American Character: The Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good

The struggle between individual rights and the good of the community as a whole has been the basis of nearly every major disagreement in our history. In American Character, Colin Woodard traces these two key strands in American politics through the four centuries of its existence, from the first colonies to the present day, and explores how different regions of the country have successfully or disastrously accommodated them.

Woodard argues that maintaining a liberal democracy, a society where mass human freedom is possible, requires finding a balance between protecting individual liberty and nurturing a free society. Going to either libertarian or collectivist extremes results in tyranny. But where does the “sweet spot” lie in the United States, a federation of disparate regional cultures that have always strongly disagreed on these issues? Woodard leads readers on a riveting and revealing journey through four centuries of struggle, experimentation, successes and failures to provide an answer. His historically informed and pragmatic suggestions on how to achieve this balance and break the nation’s political deadlock will be of interest to anyone who cares about the current American predicament.

“A must read for anyone grappling with how we arrived at the present moment.”

Bowling Green Daily News


“Woodard, an award-winning journalist for the Portland Press-Herald in Maine, is a terrific writer, and his range is impressive. His musings about the impact of Ayn Rand on American conservatism or a day spent in the terrifying blackness of Nicolae Ceausescu’s crumbling Romanian dictatorship are elegant set pieces.”

David Oshinsky, Washington Post

“An illuminating national portrait at a particularly divisive time.”


“Woodard’s treatise is a must-read for anyone grappling with how we arrived at the present moment . . . Although the prose is effortlessly accessible to a general audience, the manuscript could easily serve as a textbook in a number of different disciplines: history, economics, political science and psychology, just to name a few.”

Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily News

“A deep analysis of the history of the common good versus individual rights. . . . A healthy democracy needs to balance the two; either one alone leads to disaster. . . . American Character adds a further prism to the public-private spectrum. ‘The struggle for freedom is not bilateral, but instead triangular,’ Woodard writes. ‘The participants are the state, the people, and the would-be aristocracy or oligarchy. Liberal democracy . . . relies on keeping these three forces in balance.’ The history of that struggle is a big-dipper ride through four centuries as first collectivists then individualists take their turn at managing the country. Lurking just below the surface are always mirrors reflecting our own times. . . . Woodard’s essential thesis is vital to understand.”

Thomas Urquhart, Portland Press Herald

“Woodard builds on his previous analysis of the country’s regional differences to focus on the conflict between individualism and collectivism that defines our national character. As in his previous book, the author . . . maintains, ‘our country has never been united, either in purpose, principles, or political behavior. We’ve never been a nation-state in the European sense, but rather a federation of nations’ like the European Union. . . . Although we have inherited a legacy of revolution against a king, making us ‘vigilant against the rise of an overarching government that might deny us our individual potential,’ Woodard sees that the vast majority of Americans believe that the ‘American Way’ means ‘pursuing happiness through a free and fair competition between individuals.’ Politicians must reassure voters that fairness is ‘the central issue of our political discourse’ by proposing tax reforms and investments in education that ‘would help keep the playing field even.’ . . . Thoughtful political theory for divisive times.”

Kirkus Reviews

Winner, Maine Literary Award for Non-Fiction