The American Spirit Issue
FEATURE | American spirit


Then and now.


By Jenny Jedeikin

If you are American, chances are the mythology of our country is deeply etched in your soul. From the stories of our forefathers who abandoned England, seeking religious freedom, to the creation of the free world, offering democracy and a voice to all, Americans have long been celebrated as independent, perseverant and optimistic.


Now that our country is facing new challenges, with an economic crisis and increasing competition from globalization, we ask the question: How can we draw on the characteristics of our enduring American spirit to empower us and inform us about where we need to go? Award-winning authors Matthew Algeo and John M. Barry weigh in on classic American characteristics and the enduring spirit of a people, living in a country still young and evolving, still defining itself.

“Right now, perseverance and optimism are traits we need to remember— that sense that things are going to get better. They always have for us as Americans.”

Matthew Algeo, author of Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure

The American Spirit Issue
FEATURE | American spirit

The power to persevere

Matthew Algeo, the author of several books exploring obscure events in U.S. history, including Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure, offers a unique perspective on the American persona. Algeo likes to tell a story about Truman after he had gone bankrupt from his failed clothing business during a financial crisis in the market. “In 1922, Harry Truman was 39, unemployed and living at his mother-in-law’s house,” says Algeo. “If you looked at all the people in America in 1922, Harry Truman was way down on the list of people you would expect to be a president, much less a successful president.”

But as fate had it, Truman had an old army buddy whose uncle was a big political boss, and this man convinced Truman to run for country judge. “This was the beginning of Harry’s political career,” explains Algeo. “You see a guy who really didn’t give up, who was always looking toward the future. I think this type of optimism and perseverance embodies the American spirit.”

Algeo, who is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, believes Americans continue to persevere to accomplish what needs to be done. “Right now, perseverance and optimism are traits we need to remember,” says Algeo, “that sense that things are going to get better. They always have for us as Americans.” He adds, “I think perseverance is something that really is applicable to what’s happening in the country today in terms of the economy. We’ve been through some really, really bad times. But we always get through them. No matter who is in the White House, in the end, we will work together to make it better.”

A charitable history

Likewise, Algeo thinks we can gain a sense of security by looking to our past to remember the charitable qualities of the American people. Under the presidency of Grover Cleveland, which Algeo researched for his book, The President is a Sick Man, there was a terrible depression called the panic of 1893: “It was the second worst depression after the Great Depression,” he says. “There was no social welfare safety net of any kind. If not for the charity of friends, family and strangers, people would have starved to death, but you see that it worked out. People didn’t let people starve to death. Friends and family and strangers all had to contribute to get through these very difficult times. Americans worked together to move forward, to get out of it and to make things better.”

Americans continue to pull together in modern times. Consider the incredible charitable spirit that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, when passengers worked together to bring Flight 93 down, rather than risk another larger tragedy, and the hundreds of firefighters and untold heroes who saved lives on that tragic day in New York City.

Freedom-loving people

For NY Times bestselling author John M. Barry, a sense of “freedom and independence” is what truly captures the American persona. Barry explores those traits in his recent book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, a biography about the man who founded the state of Rhode Island and the first person to put into action the separation of church and state. “Roger William’s vision was the first modern articulation of freedom,” explains Barry. “In Williams, the ideas of freedom of religion and political freedom evolved together. And he didn’t just write about them. He learned by doing, by creating a colony and running a government. His ideas have a lot to teach us still.”

Despite recent U.S. struggles both politically and economically, Barry still believes in the strength of our country based on the power of our democracy. “The best thing about us,” Barry says, “is that we do believe in freedom. Clearly this is a country where there is more opportunity than any place else. That’s the part of the freedom we all embrace. By the same token I wish that a lot of these people who wear American flags on their lapels would spend a little more time thinking about what that American flag represents.”

Barry also believes Americans need to return to earlier practices of doing business. “For us to be successful again, we have to get back to accomplishing things, and not just pushing paper,” Barry says. “I think the enormous … profits [made] on Wall Street have been a serious loss to our country’s notion of productivity.”

The American Spirit Issue
FEATURE | American spirit

A strong work ethic

When asked about Americans they admire today, both writers point to everyday working people who they respect for having a strong work ethic and a commitment to the care of community and family. For Barry, it’s a man named Jack Reed who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, and whose family owned a department store. When Reed opened his flagship store on the downtown mall in Tupelo he made it his mission to keep that store open, rather than let the main street in Tupelo die. “His commitment was for the entire community,” says Barry, “I truly admire people like that.”

Algeo speaks about the resilience and resourcefulness of his own father. “My dad was a union plumber in Philadelphia and raised seven kids, together with my mom. We weren’t rich by any means, but we were comfortable. You talk about something to admire in the American spirit, it’s someone like that, and there are millions of people like that, right now, who are working really hard and trying to raise their families in comfortable circumstances.”

Moving forward with pride

Currently stationed in Mongolia, with a wife who works as a Foreign Service officer, Algeo’s view of the United States is from a homesick distance. “As bad as things appear sometimes to people back home in the United States,” he says, “with the economy, and the ugly politics, it’s really still the best place on earth to live.”

And as long as Americans continue to rely on the traits that have gotten us this far, it will continue to be. “Sure, we have to adjust; we have to innovate; we have to create jobs; repair the roads,” he says. “There’s a big checklist of things we have to do. But there’s always a big checklist of things that we have to do, and eventually they get done. You see this throughout American history, and I don’t see any reason to believe things will be different this time.”

Jenny Jedeikin lives in Northern California and her writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Rolling Stone and In Style, among other publications.


From Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King Jr., we’re well versed in the inspiring characters who define the American spirit of our past—but here are a few candidates from modern times who carry the torch.

Passion for freedom and independence

Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia
When Jimmy Wales founded the online nonprofit Wikipedia, it became the first “open source” collaboratively written encyclopedia for all.

Optimism and perseverance

Congresswoman Gabi Giffords
After taking a bullet during a community meet and greet last year, the Arizona Congresswoman persevered to recover the use of her motor skills and returned to the House of Congress where she received a standing ovation.

Strong work ethic, self reliance

Madeleine Albright
A child of immigrants who escaped from Nazi Germany, Albright became the first female Secretary of State.

Spirit of charity

Bill and Melinda Gates
As the heads of one of the largest charitable foundations in the world, the Gates’ go a long way to demonstrate giving back.


Oprah Winfrey
Born into poverty in rural Mississippi, Winfrey revolutionized the talk show format and created an entire industry around her persona.

American Spirit

Comments    Login using your Facebook account

Back to article



View Archives/Print Issues >
See this month’s cover >


American spirit

Then and now.

Madeleine Albright Q&A

The first female Secretary of State shares her insights.

On the cover: Garret Olson
Responder in chief

In 2011, Garret Olson was promoted to Fire Chief of the City of Scottsdale. He draws on his management degrees and personal philosophies on leadership to motivate his department, which has a 97 percent approval rating from the community.

In this issue

Your Career

Alumni Profiles

Garret Olson
Responder in chief

Christina Clarke
Crunch time

Greg Gudorf
Ready for takeoff

Lodema Ronchetti

Christian Torzel

The Buzz

Published by alumni


Extra! Extra!

Your University

University news

Campus news

Community relations


Congratulations, graduates!

Where alumni live


Everyone has a story to tell

Alumni Association Benefits

Alumni Mentor Program

Get connected

European Reception

Print subscriptions now available