Initiative Drives American Greatness

The Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, Va., recently held an essay contest for high school students on the topic: ”What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?” Over 50,000 students participated from all 50 states and U.S. territories. The winners and runners-up received cash prizes, with $5,000 awarded to each regional first-place winner. Eagle Publishing was proud to be one of the sponsors. will be publishing the top nine winning essays over the next two weeks. This is the fifth showcased essay.

When Thomas Paine published Common Sense in 1776, he seized the initiative to challenge British authority and rally Americans to pursue independence from Great Britain. Our 11th President, James Polk, demonstrated this essential American civic value when he enlarged this country by 800,000 square miles. When I set a goal for myself, to be a radio program manager for our high school, I followed those models and took actions to achieve my goals. Throughout American history, our leaders have demonstrated a core civic value: initiative. By displaying zealous ambition, our Founding Fathers bettered themselves and our country; nowhere in the world is this value as strongly evidenced as in America.

On January 10th of 1776, Thomas Paine published a pamphlet to encourage Americans to take action against Britain to secure our independence. Thomas Paine’s writing was one of the catalysts moving the country to action. In the first three months of its publication, 120,000 copies were sold. Common Sense was recognized as important in its time, but also by others such as Andrew Jackson years later who stated, "Thomas Paine needs no monument made by hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty." Paine wrote that "time makes more converts than reason," understanding that many people need a lot of time to change their minds; but his urging relied on reason, common sense, and emotion to get people to take the initiative with him. He realized our battle for independence would have to start with individuals taking the initiative to successfully accomplish the revolution. Less than six months after the publication of this effective document, Common Sense stood by our side as the gunshots began.

President James Polk offers another model of the American civic value, initiative. The "dark horse" of the 1844 election, President Polk overcame many adversities. His beginnings were filled with sickness and poverty. He was raised by an illiterate father, yet persuaded his dad to send him to school. Polk took steps to gain an education, believing in his own potential. Polk then went on to win the 1844 election. "Young Hickory" was elected on his campaign promise to further the nation’s expansion. Relying on his political acumen, Polk took the initiative by keeping sustained pressure on Britain to make a treaty and cede the Oregon Territory to the United States. We came close to war, but President Polk utilized his strategic abilities perfectly. He set troops on the corners of the territory boundaries, making it clear to Britain that Polk would fight before letting Britain gain land. Each additional square mile Polk gained was due to his initiative; by taking the steps necessary to ensure his success, our 11th President is remembered as a man of action and brilliance.

I model my own behavior on people like Polk and Paine. My high school broadcasts many radio programs on a local station. Being a manager is a coveted spot. Managers are entrusted with responsibilities; it takes dedication and initiative to be chosen. My goal freshman year was to achieve this unique position. Each year I signed up for radio and participated, practicing my impromptu with a coach. Each year I studied the field. Each year I built relationships with the people around me. I came in before and after school, working to better myself, improving my chances, gaining knowledge to help me in the future. I initiated a journey that taught me about myself. The journey rewarded me with the manager position, which I fulfill today with great pride and personal satisfaction. I did not wait around for things to happen: I took the initiative for which Americans are famous.

Thomas Paine wrote: "I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense." Paine’s initiative to write, to publish, and to speak aloud moved a population to action. When President Polk won the 1844 election he seized the initiative to follow through on his campaign promise to enlarge the country. He acted on this great civic value that inspires us to make things better – for our country and for ourselves. I imagined myself as a radio manager and then seized the day; I achieved my goal through the powerful civic value of initiative. Throughout American history, most major turning points that have led to positive changes have begun with one person taking the initiative, and so it will continue to be.