The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



American exceptionalism

Viewpoint Columnist | Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When President Obama addressed the nation concerning a potential conflict in Syria he appealed to the exceptional nature of the American polity saying,
“I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
To this the former KGB operative and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin responded with mocking chastisement in an op-ed to the New York Times,
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
This would be hysterical were it not breathtakingly obtuse. The United States was the first country in the history of man to, from it’s first moment as a nation – it’s Declaration of Independence – declare as axiomatic and upon which establish its forms of government, that all men are created equal. That is one of the things that makes us exceptional.
What moral authority does Mr. Putin have to lecture the United States on the equality of man? Over the last 150 years the United States has been freed slaves, empowered discriminated minorities and liberated oppressed peoples from tyrants. Meanwhile, Communist Russia has subjected its own citizens to misery, slavery, terror and death.
To be sure, America is not without sin. The American Left is quick to point out that the United States, which so boldly declared God’s sovereign gift of life and liberty to all men, systematically denied those rights to African slaves. The United States imposed segregation, denied voting rights to Black citizens, interned Japanese citizens and so on and so forth.
These are all important observations that miss the point entirely. American exceptionalism is not the doctrine that the American people are, or always have been, better, smarter or morally superior to than any other people. It is not the doctrine that our young society and innovative system of government is entirely unique and the only system worthy of approbation. It is not the doctrine that the American experiment is sinless, faultless or even progressing unceasingly toward the perfect embodiment of liberty and justice.
Quite the contrary. From the trials and tribulations of the first settlers to the titanic political struggles of the present day, Americans have sought imperfectly to ensure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity. The American Republic has on many occasions teetered and nearly collapsed, just as it is teetering today.
In the Civil War 625,000 men died to address our nation’s original sin of slavery. In the Progressive era, American socialists openly advocated for a communist or fascist form of government. Today the nation is $17 trillion in debt, with $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities – so burdened with debt that there is not enough money in the entire world to pay it off – and the political class that fashioned the crisis refuses to solve it.
Yet despite our failings, Americans have always had a sense that our republic is exceptional, that it is uniquely superior to every alternative. From John Winthrop to President Reagan, Americans have revered their country as a “city on a hill,” a force for good and a political example for the nations. This moral confidence took shape at the founding of our nation. The delegates who gathered at the Constitutional Convention crafted what they knew to be the most remarkable charter of liberty ever established by mankind – a constitution more respectful of individual liberty than any to come before it.
The American founders saw themselves as conservatives affecting a renaissance of Western liberty. Their revolution was based on the premise that the king of Great Britain was usurping and destroying their civil society in order to claim for himself despotic powers over their liberty and property. They first and foremost sought to preserve their rights as Englishmen and in drafting the U.S. Constitution, the framers looked to the ancient Greek, Roman and Italian republics as models, drawing on the wisdom of Locke and Montesquieu for guidance in shaping their new government.
The great accomplishments of the American republic can all find an antecedent in history. Written constitutions date back to the civil charters of the Middle Ages. Divided government was posited by Montesquieu. The rule of law, equality under the law, representative government and federalism were first accomplished by the Greeks and Romans. A society based on natural law was established by the Hebrews in the ancient nation of Israel. Property rights, individual sovereignty and negative liberties enumerated in a Bill of Rights were staples of British citizenship. The notion of self-government, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, is as an ideal as old as human history.
But America distilled, unified and codified these truths, mining the vast treasures of human experience to put together a system of maximum individual freedom consistent with order. The American experiment is exceptional in this sense. To read the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, it is difficult to comprehend a system and set of ideals that, if perfectly implemented, would realize a greater measure of freedom without resulting in impracticable anarchy.
Furthermore, the American people have been, historically speaking, remarkably devoted to their Constitution and the liberty it guarantees. We are the “land of the free,” the home of the rugged individual, the citizen soldier, the yeoman farmer, the Western settler, the immigrant entrepreneur and the liberator of slaves and foreign peoples wasting away under the evils of tyranny. We abolished slavery at great cost. We resisted the totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist ideologies of modernity. We secured the civil rights of historically persecuted minorities. We freed Europe, South Korea, South Vietnam (for a time) and many others from totalitarians. We tore down the Iron Curtain.
The fact that some nations have sought to follow our example is a testament to our exceptionalism. The vast majority of human experience throughout history has been one of misery, suffering and servitude under tyrannical governments, but America ushered the world into an age of enlightenment and prosperity once properly relegated to apocalyptic prophesy and fevered imaginations.
In his “A Time for Choosing” speech, Ronald Reagan warned that we will either “preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the first steps into a thousand years of darkness.” That is because our Constitution and our civil society are exceptional. There is no other nation that has so dutifully carried the torch of liberty into the modern world. If we surrender that duty now, who will be there to take our place?