out.

The cowboy and the rancher went West to raise cattle. The open plains were ideal for grazing large herds, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made it possible to ship the cattle to market in large and profitable numbers.

Cattle ranching was a tough business that gave the West its cowboys. Cowboys tended the herds while they were grazing, branded them when they were of age, fought off cattle thieves, and managed the long drives of thousands of cattle over hundreds of miles of open prairie to the railroads. The term "cow-boy" began as a description of those hired on to herd cattle. Mostly young boys, hardly men yet, were recruited to move cattle from the Southwest to railheads in up North. All so that the cattle can be shipped to meat packing plants in cities in the North.

They followed well-known trails, like the Chisholm Trail, that have become a part of the landscape of U.S. folklore. Their journeys were long, arduous, and lonely. Yet over time, the term cowboy became something much more than just a hard-working cattle herder.

The cowboy tradition of individualism came out of the skills and tasks of the Spanish vaqueros. They were independent and free to take their skills wherever they wanted to. By the end of the 19th century, cowboys had become a symbol for the individualism that Americans celebrated and idealized.

Their journeys became epic, no different than any story from Homer, their adventures became heroic and their skills with cattle, horse and gear gained respect. The cattle business made towns like Abilene and Dodge City.

But eventually the boom went bust. The cattle market became glutted, and the blizzards of 1886 and 1887 wiped out many ranchers, and competition with farmers for the open range also took its toll.

The actual era of the cowboy, the glory days of the American cowboy is said to have been curtailed by fate as a severe winter and horribly dry summer combined with the hindering effects of the newly invented "devil's rope" known as barbed-wire on the cowboy trails. Though the individualists we call cowboys survived over the years, those factors served to wipe out the need for so many cowboys by the late 1880s.

Farmers had been reluctant to settle the Great Plains, and the homesteaders formed the last wave of settlers. At first the land was considered unsuitable for farming. There was little water and there were no trees. On top of that, the Native Americans were hostile.

But several developments in the 1870s changed the prospects for homesteaders. Barbed wire was invented, so wood was no longer necessary for fencing. New methods of dry farming were invented and windmills were used to draw water from underground.

Homesteaders moved west. They faced harsh conditions. Their houses were built of sod, blocks of compacted soil cut out of the prairie. They had to deal with hot summers and ice-cold winters, infestations of grasshoppers, prairie fires, and possible confrontations with Native Americans. They also had to contend with ranchers, whose herds and livelihoods were threatened when barbed wire put an end to the open range. Bloody range wars pitted ranchers against farmers and in some cases it was necessary for the U.S. Army to intervene. But in the end, peace prevailed.

The government being responsible for settling the West, give me a break! The government told the homesteaders that they had to spend three years on their land for it to be theirs. Only 30% of the homesteaders who attempted it were successful at keeping it. The other 60% failed to do so and in many cases simply returned East. The government was not responsible for that 30% succeeding, it was hard work, perseverance and faith in God that enabled them to do what they did.

Because I believe liberty entails responsibility, I believe that those who left the security and protection of the East to venture out West into hostile lands were those who took pride in not being dependent on anyone -- especially the government. Their motive was to be responsible their own lives and actions, which also meant that they had to be productive and earnest. And not, not just because it would mean financial failure - but in many cases their very lives were at stake.

One historian had this to say about the sense of individualism and the values of that generation of settlers:

"What they objected to was arbitrary obstacles, artificial limitations upon the freedom of each member of this frontier folk to work out his own career without fear or favor. What they instinctively opposed was the crystallization of differences, the monopolization of opportunity and the fixing of that monopoly by government or by social customs.

The road must be open. The game must be played according to the rules. There must be no artificial stifling of equality of opportunity, no closed doors to the able, no stopping the free game before it was played to the end. More than that, there was an unformulated, perhaps, but very real feeling, that mere success in the game, by which the abler men were able to achieve preeminence gave to the successful ones no right to look down upon their neighbors, no vested title to assert superiority as a matter of pride and to the diminution of the equal right and dignity of the less successful."

Individualism to Americans means the freedom to "choose my own way," make my own decisions, based on my own criteria, as well as having the responsibility to personally accept the consequences of my own choices.

Some argue that American Individualism goes against the values of other cultures. Especially those which hold that the group and not the individual is important, and that individuals should not be free to make their own choices and that they "must" think of the needs of the community first. Those people say American individualism is actually a form selfishness and rebellion.

But frankly, that is the farthest from the truth. American individualism is our nation's number one value because it addresses our American independence. It does not mean that we Americans, many new here from foreign lands, do not care about other people, or are unsociable, or are by anyway uncharitable.
On the contrary, during the period of time that we commonly call the Old West, those who struck out on their own wanted something more for their families and their children -- not just for themselves. They came West because they wanted something better than to be enslaved to jobs that had no future, and be shackled to wages that barely fed their families.

Because of their sense of independence, they built schools and churches, communities where there were just deserts, towns where there was in fact wilderness. They built it, not the government.

Some say individualism is a moral stance, a political philosophy, an ideology, a train of thought, and subsequently a "behavior."  Individualism promotes the exercise of one's goals and desires. And in return, one gets independence and self-reliance.

People who oppose government interference into their own interests, people who take responsibility for their own lives and yet also participate in social and charitable activities, they are great examples of individualists. They understand that freedom and liberty does not mean screwing the next guy, but to take responsibility for their own actions and prosper on their own.

The cowboy culture has become embedded in the American experience as a common cultural touchstone because it has everything to do the sense of independence of spirit inspired by the unpopulated and relatively harsh climate of the region. As a result of the various periods of rapid growth, many new residents were immigrants who were seeking to make a new start after previous histories of either personal failure or hostilities developed in their previous communities.

With these folks, and other migrants who harbored more commercial goals in the opening country, the area developed a strong ethos of self-determination and individual freedom. As communities were created, those residents who shared no prior connection found a common set of ideals and an allegiance to America.

It is interesting to note that California's State Constitutions, both in 1849 and 1879, were largely drafted by groups which sought a strong emphasis on individual property rights and personal freedom. They purposely fought to limit the ideals of Eastern values geared more for urban living and "collectivism." They fought those ideals because they found them as stifling individualism and progress.

That's not to say that those Americans who came West did not believe in the idiom "one hand washes the other" -- in that cooperation benefits both parties. It simply means that those coming West knew that no one was going to pull their bacon out of a fire if they weren't going to work to get themselves out of a jam.

To rescue someone, even at the last moment, when you knew darn well that that person did nothing to help themselves was frowned on in the Old West.

It is said that settling the frontier brought out the best and the worst in people. It is true that those who settled the West lived by a rough-hewn code made up in part of values they brought with them, as well as values that arose from the lives they lived. Men and women were prized for their self-reliance, survival skills, and reliability. A person's word was more binding than any written law.

And though not nearly as violent as it was in the East, or as one would believe by watching movies, the West saw more than its share of violence and bloodshed and tested one's capacity to fight back, endure, and prevail. These values, our American values, were rooted in their day-to-day living conditions.

The rugged individualist, those who struck out to get more out of life, did so while respecting the rights of others. And that, that is part of the greatness of American individualism -- one can pursue their dream while respecting others.

One can take pride and self-responsibility, be productive, and be of value, all to get value out of life. Having a belief in the importance of the individual and the virtue of self-reliance and personal independence is not a bad thing. After all, that's what made our nation great.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa




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