Benjamin M.

  • 12th Grade
  • Pennsylvania

What does America mean to you?

By Benjamin M.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

If you asked a British Citizen in 1784 What is America? they likely would have described the newly freed rag-tag assortment of states that originally formed our country. If you asked a Native American what America meant to them during that time, they likely would have described the violent atrocities our government committed against them. If you asked the same question to a New-Yorker in the 1950s, they would respond the greatest country in the world. At various times in history, America has been the poorly resourced group of rebels, the shining pillar of democracy, and the leaders of the modern world. But America has also been the violent imperialists that subjected minority groups. So what is America? As Abraham Lincoln described it in his Gettysburg address, America is A government for the people by the people. Throughout the various periods of American history (both positive and negative), one thing has remained constant the ability for citizens to cause change. This is the America I know, where everyday people create the America they want to see.

Since its very creation, our founding fathers knew that this would be the core of what being American meant. The first amendment of the constitution established this, through the right of free speech, and the right to protest. I believe that this amendment, along with the right to vote, is the foundation of what America is.

Freedom of speech is the first right defined in the first amendment. It gives Americans a clear distinction between themselves and citizens of other countries. The ability to voice your opinion seems like a basic human right, but is even still absent in some countries. In 1791 when the bill of rights was ratified, the right to freedom of speech was extremely ahead of its time. The most basic human right is a key staple of what makes America great. It allows for free criticism of our government, which is one of the most important steps towards creating a better country.

The right to protest is the third right secured in the first amendment, and has defined American history. Our country was founded by protest (after all, our revolution was a violent form of protest) and has been shaped continuously by this right. From the founders themselves, to civil rights protestors, to the suffragettes, to even current protests for racial and gender equality, science, and reproductive rights our country has been molded by protests and what they accomplish. Many protests lead to specific pieces of legislation being passed, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many more protests lead to shifts in the American people’s perception, like the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and early 70s. Both kinds of protest directly lead to change, and the shaping of our country’s future. The right to protest gives the American people control over creating the America they want to live in.

While originally drastically more restricted than its current state, the right to vote is arguably the most important aspect of America. Our legislators are held directly accountable by their constituents. While still a representative democracy, our system of government is the most realistic example of a government controlled by the people. This is what makes America America. We, the people, have the right to vote for legislators that we believe will create a better country. We elect our executive leader, and thus we have the power over our government. This gives the power to create legislative change to the American people. Due to our first amendment rights, and our right to vote, we- the American people – have the power to create the country we want future generations to live in. This power is what America means to me. Our country, while not perfect, ensures that the average American citizen can work towards creating a better future. In my opinion, granting the American people the right to vote, protest, and of free speech may have been the most influential decisions our founding fathers made. It gave the American people not only the right, but the responsibility to create the country they want to live in. I believe that this civic engagement is the most patriotic thing a person can do. When I think of America, I think of this power that every American holds. The ability for every American to create the country they want to live in is what America means to me.