History, Technology and American Values

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Some American Themes


Mobility and homogenization


Idealism vs. pragmatism

The pattern

Myth: Lone "practical" innovators stand in opposition to a hidebound intellectual establishment that says, "It can't be done."

Reality: Innovations often pursued by intellectuals who are ridiculed by the "practical" common man.

The Switch: Opponents of innovation in the present identify themselves with innovators of the past.

High level of violence for a developed nation


Ten homicides/100,000 vs. 1-3 in most other developed nations.

Optimism; faith in future and technology.

Loss of this faith in the 1960's and 1970's was a major blow.

Ideological shallowness

Ideological conflicts frequently expressed in pragmatic issues.

The American Concept of Rights

"Inalienable"--Declaration of Independence

Explicit Constitutional Rights

Inferred or interpreted Constitutional Rights

Some Historical Factors in American Values

Early Colonization

Roots of Libertarian vs. Communitarian conflict


Popular image of colonists: they came to American to do their own thing.


Groups like the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America explicitly to construct a society around certain values. Individual rights were subordinate to these values. The advantages of living in the colony were contingent on adherence, or at least non-opposition to these values. Contrary to popular misconception, these groups were not at all inconsistent with their own principles when they expelled dissidents.

Other Communitarian Systems

Failure to appreciate the roots of the Libertarian-Communitarian dichotomy is probably the biggest single misconception in contemporary values conflicts.

Revolution and Development of Constitution

Why did the process work?

History affords surprisingly few examples of revolutions that did not degenerate into oppression as flagrant as the old system. Some possible reasons:

Jefferson-Hamiltonian Conflict

Technology is so intimately connected to American values that it seems impossible to picture a time when there was ever a debate about the desirability of technology. But exactly that happened about 1780-1820.


Held that the values of a agrarian society were superior to those of industrial societies and that America should remain rural and agrarian. Pointed to the abuses of England as a warning. Essentially an elitist, estate-owner philosophy.


Argued that industry did not have to lead to abuse and that American would be dependent on Europe without its own industry.

This conflict has been played and re-played throughout American history, usually whenever technology approaches a breakthrough into a new level of intensity. It was an essential ingredient of the Civil War, which pitted the industrial North against the agrarian South, and appears today in controversies like environmentalism.

Early 19th Century Industrialism.

The Hamiltonians won the debate by default when industrialists began operating despite the concerns of the Jeffersonians. The New England textile mills were leaders in this movement. Many industrialists (not all) saw their role as social agents as well as industrialists. They offered education for workers, and so on. Adam Smith had done the same thing 50 years before in England. The problem with this sort of "industrial socialism" is that it is a lot easier and more profitable to run an industry without paying attention to social goals, and later industrialists were not as concerned with them.

The Civil War

The Frontier Experience

Some Frontier Experiences

What makes the U.S. frontier experience so unique?

The Frontier as a Mythic Force

Re-thinking the Frontier saga

Industrialization, 1870-1940

World War II

The Canadian Experience

Same continent, same root culture, same language, but some surprising differences.

Historical Background

Comparison of U.S. and Canadian Roots

United States


Canadian Values and Institutions compared to U.S.

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Created 22 May 1997
Last Update 22 May 1997

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