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Culture & Religion

What Is America’s Identity?

Nearly two centuries after Tocqueville, both fear and hope still brood over the puzzle of America’s innermost nature, and America’s influence on the wider world.

The central trait of the American character, says historian Claude Fischer, is voluntarism. Here he creatively fuses Tocqueville’s familiar observation about Americans as inveterate joiners and his equally famous notion of individualism. Voluntarism, for Fischer, embraces both the recognition of each person as a “sovereign individual” at liberty to pursue his or her own destiny, and the belief that “individuals succeed through fellowship—not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.” And the central trend over the course of American history is the broadening ambit of voluntarism.


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