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Philosophy: Rugged Individualism



I have this picture. It's of a cowboy holding a small calf while riding on a horse. It is during a blizzard and he is pulling his hat down over his face, covered in snow, with a small lantern strapped tightly to the saddle. The wind is tearing through the horse's mane, through the calf's fur and through the cowboy's winter coat. By looking at it, I always assumed he was saving the calf from being lost in the clenching cold where it would have most certainty died. In my mind, the brave cowboy noticed it yelling in the distance, separated from the herd, and went into the darkness, into the cold, to save the helpless animal. The cowboy is weathering tremendous hardship in my imagination, and he is alone. He is the pinnacle of the idea of what American values were being shaped into during the presidency of Herbert Hoover. He is, the “rugged individual.”


Rugged Individualism

The basic idea behind the philosophy of “rugged individualism” is the core belief of the autonomy of the individual. It shapes the idea of the self as the only identity in which to idealize as it is the only portion of ourselves in which we can truly count on. We are expected to be able to use our own skills, ideas, motivations, and ultimately body, in order to pull ourselves up and make something of our lives.

Often associated with the Republican Party in the United States, and first used as a term by the Progressive Republican Herbert Hoover, it shapes the idea that limited government intervention and reliance is necessary to create a well-functioning society of rugged individuals who are shaped by their experience and ready to face challenges head on in order to gain success. What is to be gained, is to be done so through hard work by the individual. Or as President Hoover put it in his October 22, 1928 speech entitled, “Principles and Ideals of the United States Government,” 'By adherence to the principles of decentralized self-government, ordered liberty, equal opportunity and freedom to the individual, our American experiment in human welfare has yielded a degree of well-being unparalleled in all the world.'


Which was true...for a time.


Hoover's presidency came off the back of World War I where the United States survived with little damage to its people and infrastructure back home. This marked advantage gave the States the ability to build upon their success in the war by pushing their economic agendas farther, taking the place of other destroyed economies without the rebuilding that was necessary in Europe at the time. In a sense, Hoover was correct, the US was enjoying economic prowess unparalleled at the time, allowing the idea of individual autonomy and rugged individualism to grasp the heart of ordinary Americans. But the conditions in which this philosophy was required to proliferate in would be shaken to the core in the next few years.

The Great Depression

On October 24, 1929, almost a year to the date of Hoover's previously mentioned speech about the US economy, large numbers of stock holders began to sell their shares due to a lack of faith in the United States economy, jump starting the Great Depression and setting off what was to become known as Black Thursday. The exact cause of the depression varies among different opinions, but most historians and economists agree it was a multi-varied problem stemming from the original market crash. Out of that crash, there wasn't a major recovery which caused many banks to fail. Up until the mid 1930's over 9,000 banks closed, most of which had no insurance on the savings placed in them, causing most citizens to lose their money. Uncertainty spread throughout the remaining open banks which caused them to stop giving loans to people who were looking to open new businesses. This, coupled with the drought brought upon the Midwest caused many Americans to become unemployed and underfed. By the mid 1930's unemployment reached around a staggering 30% of the population. In the heat of the depression Americans became unsatisfied with Hoover's response to the crisis and with it, his presidential reelection was destroyed. Hoover's dream of a booming American economy, the end of poverty, and the proliferation of the “rugged individual,” died.


The surviving Americans were no longer able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and through their effort alone, prosper. The infrastructure to do so what simply no longer available. As FDR began his term, he implemented the New Deal in stark contrast to Hoover's philosophy. President Roosevelt expanded government intervention, grew social and welfare programs for the economically depressed, and gave citizens a way to feed themselves, clothe themselves, and begin their lives once again. And yet, alongside these programs, another World War was also integral in jump-starting the United States as well as the world economy back to its once high status.


Does the Philosophy Work?

Like most philosophies which have found their place into the collective mind and history books, there are portions to take with you and implement in your life and there are portions to leave behind. The idea of self-reliance is, on an individual level, a good one. It is important to know who we are, how tough we can be, to face challenges head on, learn from our adversities and survive despite the odds stacked against us. It is of course, through these lessons that we are often forced to our edge and pushed to grow. In that sense, the only thing we can count on is ourselves- and that is something to be cherished. If we are to look at ourselves as “rugged individuals” then nothing in our lives, no terrible tragedy or hardship can never be overcome. We are the masters of our own lives and through our awareness and effort we can create a life we are proud of and shine as a beacon of light as an example for others to follow. As an individual, you are strong.


The problem with this line of thinking is when we consider everyone else as “rugged individuals” as well. If we were to see the people around the globe and those in our own lives in this regard, it can be easy to follow this philosophy right down the road to a compassion-less life. If everyone is supposed to pull themselves up and prosper through their own effort, would we not be hindering their growth by providing help? And by hindering them in this way, would it not be better to allow people to flounder in their own hopelessness until they toughen up and figure it out themselves? This was the major fault in Hoover's thinking- since he was a self-made millionaire, he could not grasp why everyone wasn't. To him, if you were not prosperous, it was only because of your own lack of effort and therefore, help was never provided or needed. You, as that autonomous individual, needed to do it yourself. Your country, your government, your community- they only served to placate your idleness by giving you assistance.


But assistance and compassion are necessary for a global community to prosper. Citizens around the world are created equal under their own prescribed beliefs. But the situations in which they were born into, often times are not. Some are handicapped, others born into extreme poverty, and others born with different cognitive abilities. Every individual is different. And if we want to take unto ourselves the idea of the “rugged individual,” we can. We each can see ourselves as such. And it can help us feel motivated, and tough, and ultimately a survivor of whatever life's tastes sting in our mouths. But we must not make the mistake Hoover did in believing everyone outside of himself thinks the same way, sees themselves in the same light, or was born into the same circumstances. We must still offer help when it is needed, and balance on the edge of either providing the necessary amount or too much. That is the ultimate role of the individual. To improve themselves and to extend that improvement to the community, and if capable, globally. But to also provide others with the means to help themselves once the balance has tipped too far into the realm of outside reliance. In a sense, Hoover was the right man for a world in prosperity and the wrong man for one in economic despair. And his ideas, much like the philosophy itself, was never meant to reach beyond the confines of the individual.

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