Self-Reliance: An American Virtue

December 28, 2020 Updated: January 11, 2021

One chilly afternoon just after Thanksgiving, I stood in the crowded lot of my local auto repair shop in Front Royal, Virginia, watching the mechanic try to remove the metal caps from the pressure valves on my tires. He explained no one should have put such caps on these nozzles because they get stuck, as they were now, and taking them off by force could damage the tires. He first used WD-40 and a wrench, then disappeared inside, returned with a blowtorch, gingerly heated one of the caps and valves, and tried the wrench again. 

“Impressive,” I said when the cap came off.

He glanced up at me. “I grew up on a farm near here back in the 70s. We didn’t have much, and there wasn’t much to be had anyway. We got used to making do, which is how I learned some of these things.”

This skilled man successfully removed all four metal caps, replaced them with plastic ones, and said, “Well, that saved you about $400.”

I thanked him and asked about the bill. 

“No charge,” he said, and when I protested, he waved me away.

The next week, I took him and his fellow employees three large tubs of cookies from our local grocery store.

And I mulled over what he’d said about growing up on that farm.

Lessons From the Past

From our earliest history, self-reliance was a highly regarded American virtue.

We Americans embraced that virtue because the colonists, from their first days on this continent, could look only to themselves and their own resources for survival. For several centuries afterward, the men and women who settled this land, particularly the pioneers and outliers, depended on their home-grown skill, their intelligence and common sense, and their neighbors to repair their wagons and buggies, to build their houses, to hunt and plant crops and put food on the table, to deliver babies, and to care for the sick. If they became desperate and needed charity, they looked to family and friends, or the local church, for assistance. 

Think Pa and Ma Ingalls in the “Little House on the Prairie” books and television series. From the Appalachians to the Great Plains, millions of our ancestors made do with what they had, just like the Ingalls. 

The American Way

Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, and Henry David Thoreau touted this idea of independence. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson makes a strong case for non-conformity and individuality, and advises his readers to follow our own guiding stars. In Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” Natty Bumppo is the quintessential frontiersman, beholden to no one and living by his wits, his knowledge of the forest, and his long gun. In “Walden,” Thoreau writes of his year living in the woods performing as many tasks as possible by his own hands. 

Since then, our literature has promoted independence and toughness in the face of adversity. We find one classic example of such resilience in the novel by Charles Portis “True Grit,” which Hollywood has twice made into a movie. Intent on avenging her father’s murder, Mattie hires U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn to track down the killer and insists on accompanying him on this manhunt. Mattie proves to be a strong young woman capable of holding her own on this quest. 

This American sense of independence and self-reliance also became a staple of our movies. Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Dorothy McGuire in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” John Wayne in his many Westerns: These and a thousand other films depicted Americans as a can-do people with grit. 

Teaching Self-Reliance

If we consider the matter, we realize that self-reliance is a major aim of education. We teach Johnny to tie his shoes, dress himself, read books, and eat with his fork and spoon and not his fingers. As he grows older, he learns to drive a car, change a tire, balance a checkbook, and a thousand other large and small tasks that will make him a grownup. 

To push Johnny farther down the path to self-reliance, his mother and father insist he calls a coach or meets with a teacher to set appointments or clarify instructions. They encourage him to work outside the home during the summers or even after school, and to save his money for college or that car he wants to buy, thereby teaching not only self-reliance but delayed gratification as well. By word and by example, they familiarize him with the tools of logic and reason so that he’ll be equipped to handle himself when he sets off into the world.

The Costs of Neglecting Self-Reliance

Not all parents take this path, especially as their toddlers grow older. They become what some have called “helicopter parents,” hovering over their children even after their children arrive in college, removing difficulties and paving the way for them, calling a professor, for example, after their daughter receives a B instead of an A on her English essay or approaching their son’s employer about his problems at work.

Ironically, these attempts to help our children act as stumbling blocks on the way to self-reliance and maturity.

In our age, too, a diminished sense of self-reliance has brought us the dangers of big government. Where we ourselves once faced up to problems and difficulties or sought the help of others around us, many now automatically look to the government for such assistance. We want the government to educate our children, to care for us when we are sick, to give us money when we aren’t working, and to confiscate money away from some people and give it to others. 

This long-term movement away from self-reliance, this bended-knee approach to our officials and politicians, gives more and more power to our politicians and bureaucrats. Our pandemic serves as the perfect example of this trend. Rather than treating their constituents like grownups, offering them suggestions as to how to remain safe, some of our mayors and governors have issued a series of edicts and restrictions treating those same citizens as if they were children. This approach has angered many people, but it derives in part from our abandonment of self-reliance and self-restraint.

Limitations

Of course, none of us can play Robinson Crusoe all the time, and self-reliance shouldn’t preclude receiving the help of others. Just as I needed that mechanic for my tires, others can help us shoulder our burdens. 

After my wife’s death, for example, friends and the parents of the students I was teaching helped me for months by bringing food to my family, caring for my 9-year-old son when I was teaching, and giving money to a college fund for my children I’d set up in my wife’s memory. Could I have managed without that assistance? Probably. But my appreciation then and now for those people and what they gave me knows no bounds.

On another occasion, a group of parents raised a hefty sum of money to send me to Europe. When I told my daughter I felt uncomfortable accepting this gift and might refuse it, she said: “That’s a sin. You’re denying them the right to be charitable. Take the money and go to Europe, Papa.”

She was right and I was wrong. Given free rein, self-reliance can become overweening pride.  

In Defense of Dignity

Published in 1898, William George Jordan’s “Self-Control: Its Kingship and Majesty” is an old-time self-help book. In Chapter XIII, “The Dignity of Self-Reliance,” Jordan writes: “The man who is self-reliant says ever, ‘No one can realize my possibilities for me, but me; no one can make me good or evil but myself.’ He works out his own salvation—financially, socially, mentally, physically, and morally.”

That was good advice then, and it’s good advice now, particularly given the times we live in and the arrival of a new year. 

To paraphrase, we are to a great extent responsible for who and what we are. When we deny that proposition, we are in a sense denying our own humanity. 

As we enter this new year, let’s all resolve to become more self-reliant, for our good and for the good of our country.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.