December 2022 will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of Herbert Hoover’s publication, American Individualism. A mere seventy-two pages, the book was Hoover’s meditation on the recent upheavals brought about by World War I and Hoover’s thoughts on the best path forward for America. Much of it is based on Hoover’s own experience as a self-made millionaire, as head of several humanitarian relief efforts feeding millions of people in Europe, Soviet Russia, and the Middle East, as head of the United States Food Administration, and witness to the destruction of monarchies and the rise of central planning, socialism, and communism. The book sold fifteen thousand copies within two months of publication and was quickly translated into Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, and German. Its influence in Japan has been described in a previous blog post. The book is currently available in a new edition published by the Hoover Institution Press with a forward by Hoover’s foremost biographer, George H. Nash.
Hoover’s basic argument that America is different because: “Our individualism differs from all others because it embraces these great ideals: that while we build our society upon the attainment of the individual, we shall safeguard to every individual an equality of opportunity to take that position in the community to which his intelligence, character, ability, and ambition entitle him; that we keep the social solution free from frozen strata of classes; that we shall stimulate effort of each individual to achievement; that through an enlarging sense of responsibility and understanding we shall assist him to this attainment; while he in turn must stand up to the emery wheel of competition.” Hoover specifically references Lincoln’s statements on the “open field” and “fair chance” afforded in America. Some have rephased this as “the right to rise,” that one’s station is life is not fixed but can change through individual efforts and initiative. Self-made individuals were models of success and typically only the material success–from rags to riches—was emphasized in popular writings. But Lincoln’s writings and those of other “self-made” individuals went beyond material well-being, also demanded of individuals was the remaking their character and moral core, to become useful agents of change in their community and the larger world around them. This understanding of individualism better approximates Hoover’s argument on its spiritual nature.
If individual freedom led to individual material benefit through education and self-initiative, it also suggests that individual moral development would lead to what Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.” Tocqueville observed that Americans, lacking a ruling class, addressed social and community issues through banding together in voluntary associations. The emphasis upon individual freedom and equality of opportunity allows for individuals to work in concert with one another to achieve a common good.