What does it mean to be American?
The question appears to be a simple one, but pose it to a thousand Americans and you’re likely to get a thousand different answers. In reality, the question is anything but simple. Historically and philosophically, America truly is unique. Few countries have ever been founded explicitly on the basis of ideas, and only one has ever been founded on the basis of ideas that are (mostly) conducive to human prosperity. To understand how America came to be and why it is so different from the rest of the world requires a great deal of thought and study.
To profess a belief that America is exceptional or in any way superior to other countries is steadily becoming passé, and most of those who do still believe that America is somehow special can’t precisely explain why. A New Textbook of Americanism, edited by Jonathan Hoenig, features dozens of essays that lucidly examine many distinct facets of America’s political structure and philosophical foundations to truly answer the question: “What is America?”
In 1946, Ayn Rand, the author of Atlas Shrugged, published the original Textbook of Americanism, an incomplete portion of a project she had intended to be roughly three times as long. In it, Rand proposes and answers twelve questions about rights, social structures, the proper function of government, and other topics essential to a clear understanding of America’s history and future. One part of Hoenig’s stated vision for A New Textbook of Americanism is to expand on Rand’s work by addressing the remaining twenty-nine questions that Rand proposed, but never answered. Hoenig is careful to point out that none of the contributors to the new book presume to speak for Rand or to “finish” what she started, only to make their best effort to continue it given their knowledge of her philosophy.
During a STRIVE webinar in October, Hoenig gave a preview of the book and took questions from students. He opened the event by posing the basic question: “What is America?” Though everyone in America seems to have a different opinion, “freedom” is a common word used in responses to the question. But what is freedom? Does it mean “anything goes?” Who in America is free? What are they free from, to what ends, and in what contexts?
The answers are all over the map. As Hoenig concisely put it, “Everyone thinks they know what America is about, but most of them are wrong.” He pointed out the impossibility of attempting to define Americanism in a primarily political context, illustrating that the modern “left” and “right” are essentially the same party with the same implicit goal—the destruction of America. Hoenig went on to list many more false dichotomies rampant in the culture today, including: isolationism versus “globalism” in economics, democracy versus “corporatism,” and freedom versus “human rights.”
Rand—and for the most part, only Rand—correctly identified the essential nature of America. The first of her original forty-one questions is: “What is the basic issue in the world today?” The answer: individualism versus collectivism. Virtually every major conflict or contentious issue boils down to a given group’s alleged “right” to violate the rights of individuals. America is the only country in human history to routinely defend the rights of the individual against incursions by a group.
As Rand wrote in the original Textbook:
The basic principle of the United States of America is Individualism. America is built on the principle that Man possesses Inalienable Rights;
- that these rights belong to each man as an individual—not to “men” as a group or collective;
- that these rights are the unconditional, private, personal individual possession of each man—not the public, social, collective possession of a group;
- that these rights are granted to man by the fact of his birth as a man—not by an act of society;
- that man holds these rights, not from the Collective nor for the Collective, but against the Collective—as a barrier which the Collective cannot cross;
- that these rights are man’s protection against all other men;
- that only on the basis of these rights can men have a society of freedom, justice, human dignity, and decency.
The Constitution of the United States of America is not a document that limits the rights of man—but a document that limits the power of society over man.
Hoenig concisely explained that the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself, is the essence of the American dream—and that that dream is attainable only by free men. Happiness is a lifelong, individual process, not something achieved as a result of one event or even a series of events. The extent to which happiness is possible to men is the extent to which they are free from one another. Perhaps more than anything, Americans need to rediscover what freedom actually is (and isn’t).
“Freedom isn’t free stuff,” Hoenig said. President Trump wasn’t expanding freedom by handing out $6 billion in subsidies to farmers crippled by his own tariffs—he was restricting it. Cuba’s “free” healthcare system is a catastrophic failure, and millions of Americans are institutionalized into indefinite poverty by wealth redistribution programs. The freedom to act on one’s own judgment in pursuit of one’s own goals is the only context in which freedom can properly be considered a human right.
Individualism is just as misunderstood as freedom by Americans today. Hoenig recalled a startlingly uninformed explanation of individualism by a Fox Business commentator, who claimed that Americans today are “too individualistic” because we spend too much time on our phones, not paying enough attention to people around us.
Hoenig closed his presentation by briefly outlining the structure of the book, which is divided into four parts. Part one is Rand’s original Textbook, unedited, in its entirety. Part two compiles the newer essays by other authors that seek to answer the twenty-nine questions not addressed in Rand’s original work. Part three features never before published political commentary by Rand on a variety of issues that are just as relevant today as they were during her lifetime (if not more so). Part four examines modern America and dissects several contemporary issues through a proper lens of capitalism and individual rights.
As Hoenig correctly identified, Americans today must radically change their understanding of America’s founding principles if the country is to survive. His book condenses an incredible amount of clarity and wisdom into a single volume that acts as a valuable roadmap to rediscovering what America was, is, and ought to be.