What does it mean to be an American? I suspect each of us would answer this question in our own way, depending on our experiences. But there are features of the American identity, certain qualities of what it means to be an American that many of us hold in common.
We believe the United States is a special country. We take pride in its strength, its history, and its unity out of diversity. We share a belief in American exceptionalism.
If you ask most of us what it means to be an American, you won’t get very far into the conversation without hearing the word opportunity. America is known as the land of opportunity, a place where you can fulfill your dreams and succeed through your own efforts. That’s why, throughout history, we have been a nation of immigrants, a destination for people seeking a better life.
Our national anthem refers to the United States as the land of the free, and freedom is surely at the top of the list of things that Americans value. An essential part of being an American is that we’re free to live our lives as we wish. We don’t like being told what to do. We treasure our independence, not surprising in a nation whose creation resulted from declaring our independence from England and fighting a war to win that independence.
We are not a tradition-bound country, but we do value our past. As the historian Gordon Wood said, our history is the source of our American-ness. The Declaration of Independence, our nation’s founding creed, proclaims all are created equal and have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We cherish the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to equal protection and due process of law.
While we treasure our rights as Americans, we understand that with those rights come responsibilities; these responsibilities are not numerous. We have a responsibility to obey the law, pay taxes, and respect the rights of others. We may be called to serve on juries. During wartime, Americans have been drafted to serve in the military. Many of us have taken an oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
We believe we also have an obligation to improve our corner of the world. As Americans, we expect our government will protect us anywhere around the world. We qualify for certain benefits by virtue of being Americans: Social Security and Medicare to support us when we age, unemployment insurance, and other programs when we need them.
As American citizens, voting is both a right and a responsibility for us. We have faith in our fellow citizens and in their efforts to achieve a more perfect union. This is especially true for Americans from groups that were long denied the right to vote.
A couple of years ago, Grinnell College asked in a nationwide poll what it means to be a “real American.” A small minority listed nativist qualities, like having been born in this country or practicing a certain religion. But an overwhelming majority said real Americans treat people equally, take responsibility for our actions, and accept people of different racial and religious backgrounds.
In other words, our values define us as Americans, not where we were born or what we look like. Those values make us stronger than the forces that divide us.
Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.