A typical trope often heard between the explosions of fireworks on July 4th is about the Declaration of Independence and its hallowing of the rights of the individual over and against excessive government.
In a 2008 article about the death of Edith Macefield, the woman who resisted developer’s attempts to buy her home leaving it surrounded by a Trader Joes and a gym, Knute Berger pays homage to Macefield as a martyr for individualism saying:
People like Edith Macefield who want to live quiet lives and be left alone are now the equivalent of squatters — they occupy space that has a destiny, a “highest and best use” that doesn’t include people who want to live their lives in peace.
Berger elevates Macefield to mythical status, along with the idea that the individual, not the community, is the unit of measurement we should use to judge progress. Berger suggests that the choice is being more sustainable by building dense and livable city on the one hand, or our individual rights—our freedom—on the other. Berger says,
Steamrollering over [Macefield] is justified by the notion that we’re fulfilling our civic mission to create a denser, more urban city so that we won’t pave all of nature. The Edith Macefield’s are seen as standing in the way of progress.
The lone individual hunkers down in their castle while the communitarian menace surrounds them with condominiums, transit and Trader Joe’s. Most Seattlites probably wouldn’t identify with libertarians or people who live on acres of land and drive Hummers or own lots of guns.
But for some, individuality still means the right to a single family home, a car and place to park it. It is easy to mythologize these versions of our rights in the gauzy veil of the “good old days,” and dream of a time when there weren’t so many damn people around here. Individual rights can become code in land use debates for favoring convenience over the larger good, the maintenance of the status quo over change.
Seattle still finds itself in the middle of an age old American struggle between our “civic duty” and our desire, as Berger so aptly puts it, to be left the hell alone.
Today we celebrate one of the greatest documents of individualism of all time, the Declaration of Independence. Some would interpret the Declaration as the ultimate “leave me alone” document of the last 300 years, written by colonists wanting to be free of their Big Brother, the British Empire.
As Americans, and Seattlites it can be tempting to see Macefield’s stand as somehow heroic or a kind of martyrdom to individuality in the face of change. But the first words of our written Constitution, imperfect as it may be, are plural: “We the people.”
Digging bunkers in Ballard won’t help us address the pressing environmental and economic problems we face. We have to tap into that other strain of American idealism represented by figures like John Adams, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who are often marginalized by our worship of Thomas Jefferson. Clay developed the American System, a comprehensive, government driven expansion of infrastructure that built a transportation system for the United States in its early years.
Individual expression is important, but so is our civic duty to others and we should articulate this aspect of American tradition more clearly in our language when we talk to people about growth and sustainability. American tradition includes the common cause, and supporting each other in times of change and challenge. Building better cities in our region, funding transit, and planning for sustainable growth will mean thinking big and beyond the principled stand of lone individuals protecting their rights.
This post is adapted from a post than originally ran a few years ago on Great City’s blog.