Balancing Act: Individual Rights vs. the Rules of a Majority

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | May 16, 2018

Society sets rules. Rules are, by their nature, constraints. Freedom implies the absence of constraints. When one of society’s rules is that all men are free, we have seemingly mutually exclusive concepts trying to coexist.

Such is the situation America has faced since its founding. The Constitution was established as the primary law of the land, and was immediately amended to ensure that the rights of the individual were preserved. The individual was given not only those rights granted by law, but a greater freedom granted by nature. Our Constitution is a product of a most sophisticated logic: Its byproduct was a nation where imagination could triumph over that very logic. The individual’s imagination could lead anywhere, but everywhere the majority ruled. And the majority is to ensure that the individual’s rights are upheld.

Such is the conundrum we have faced and conquered, with varying degrees of success, for nearly 2½ centuries. But we must be vigilant. It is an extremely delicate balance.

For a society to maintain such a position, all members of society must, at a minimum, be aware of the delicate, dare I say fragile, position we are in.

For a start, take a look at what the transcendentalist philosophy of the 19th century taught us. Transcendentalism values the individual’s conscience over traditional authority. In his essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson defines man’s freedom as “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” So, while the U.S. Constitution was enacted to establish how society would define and protect our freedom, it is our own constitution that established the true freedom of man. So long as there is no conflict between the freedom we feel in our hearts and the freedom that society allows us, we can, as Emerson urges us to do in Nature, retreat into solitude. But conflict is inevitable, and how such conflict shaped American culture can be seen vividly in the writings of another transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau set forth another paradox in the American stream of thought by telling us that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can leave alone.” And while he famously very much wanted to be left alone, he much more wanted the government to leave him alone.

Thoreau believed that a government can exist only when conscience, not majorities, decides right and wrong. He clearly saw wrong in the majority-ruled American government of his day, from its involvement in the Mexican War to its acceptance of slavery. Thoreau argued that democracy is not the final step on the path from absolute monarchy to respect for the individual. He accepted that it was progress, but believed that it was not enough. Yet, when he writes that the State has to recognize that “all of its power and authority are derived from the individual,” one could argue that America had already made such a recognition.

We have been struggling with its execution since 1787.

Thoreau was instrumental in establishing, as an integral part of American culture, the individual response to society’s failures. We should not blindly accept or, worse, participate in, a government’s misuse of power.

There are lessons for today in the fiction of the transcendentalists and other 19th-century authors. Their writings are full of individuals who have their very individuality tested by society, or the characters that represent society. The writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, James Fennimore Cooper and Samuel Clemens, just to name a few, show us the development of our American culture. They tend to make us examine the issue of whether America has found a way to accept the non-conformist, or simply the individual, or if it would rather our freedom be the Freedom of Man without allowing the freedom of a single man.

There is a difference. We can see it and feel it in the loss of privacy we have all silently accepted in the name of security since 9/11. We can see it in the “social network” that is not social at all but overbearing and intrusive.

Individual freedom, the glory of America’s shores and the thoughts of the individual mind were also fruitful subjects for the poets of the 19th century. I know what you are thinking: Poetry? If you are one of the 99 percent of Americans who never read any poetry, take a stab at William Cullen Bryant or Emily Dickinson. Bryant’s poetry dealt with the beauty of America and nature. Dickerson teaches us to be introspective without trying to apply our principles on all of society. But the true examination of the push for individual freedom measured against the pull of societal constraints can be found in the poetry of Walt Whitman.

Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass is an optimistic celebratory philosophy expounding the belief that the individual can prosper in society without either the individual or society suffering. It tells of an individual for whom it is enough to “exist as I am.” It is life itself, all life, that is glorious. Whitman loves “the sound of the human voice” and finds a miracle in a mouse. But as much as he revels in himself, he also writes:

“Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools, the mayor, the councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate, personal estate.”

This is our American culture. America does not have to choose between individual freedom and societal constraints. They may push and pull, but we should never allow one to overpower the other. They may even exist in the same poem, as they do in “Song of Myself.”

“I celebrate myself.”

“This is the city and I am one of its citizens.”

Individual freedom. Majority rules. That conflict, and it is a conflict in every sense of the word, has been at the root of America’s greatness (democracy itself) and America’s shame (as in the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, the failure to deliver equal treatment under the law, the latest assault on the environment).

To examine the current state of our society, we must study the past, both from a political and a cultural perspective. This push and pull of the rights of the individual and the needs of society is something that we all need to be aware, to discuss, debate. You can do so from a more informed place by, very enjoyably, reading the great 19th-century writers. Leave the Grishams and Dan Browns for now. You will not be disappointed.

John M. Imperiale of Harvey Cedars can be reached at


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