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.”