The earliest settlers came to the North American continent to establish colonies that were free from the controls that existed in European societies. They wanted to escape the controls placed on their lives by kings and governments, priests and churches, noblemen and aristocrats. To a great extent, they succeeded. In 1776, the British colonial settlers declared their independence from England and established a new nation, the United States of America. In so doing, they overthrew the king of England and declared that the power to govern would lie in the hands of the people. They were now free from the power of the kings. In 1789, when they wrote the Constitution for their new nation, they separated church and state so that there would never be a government-supported church. This greatly limited the power of the church. Also, in writing the Constitution, they expressly forbade titles of nobility to ensure that an aristocratic society would not develop. There would be no ruling class of nobility in the new nation.
The historic decisions made by those first settlers have had a profound effect on the shaping of the American character. By limiting the power of the government and the churches and eliminating a formal aristocracy, they created a climate of freedom where the emphasis was on the individual. The United States came to be associated in their minds with the concept of individual freedom. This is probably the most basic of all the American values. Scholars and outside observers often call this value individualism, but many Americans use the word freedom. Perhaps the word freedom is one of the most respected popular words in the United States.
By freedom, Americans mean the desire and the ability of all individuals to control their own destiny without outside interference from the government, a ruling noble class, the church, or any other organized authority. The desire to be free from controls was a basic value of the new nation in 1776, and it has continued to attract immigrants to this country.
There is, however, a price to be paid for this individual freedom: self-reliance. Individuals must learn to rely on themselves or risk losing freedom. This means achieving both financial and emotional independence from their parents as early as possible,
usually by age 18 or 21. It means that Americans believe they should take care of themselves, solve their own problems, and "stand on their own two feet." De Tocqueville observed the Americans' belief in self-reliance nearly 200 years ago in the 1830s:
They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
This strong belief in self-reliance continues today as a traditional basic American value. It is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the American character to understand, but it is profoundly important. Most Americans believe that they must be self-reliant in order to keep their freedom. If they rely too much on the support of their families or the government or any organization, they may lose some of their freedom to do what they want.
If people are dependent, they risk losing freedom as well as the respect of their peers. Even if they are not truly self-reliant, most Americans believe they must at least appear to be so. In order to be in the mainstream of American life — to have power and/or respect — individuals must be seen as self-reliant. Although receiving financial support from charity, family, or the government is allowed, it is never admired. Many people believe that such individuals are setting a bad example, which may weaken the American character as a whole.
The sight of beggars on city streets and the plight of the homeless may inspire sympathy but also concern. Although Americans provide a lot of financial support to people in need through charities or government programs, they expect that help to be short-lived. Eventually, people should take care of themselves.