One can begin with the distinction drawn by Yehoshua Arieli in his brilliant analysis of American political culture, between the Jacobin and Jeffersonian traditions: the first collectivist, unitary, and oriented toward the state, the second voluntarist, pluralist, and oriented toward the individual and his "pursuit of happiness." A related, but not identical, distinction can be made in terms of the attitude of radical movements toward the institution of private property.
Too often, studies of the radical tradition are cast in a "heroic" mold, in which radicals are pictured as heroes to be emulated rather than historical figures defined by their own time, even as they struggle to transcend it.
Such an approach is able to provide striking portraits of individual radical figures and movements, but it is usually less successful in examining the social, cultural, and political aspects of American life which have limited the spread of radical movements. Pocock, and Eugene Genovese, to name only a few, are a salutary reaction against a period of "consensus" history during which historians argued that Americans have produced no ideas worthy of serious consideration.
On the other hand, those who, like Louis Hartz, have dismissed radicalism altogether, positing an all-encompassing liberal ideology from which there has been virtually no dissent, have difficulty in accounting for the persistence of American radicalism in spite of an all-too-frequent lack of success. These writers have reopened the question of the origins and development of radical ideology in the American past.
It is only recently that ideology has come to play a central role in the study of American history. In studying the radical tradition, it is essential to distinguish among a number of distant, although interrelated, expressions of American radical thought.
Nothing is more characteristic of American society than efforts to reform it.
3 July/September 1978 published by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. It is republished with thanks to the original copyright holders.
From the earliest days of colonial settlement, virtually every generation has witnessed some endeavor to improve the institutions of American life.
But even as historians remark on the persistence of radicalism and reform in the American past, they have found it difficult to account either for the roots of the radical impulse, or for its strengths and weaknesses, successes, and failings.
Such movements as communitarianism and socialism have attempted not to perfect the individualist ethos but rather to transcend it, erecting a competing vision of the good society, defined by the collective good.