Nearly four centuries of American history have witnessed the evolving conflict between two competing sets of values: a belief that acting on behalf of the common good should guide social and political behavior, and a belief that unfettered individual freedom should dominate political and social life. Tracing this conflict from Puritanism through the American Revolution, the Civil War, the rise of industrialism, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society, and the conservative revival of the Nixon/Reagan era, the essay reveals this clash of values as pivotal to understanding the narrative of American history, with contemporary political battles crystallizing just how basic this conflict has been.

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