January 18, 2006Aside

The American idea

A fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs…but one that is well worth preserving

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Celebrating its 150th anniversary, the editors of The Atlantic magazine write:

Finally, the founders of The Atlantic believed in what they called the American idea.” This was not some saccharine notion of American exceptionalism or a hyper-patriotic American boosterism. It was a recognition that America was an experiment, based on certain principles—an experiment that could fail, but would if successful offer a rare kind of hope. It could be easily contaminated—by ignorance, venality, selfishness, hatred, hubris. The founders were realists: the biggest threat of all, the slave system, was at the peak of its power, and the challenge of race, they knew, was destined to become the nation’s central concern.

What is the American idea”? It is the fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs that values equality despite its elusiveness, that values democracy despite its debasement, that values pluralism despite its messiness, that values the institutions of civic culture despite their flaws, and that values public life as something higher and greater than the sum of all our private lives. The founders of the magazine valued these things—and they valued the immense amount of effort it takes to preserve them from generation to generation.

That is the tie that binds fifteen decades. In the years before the Civil War it was not certain that the American idea would have a future. It still isn’t. [The Atlantic]That part about the fractious, maddening approach to the conduct of human affairs should sound familiar to most Indians.

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