Five main cultural values that have shaped the American (US) experience arise out of the circumstances of the United States' settlement patterns and European philosophical currents of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century, most notably Protestantism, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism (which became Transcendentalism in this country). It must be noted...
Five main cultural values that have shaped the American (US) experience arise out of the circumstances of the United States' settlement patterns and European philosophical currents of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century, most notably Protestantism, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism (which became Transcendentalism in this country). It must be noted that these values through most of US history have applied fairly exclusively to whites of European and Christian descent and most particularly to white males:
Religious faith/exceptionalism: Many of the early settlers to his country were Protestants of various denominations, most notably Puritans and Quakers, who came here explicitly to attain religious freedom. The Puritans especially believed that they were sent by God to the New World with a mission to be a light on a hill and show the world how God's kingdom could be manifested on earth. This belief in exceptionalism later morphed into Manifest Destiny, the idea that God meant the European settlers to control the North American continent from sea to sea and, in more recent times, to a conviction that our nation has a special role in world politics.
Freedom: The earliest Puritans came here to escape religious persecution and to attain the freedom to worship in their own way. This had nothing to do with allowing anyone else religious freedom—that later concept arrived with the Quakers, who gave land to other persecuted religious groups, such as German Anabaptists, and extended an umbrella of religious freedom to all faith groups. This ideal of religious freedom, combined with the Enlightenment desire for political freedom as described by John Locke, became encoded in foundational documents such as The Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights.
Egalitarianism: Puritans to some extent, and Quakers to a greater extent, believed in a flattening of hierarchy and the equality of all people before God. The country's founders also rejected aristocracy and birthright privilege. This too, became encoded in the nation's DNA: for example, the Constitution forbids the establishment of an aristocracy. Early American literature promoted the idea of the US as a nation of yeoman equals, where nobody had to bow and scrape to another.
Individualism: North America was, to European eyes, a huge, "untamed" continent, which seemed to offer endless possibilities for individuals who would have been constrained in Europe to forge their own destinies. This combined in the early nineteenth century with Romantic/Transcendentalist concepts (influenced by Protestantism) that a person should rely on the guidance of his individual inner light, not tradition, to make decisions. To Americans, it became evident that people pursuing their own individual destinies was a value to be safeguarded. This was a sharp contrast to traditional societies in Europe and Asia that believed first and foremost in everyone fulfilling their born social roles.
Optimism: It took optimism to face the rigors of a new life in a new place and a can-do spirit has been an enduring feature of the American psyche.
Because of this, the United States has put more emphasis than countries like Japan, Sweden, and France on protecting individual liberties, often at the expense of social cohesion and social welfare but often with the benefit of freeing individual drive and creativity. We can learn from the examples of other nation-states, as they can learn from us.