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.
Most nations are homogeneous—their citizens bound together by similarities in appearance and philosophy, like colonies of termites or shoals of sardines. America is different. Her citizens do not all look alike, think alike, worship the same God, or share identical goals and dreams. They clump together, though, because of one pinprick point of convergence, tiny but profound. This American idea, this national glue, is the great truth understood by our Founding Fathers—that individuals form nations, not the reverse. Since this nation’s inception, individuality has been nurtured, celebrated, and elevated above conformity. As a result, the American idea continues to attract the strong and talented, continues to guarantee their freedom to choose happiness, and continues to make the United States shine brightest in the firmament of nations.
Thomas M. Hill
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) who govern us 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 one’s ambitions. If you are content to be mediocre, America may not be the best place for you (though you’ll do fine), but if you are a striver, the United States offers the chance to make the most of whatever talents you have. That is the American idea.
There are many ideas that we could call “American,” but the bedrock beneath them all is the belief that a nation built wholly on the ideas of liberty, justice, and equality can endure and prosper. This is as revolutionary a claim now as it was when our forebears first made it. Some assert a more concrete basis for our nation: we are Americans because we share a tongue, or a Bible, or a land, and these foundations are in peril. But the first of us chose the ideas they did because they knew what only the last of us will forget: that race, religion, culture, and the rest are all, ultimately, also ideas—and ours are stronger and truer material for the forging of nations.
Four hundred years ago, the founders of our American civilization discovered a physical world that was unimaginably vast: endless forests, abundant clean water, wild game enough to live on—a wilderness of plenty waiting to be subdued. Later, coal, iron ore, gold and copper, and then oil poured forth from the Earth. No wonder then, as European settlers spread across the continent, that the pursuit of wealth became the ideal. Come to America. Strike it rich! Make your fortune! Enjoy the good life!
Now we have found that our resources are not inexhaustible. The world is warming, and rivers dry up before they reach the sea. Population grows, and we consume our children’s future. Slowly, we are realizing that we can’t all be rich. Can we now learn to live in harmony with the Earth? Can we cut back, husband our resources, and share more equally? Is a new American idea possible in the age of limits?
To read the full versions of the essays mentioned here, along with others selected by The Atlantic’s editors, visit www.theatlantic.com/essays. Authors of the entries chosen will receive free copies of our anthology The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly.