American Principles

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A Poptential student explores seven key American principles.

American principles are a set of concepts that students need to understand in order to become independent thinkers and actors in American society. They represent the core principles at the foundation of American civic life. American principles inform the American political and social system and define to the outside world what “American” means. They have and continue to play a significant role in shaping the country’s history and identity.

These concepts are enshrined in key documents such as the Declaration of Independence, The United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They were expressed in the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your Huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And they are at the center of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, forming the “promissory note” inherited by all people that everyone, black and white, would be “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This combination of concepts is uniquely American. Applied to individuals it includes:

  1. Individualism
    Displayed in self-ownership (agency), self-interest, personal growth, and responsibility
  2. Liberty
    Displayed through respect for free speech, religious liberty, a free and independent press, and the protection of property
  3. Egalitarianism
    Displayed through legal equality, diversity, equal opportunity, and social and economic mobility
  4. Entrepreneurship
    Displayed through a celebration of innovation, “second chances,” and the “pursuit of happiness”

In order for a society to thrive, individuals not only act alone, but must also work together. The following concepts are fundamental to the participation of citizens in the common good of the community through its institutions:

  1. Governance
    Displayed through limited government, checks and balances, the separation of powers, and federalism
  2. Trade
    Displayed through appreciation of commerce, gains from trade, value creation, and an economic way of thinking
  3. Civic Engagement
    Displayed through voluntary associations, a strong civil society, active citizenship, and a philanthropic spirit

American principles can be easily and explicitly woven into social studies courses such as Government, Economics, and United States history. The degree to which these principles have been realized has been and remains incomplete. The history of America, like all history, is checkered, so students should understand the achievements and the failures in both the design and the implementation of American principles, in both theory and practice.

American principles can also form a lens through which students learn world history. The American Founders thought of themselves as preserving a system of English liberties they had inherited, while incorporating the ideas of the European Enlightenment into something new and original. They studied Ancient Greece and Rome and looked for examples—both positive and negative—of how to build lasting and free institutions. Students should be aware of this context and how it can be useful in understanding the stresses currently rocking our civic life.

American principles can be usefully applied to studying and evaluating civilizations not part of the thread that runs through western civilization. Students should consider their own attachment to these principles, and then ask themselves:

  • Are there places and times in which American principles have been better implemented than in the United States? How should such places and times be evaluated?
  • What alternatives exist to a society based on American principles? How do civilizations organized around such alternatives compare? What brought about their differences? Are those differences desirable? Who wins and who loses under other systems of principles?

Today, these questions are of paramount importance. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #1, it is an open question whether societies are capable of establishing good government “from reflection and choice,” or whether we are doomed to depend upon “accident and force.” More than ever, we need a new generation of young people to take seriously their responsibility to think independently and to act constructively. By understanding and evaluating American principles, we believe they will be able to take up this challenge.