At every turn today, it seems, we hear how awful America is. How racist, how intolerant, how unjust, how exploitive, and inequitable, and hypocritical we are. How our capitalist system rewards greed and how our imperialism has kept the world in thrall while we consume the resources of others, polluting the air and water with our filth. The term “American Exceptionalism” has been cast as a right-wing chant to be dismissed as just another bigoted slogan of ignorant deplorables.
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That is what happens when you let your enemies describe you.
Many Americans today believe America is truly exceptional but are hard pressed to describe exactly what is exceptional about it. Victims of inadequate educational experiences, buffeted by world events, humiliated by incompetent leaders, we sometimes wonder what indeed makes America exceptional. Most of us have had some exposure to U.S. history, although that generally consisted of names, dates, events, and things that are easily tested. But the story goes much deeper than that.
To start, we have a revolutionary government. I’m not referring to the American Revolution of 1776, but rather to the actual form and process of our government. Prior to our formation, the world’s experience with governments was almost exclusively that of monarchs, emperors, kings, and other autocrats who gained and held power through force. One of the few examples was that of ancient Athens that embodied a form of democracy. The Roman Empire was a republic for a while before it acquired an emperor. Biblical times were a history of kings and pharaohs, while the Western world after the Middle Ages was one of kings and emperors and caliphs.
During the late 1600s and through the middle 1700s, there was much discussion throughout Europe as to what might be the best form of government, and what role governments should play. Our founders were well-acquainted with these discussions and well-versed in the history of what had been tried, what worked, what failed and why. It is safe to say that there is probably no-one today with a similar breadth of knowledge of government and history than existed among our founders. This remarkable understanding of the subject led to three revolutionary ideas.
A Government of the People
The first idea was that governments should be deliberately established by the people and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the people. Prior to this concept, governments derived their powers from their ability to exert force, with no regard for what might be just. Our founders went further to define exactly what powers were considered just and what the legitimate powers of government should be. They stated these explicitly in the Preamble to our Constitution as:
“… in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
This idea that governments should be formed deliberately by the people to serve them rather than through conquest or force to the benefit of their rulers was a truly revolutionary and unique idea.
The second revolutionary idea was that the government should be constituted as a representative democracy – a republic – rather than as a monarchy or pure democracy. Through their extraordinary understanding of history, they knew that even the most benign monarchies could become tyrannical, and that the people would largely be powerless against it.
They also knew that pure democracies were short-lived, as they usually became tyrannies of the majority, subject to popular fads and would collapse from competing factions within. By democratic election of representatives whose jobs would be to exercise restraint and hopefully wise governance free from popular fads and whims, they believed that a government could be formed that would be responsive to the people while still performing the legitimate functions of government.
A Renewable Revolution
The third revolutionary idea was that there would be periodic revolutions when, at the will of the people, their representatives could be replaced by others, and that the prior officers would peacefully relinquish their power and return to private life. Essentially, there would be periodic peaceful revolutions where those in power could be replaced without recourse to violent rebellion.
These were exceptional ideas at the time, and they were greeted with much skepticism. While there is still skepticism today, the success of this model has served to transform the Western ideas and ideals of government for over two hundred years. The ideas have become so commonplace and widespread that they are often taken for granted as the natural order of things and their extraordinary and exceptional nature obscured.
But that was then. What about now? Our detractors point to things like our treatment of native peoples, a period of slavery, our involvement in regional wars, our consumption of resources, and other things that are part of our history as evidence we have, at best, fallen short of our ideals, and at worst have become a nation corrupt at its core.
A Human Nation With Human Faults
True, there are parts of our history that are far from exemplary. The Trail of Tears instituted by President Andrew Jackson, one of the first Democrats, is hardly something of which to be proud. Likewise, the period when half the country practiced slavery, the racist history of Woodrow Wilson, the KKK, and the opposition of Southern Democrat governors to the Civil Rights act. are among many examples of a failure to live up to our ideals.
On the other side of the scale, though, are the facts that we fought the bloodiest war of our history to end slavery throughout the country, that we enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, have worked diligently to eliminate discrimination, and made efforts to free other nations beyond our borders from oppression must count to our credit. No government or nation formed of ordinary humans can be perfect. The best we can hope for is to create good ideals and do what we can to live up to them and seek always to improve.
Continuous Improvement and Individual Worth
That seeking for continuous improvement is another, although subtle, aspect of exceptionalism. For much of the world’s history, the common mindset was that of acceptance of the status quo with no hope or expectation that there could be anything better. There is even a name, The American Dream, that captures the idea that with intelligence and hard work, things can be made better than they are. While originating largely in the period known as the Enlightenment, this idea of advancement found fertile ground in America where it was nourished and grew to be an example for all the world. Again, the idea has become so pervasive that we forget just how exceptional it is.
Along the way since then, America has been virtually unique in the world for its value of individual freedom and the promotion of individual initiative and responsibility.
From our earliest days, the Christian ethic of individual worth has guided our development and shaped our American Character. From the early days of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett to the settlers of the Westward Expansion, America has represented a refuge from oppression, a haven for those fleeing famine, war and pestilence, an opportunity for a fresh start; there has been virtually no other nation in history that has offered so much to so many. During the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s to those fleeing Communist despotism in the early 1900s, to those seeking escape from the wars and tyranny of modern times, no other country has offered so much nor opened its doors so wide as has America.
An Imperialist Nation?
Some accuse us of imperialism, claiming that we have sought to impose our culture on other nations, and have used our economic power to dictate to others how they should behave. Now if the United States has had imperialist ambitions, it has to be the least competent imperium in history. More than once, America has had the world, or a large portion at least, at its feet, unable to offer even token resistance to conquest. In some cases, countries have even wanted us to conquer them. Yet we turned them all down.
At most we might step in for a period and then we would leave. When in history has any nation voluntarily stepped back from territorial expansion, especially after conquest. True, America grew beyond its original thirteen colonies, but with the possible exception of Hawaii, it did so through purchase or trade.
Consider the situation following the Second World War. Europe was in ruin and exhausted. The powerhouse of Germany was smashed and occupied. Great Brittan was only a shell of its former self, its empire largely gone. France, Italy, Greece, Spain – all impoverished and helpless before any military strong enough to claim them.
The Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, and more were disappointed that we had not invaded them to liberate them from their Communist overseers. Most nations would have jumped at the chance to become part of an American empire simply to receive the largesse and generosity that was so obvious among the American troops who fought a war many felt was not even ours.
A similar picture existed around the Pacific. Japan, that had so brutally attacked and subdued the Western Pacific, was decimated and in abject defeat. Many there feared that America would do to them what they had done to their own prior conquests. The Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the brutal treatment of Southeast Asians and the Philippines all haunted the defeated Japanese, fearful we would do to them what they had done to others.
New in History
What did we do? Something unprecedented in world history. Something truly exceptional. Not only did we not claim territory that could have been ours for the taking, we actually helped them rebuild. We gave them material assistance with food and medical supplies and building materials and much else they desperately needed, but once they were clearly able to continue on their own, we left. We left.
We helped our former enemies and friends alike rebuild and rather than claim right of conquest and tribute, we left them to rebuild their countries. That many of them chose to follow along the political and economic lines of America was not a result of imperialism but rather emulation of a country that had fought so fiercely and then shown such mercy – a country that demonstrated exceptional principles and that actually sought to live up to them.
In the Pacific, America installed a military governor over Japan. Instead of the expected punishment and humiliation of a proud culture, that governor oversaw the transition from a feudal hereditary aristocracy to a constitutional democratic monarchy. America promoted land reform that allowed small farmers to purchase their own farms, and supported the right of women to vote. That governor brought in industrial consultants, most notable W. Edwards Deming, who revolutionized
Japanese manufacturing and started them on the path to becoming a world leading industrial nation again.
The closest historical analogy is perhaps during a portion of the Roman Empire, when the conquered countries gained benefit from the new network of roads, of Roman law, and the stability of Roman Legion protection. The Roman governors were charged with ensuring the provinces were happy and prosperous since that reduced the demands for the Legion to maintain order and enabled the provinces to send more tribute to Rome.
The differences between Rome and America, though, were that America didn’t exact tribute, and after a relatively brief period, we left. America did something truly exceptional in history. We left. Not only did we leave, but we left them all better off than they would have been without our help.
Where Would the World Be Without Us
Since that time, America has taken on the role of world policeman, working to thwart the imperialistic ambitions of many others in the last seventy and more years. Today we are the principal barrier to the imperialist dreams of Communist China in the West, and to Islamic expansion in the Middle East. In that regard, we are far more anti imperialistic than imperialistic ourselves. That many have sought to follow our example both politically and economically, in no way supports the idea that America is imperialistic, only that a lot of people want to emulate success.
There is much more that could be said about American Exceptionalism. For years, our farmers have fed the world, our capitalist economic system has created vast wealth not only for Americans, but for much of the world as well. Whenever there is a disaster or need, be it flood, famine, hurricane, war, earthquake or other event,
Americans are often first to rush aid and frequently provide more assistance than anyone else. American generosity is legendary.
The technologies produced by our inventors and developers have created new opportunities for all and reduced poverty across the globe. America has supported civil rights efforts throughout the world, as well as within our own boundaries. America has worked for over 150 years to end slavery and human trafficking everywhere and is probably one of the least racist nations on Earth. It has supported individual rights and freedom for all and worked to serve as a model for individual liberty.
True, America is not perfect, and has its challenges even today. We have our detractors and critics both inside and outside the country. We have our faults and times when we failed to live up to our ideals, but we have also been willing to acknowledge them and strive to do better. We progress not from never making mistakes, but by learning from the mistakes we make, correcting them, and proceeding on to new mistakes.
A past President, Obama, tried to dismiss the idea of American Exceptionalism, pointing out that every nation had something exceptional about it and that our exceptionalism was nothing exceptional. Others have tried to emphasize our faults to argue that claims of exceptionalism are hypocrisy.
Yet still people across the world, fleeing oppression, disaster, poverty, and violence look to America as their best hope for a better future – an exceptional future. America has much to be proud of and can stand tall amongst the great nations of history as a beacon of freedom and individual liberty, a model to strive toward for justice and opportunity, and a true hope for the future. The idea and ideal of America is exceptional in the world, is honorable, deserving of respect, and truly worth defending, preserving, and promoting.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
By David Robb
David Robb is regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative and a practicing scientist who has been working in industry for over 50 years. One of his specialties is asking awkward questions. A large part of his work over the years has involved making complex scientific issues clear and understandable to non-specialists. Sometimes he even succeeds.