What Does It Mean To Be an American?

June 10, 2008

The Bradley Foundation has just released an excellent report which includes the results of a survey of over 2,000 adult U.S. citizens. They were asked many questions about their views on American identity, including the open-ended question, "What does it mean to be an American?" Almost 60 percent mentioned "freedom," far more than any other term.

The results of the survey are quite interesting and worth a full read, as is the full report. The message throughout is that American identity is based primarily on ideas, such as the principles of individual rights. Such principles unite Americans even while they differ in so many ways and have such diversity of opinion. Most Americans apparently share a disposition to see the country thrive because of a perception of a common American identity shaped by traditions of liberty and equality.

The report also raises a number of points about how that disposition arises in generation after generation and what our generation might do in terms of education. At FIRE, we focus on educating about individual rights through our aptly named Individual Rights Education Program. As we state in our description of the program, "It is imperative that our nation’s future leaders be educated about the central tenets of a free society and that they be able to debate and resolve peaceful differences without resorting to coercion and repression." Individual citizens can choose for themselves whether or not they like such tenets as individual rights, liberty, and legal equality, but we are betting that such principles will maintain their popularity with Americans so long as they learn about these principles and their enduring place not only in American institutions but also in American hearts and minds.