For The Atlantic’s 150th-anniversary issue in November, we asked a variety of writers, artists, and public figures to define their concept of the American idea—and we invited our readers to do the same. We’ve since received more than 400 submissions, from readers in 40 states and eight countries. The writers were a fittingly diverse group, including recent immigrants and native-born citizens, American students studying overseas, and American soldiers serving in Iraq. But in defining the American idea, they returned again and again to similar themes—self-reliance and self-improvement, “hope in the face of change” and “a wild optimism in the face of an adverse reality,” the freedom to govern ourselves and freedom from government, period.
“The organizing principle or Idea of America is that there isn’t one,” Jude Blanchette wrote from Charlotte, Vermont, expressing a common sentiment—that America is a place where everyone is allowed his or her own idea, and the liberty necessary to pursue it. Nandini Pandya, a South Asian immigrant who now lives in Milford, Connecticut, contrasted her ancestral culture’s promotion of “platitudes like fate or karma and apathy” and its dismissal of “individual agency” against America’s “exhilarating” dedication to the pursuit of happiness, wherever it may lead. For Anand Prakash, of Arlington, Virginia, the American idea is a secularized version of Christianity: “an offer of absolution to every person,” promising “salvation in this life,” rather than in the next. For Matthew Ryan Kelley—self-described as “a proud, flag-burning American sleeping under the stars in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains”—it’s a dream of anarchy, in which we are asked to “believe in ourselves, needing no outside law and trusting none.”
Many writers argued that the American idea is in grave danger—not only from the Bush administration, a frequent target of criticism, but from its own internal contradictions. Writing from Paso Robles, California, Sean Boling contended that our exceptionalism has bred arrogance and complacency. “We need to peel The American Idea off the back windows of our automobiles and put it back to work,” he wrote. Mark Yessian of Boston was concerned that our “instinctive bias toward freedom … impedes our capacity to address urgent societal problems,” while Alexandra Pitzing of Leipzig, Germany, worried that the American idea of “work as one of the highest values in life” has curdled into an acceptance of a minimum-wage economy, where the “struggle to survive” trumps any notions of “freedom and dignity” in labor.
But there was optimism as well. “The true essence of the American Idea is hope for the future,” Katie Gilley wrote from Baton Rouge. “Despite its many flaws and failings, its strange psychoses, its unusual way of hiding its virtues until they are most needed,” Will Munsil wrote from Lakewood, Colorado, “America is unique on Earth … the American Idea is not perfect, but it is still necessary.” Steve Norris of Denver listed a host of challenges facing the American idea, but then expressed confidence in our ability to meet them: “Our history may be short,” he concluded, “but our track record is reassuring.”
What follow are edited excerpts of some of our readers’ essays:
Not long ago, when the curators at Ford’s Theatre in Washington looked anew at the plain black coat President Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated, they found embroidered in the lining the words One Country, One Destiny. That is the American idea—a noble ideal, unfinished, incomplete, never to be achieved once and for all, tested again and again by great tragedy. The unum derived from our pluribus remains our elusive national theme. We are many still trying to be one, trying to be “we.”
The American idea is the noun itself: ideas. A free democracy incubates, facilitates, promotes, and fights over ideas. For every idea, there is a counter-idea, a modified idea, a ridiculous idea. The stress and strain of competing ideas bears down on us, sometimes fueling violent confrontation, but mostly providing ammunition for action and an improved society. Keep them coming, change them, laugh at them, and cry over them. Debate them in the halls of Congress and the legislative byways of local government. Let them collide in a courtroom. Ideas are the cacophony of democracy.
Michael H. Miller
Los Angeles, Calif.