Over 24,000 students from all over the country submitted essays for this year’s Being an American Essay Contest. In their essays, each student wrote about a civic value and a historical figure who they believe best represented the American value. On Tuesday night, the Institute hosted a gala celebrating the 27 student finalists and their teachers.  The students sat anxiously in the audience as Juan Williams, journalist and commentator at Fox News, revealed the winners.

Ady Steinbach, a junior from Johns Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri, took 1st place in the Great Plains region. Ady chose freedom of speech as her civic value and felt Martin Luther King, Jr. most embodied the American character. In her essay Ady wrote, “Studying American history … has ensured that I will exercise my valuable right to free speech in the future as my political beliefs and involvement expand.”

Jacqueline Markey, a sophomore from Rochester Adams High School in Rochester Hills, Michigan, took 1st in the Great Lakes region. Courage is the civic value Jacqueline chose to write about in her essay and she felt the individual who most personified the American character was James Meredith. Meredith was the first African American student to attend the University of Mississippi. For Jacqueline, part of what makes America great is that “when one courageous voice speaks out for what is right, even if it means thousands turn against him, the course of history can be changed.”

Ady and Jacqueline were joined by Noah Lingwall from Clarion, Pennsylvania. Noah took 1st in the Mid-Atlantic region and is a sophomore at Clarion Area Jr.-Sr. High School. Noah chose individual liberty as his civic value and Harry Truman as the person who best typified that principle American character. “The passion for individual liberty that our Founding Fathers laid out … is alive and well today,” Noah wrote. “President Harry Truman exemplified this passion through his courage in the 20th century.”

Sarah Hutchins from Hope, Rhode Island is the 1st place winner in the New England region. Sarah’s sister Haley won 3rd place in the 2009-2010 Essay Contest. Sarah, who is home schooled by her mother Ellen (featured in picture on the left), chose equality of opportunity as her core civic value. In her essay, Sarah expressed gratitude for those who struggled to obtain equal opportunity, specifically Abigail Adams, who Sarah chose as the person who best exemplifies this American characteristic. “I am thankful for influential people like Abigail Adams, who strived for equality of opportunity in the Founding of this country,” she wrote, “and for documents that support equality, like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

In the South-Atlantic region, Zachary Thompson took 1st place. Zachary, who is from Fleetwood, North Carolina, attends Ashe County High School and is in his junior year. Zachary chose individualism as his civic value because he feels individualism is what stops Americans from being “bound to serfdom and slavery.” Zachary noted further that, “Since 1776, American culture has been the forerunning example of the power and virtue of individualism.” Zachary picked Murray Rothbard as the American who best illustrates this characteristic.

Ashlee Smith, from Kuttawa, Kentucky, took home 1st place in the Mid-South region. Ashlee, who chose justice as her core civic value, is junior at Lyon County High School. For Ashlee, Thomas Jefferson is the American who best represents and grounds a sense of justice. In her essay Ashlee wrote, “ The importance of justice can be seen through the enduring actions of men like Thomas Jefferson, and the positive impacts of Founding documents such as the Bill of Rights.” (In the picture on the left, Ashlee is joined by Robert Testwuide, Bill of Rights Institute Board Member, John Stossel, and Juan Williams).

Lea Sedwick is the winner in the South Central Region. Lea hails from Kennedale, Taxes and is a senior at Grace Preparatory Academy. Lea’s teacher, Nancie Hall, has had a student place in every Being an American Essay Contest since 2007. For Lea, equality stood out as a pinnacle civic value because it “is the foundation on which our republican form of government was built.” Lea chose Thomas Jefferson as the person who best demonstrates this principle and she credited him and the other Founders deriving from equality the idea that government power rests in the people’s consent for “if all equal, no man can establish rule over another without his permission.” (In the picture on the left, Lea is joined by her classmate and 2nd place winner, Payton Ten Hagen (left), her teacher, Nancie Hall (center)).

Michael Tharratt, a junior at Oak Ridge High School, placed 1st in the Pacific region. Michael calls El Dorado Hills, California his hometown. In his essay, Michael wrote about self-reliance as a core American civic value. “Dependency is a rot hidden at the core of any civilization … the cure for dependence, however, is at the heart of American ideals: self-reliance; the ability to prosper and forward oneself through faith in oneself, and through one’s own actions.” Michael chose Benjamin Franklin as the person who best embodies the American character. Michael is featured on the left with his teacher, Matthew Hodgins.

Heidi Sorensen took home 1st place in the Mountain region. Heidi is a senior from Gunnison Valley High School in Gunnison, Utah. Heidi considers persistence is a civic value that grounds so much of what it means to be American. In her essay, Heidi wrote, “I believe that if we are persistent through whatever comes, we will become a stronger and more united nation. If we persevere, we will always have success.” For Heidi, Abraham Lincoln best personifies this value.

Congratulations to all the winners of the Being an American Essay Contest! Check out more of their essays and pictures of their time in D.C.!

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