The American Idea

Essays by Atlantic readers

Live to Work, and Work to Live

Work was one of the central aims of the first settlers in America: Freed from the chains of European class society, creating a life in prosperity out of nothing. Work gave them the opportunity to make a new beginning: A life in freedom without disgraceful repression by the upper-class—a basis for the famous pursuit of happiness.

The idea of work as one of the highest values in life continues today, although unfortunately it is often accepted uncritically. George W. Bush demonstrated this two years ago, answering a single mother of three children working three jobs: "Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that."

Whether that working mom herself finds it fantastic is questionable. Even working 60 hours per week in a job based on the 2007 federal minimum wage  would leave her with $500 per month less than the current poverty threshold.

The early idea of work contained a notion of freedom and dignity. Situations like the working mother's question the coexistence of the values freedom, dignity, and work, especially in the context of minimum-wage jobs. The phrase is "live to work, and work to live"—but it is not supposed to be a struggle to survive.

Alexandra Pitzing
Leipzig, Germany


‘An Idea, if we would keep it’

Many believe the Author of Liberty became Man and died to cleanse us of the sin that rules our fallen world. It is a beautiful idea, radical and subversive as it embraces the multitudes within its arc and promises to free each individual among them. Imagine, then, the twinkle in the eye of Thomas Paine, the future hammer of Christianity, as he pamphleteered the idea that offered humanity salvation in this life.

For the American idea is an offer of absolution to every person. And the American is but the latest in an apostolic line of succession from the first immigrant, that Petros for which the American idea promised to remove the sins of the Old World and offer a personal resurrection, one to be freely chosen and loved. 

Lady Liberty may no longer impress as she once did, but no matter: it was the idea that crossed oceans and welcomed the huddled masses, and it lives in the audacious individualism, rugged as ever, that gives each person a chance at reinvention. When Ben Franklin’s republic is a dim memory in the minds of those who once yearned, the idea will still christen humans’ efforts to recreate themselves without the superstition and prejudice that shackled their forebears.

The American idea is most fluently expressed, as most ideas are, in characters played by Al Pacino. “I have my own plans for my future,” broods Michael Corleone as The Godfather: Part II comes to a close, and after he has rebuffed the Family’s plans, and centuries of tradition, by enlisting in the Marines. Of course, a tragedy wails through the famous tarantella: the Old World catches Michael, ends his futile experiment with independence, sets him on its own path.

But the classic film is fictional after all, as long as the American idea performs its redemptive mischief.

Anand Prakash
Arlington, VA


I see the future of the American Idea in the university classroom where I teach freshman writing. My students’ thoughts flit and dodge across their essays, revealing brains that are hardwired for speed but unable to commit to deeper ideas or lucidity. It’s no wonder that they embrace Reality TV, video games and text messaging; these forms of entertainment opt for immediate over delayed gratification, estrangement over intimacy. Their revolutionary impatience and detachment, not lousy teaching, is behind their infamously poor writing, which is really a poverty of thinking.

A growing movement seeks to emphasize standardized tests that would gauge whether public university students are thinking and writing critically and logically enough.

But this generation doesn’t need more “useful” knowledge; they need to be taught how to think. That can only be accomplished the Old School way, by slowing down the brain long enough to reflect on an idea and contemplate its complexity—to get intimate with it. Their writing depends on this, but, more importantly, so does the future of the American Idea, because answers to tomorrow’s defining, complex issues—global climate change, healthcare, America’s Superpower relevance—can’t be determined by joystick.

Andrew Reiner
Baltimore, MD


The American Idea, that abstract notion of liberty and natural rights, was transformed into political reality by our Constitution. It is the great barrier, erected in order to shelter the cause of liberty from government's potential for treachery, as the walls of the cities of the ancient world were built to shelter their inhabitants from harm. But even the greatest walls of that world were destined to fall, unless reinforced from time to time, and to watch for harm people were set upon the tops of them.

We have seen the barriers to injustice in our Constitution give way in recent years. The question before us is this: Does the Constitution, that wall between our liberty and those who would diminish it, still confound such insidious designs? In a time of war, how can we best revise or reinvigorate the Constitution to meet the very real internal threat to our rights from unchecked executive power?

Or, more tragically, does this wall against tyranny, our Constitution, merely lack the watchmen? No political document designed to restrain government, however wise or prudent, can maintain against threats to it, without the people, knowledgeable and vigorous in its defense, ever watchful of its sanctity.

Thomas Rutkey
Niskayuna, NY


America is the place—still, after all these years—where you are limited only by your imagination.  The streets are not paved with gold, of course, and the men (and women) governing are not angels, but that's because America is not utopia and was never meant to be.  Instead, for this immigrant, as for all who came before me, it’s the best country for realizing ambition.  If you are mediocre this may not be the best place for you (though you’ll do fine), but if you are a striver it is in the United States where you will be able to make the most of whatever talents you have.  That is the American idea.

America is more than its government, its business leaders, its celebrities, its thinkers and writers.  It’s also more than the generic homine americani from central casting: the farmer, the cowboy, the stockbroker, the housewife, etc.  It’s man’s last best hope for freedom in the world, and we have to guard that very American idea with all our industry, creativity, and ambition.

Ilya Shapiro
Washington, DC

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