Utter the words “American Exceptionalism” and many people will decry the phrase as rife with bigotry, moral superiority, and doe-eyed naivete. “What of the Native Americans? The black slaves? The Japanese Internment Camps? We’re not better than the rest of the world.”
These critiques miss what American Exceptionalism is, and thus shoot at a target that doesn’t truthfully exist.
Before getting into what the term truly means, some Merriam-Webster definitions as pioneered by my cohort WingedPanther73 are in order:
- the act of excepting: exclusion
- one that is excepted; especially: a case to which a rule does not apply
When people decry the term “exceptionalism”, they consider definition 1 of exception, and definition 2 of exceptional. Looking at these, their arguments clearly align to that.
But when speaking specifically of American Exceptionalism, it’s definition 2 of exception, and definition 1 of exceptional. Let me explain why.
The Shape of Nations in 1776
When the American Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, there existed only one core type of government: monarchy. A king or queen ruled, whether that was in Europe, Africa, the Near East, or the Far East. Their titles and how they attained power might have changed based on local culture, but the function was the same: someone was in charge.
In waltzes Thomas Jefferson and a bunch of clearly insane American patriots, insisting with the stroke of a pen that government was only at the consent of the governed, and that government itself gave no rights but simply protected those established by a Creator. Inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The people say it’s okay for a government to rule them? In 1776, this was crazy-talk.
Fast-forward to 1787, and the Constitutional Convention had ratified something just as out of left-field: three separate branches of government, consistent elections of the closest thing to a monarch (the President), and a bunch of ways those branches could stop the others from getting out of control. Unheard of across the world.
America at its founding (and for a really long time after it, frankly), was the exception to the rule of monarchy that established itself in power and told its subordinates to deal with it. Three generations would pass before even the inklings of the republic began to be picked up in Europe. (EDIT: Original stated “One hundred years” instead of “three generations.” This was inaccurate.)
(Necessary sidenote 1: No, the French Revolution doesn’t count, as it turned on itself immediately into an oligarchical witch-hunt and was replaced shortly thereafter by the Emperor Napoleon)
(Necessary sidenote 2: Great Britain loaned a lot of its constitutional limitations to America, but retained (and still does) the monarch. While still technically not a republic, they function like one)
Unique Start, Unique Path
America started around an idea, the aforementioned “inalienable rights” and “consent of the governed” meshing together perfectly into the concept that government’s sole function was to protect and enable the practice of the rights it couldn’t take away.
Even the Civil War was fought over an idea, namely whether or not slavery was acceptable, and the just-as-important question of whether the government can mandate its unacceptability.
And when America went to war, it was buoyed by ideas (right or wrong). Mexican War (1848)? Manifest Destiny says Americans must stretch from sea to shining sea. Spanish-American War (1898)? Europe should keep its dirty mitts off the continent we call home (a late-arrival to the Monroe Doctrine, and the closest America got to the imperialism that was all the rage in Europe).
Ironically, this basis on ideas for the “rightness” of the cause osmosed back to Europe after America’s 1917-1918 ending of the stalemate WWI. While everyone in Europe was decimated by millions murdered by machine guns, America barely got touched and powered right past the rest of Europe. The effect continued into WWII with defeating the Axis and rebuilding a ravaged Europe and Japan.
Exceptional, For Good or Ill
Because America is at its core based on an idea, an idea that has suffused every part of the American identity and culture, it is exceptional. While numerous countries claim that same idea today, it was because of the example of the United States that they considered it worth pursuing. True liberty is a late-comer to human civilization, but it is so obvious in retrospect that it’s hard to consider its newness.
But this exceptionalism by existence carries a responsibility. Our idea has created a superpower, with influence far exceeding the reach of our military (which for its size, is a minute fraction of the total US population). Like it or not, where we go, the world goes.
When we stand up for the values that are at the core of its identity, either by better embodying them here (the Civil Rights Act) or crushing a threat to that idea abroad (the Axis of WWII), the world takes notice and acts accordingly. Saber-rattling by corrupt power magnates diminishes, because they could be next. Those seeking a positive example to follow can look to the shining city on a hill that is America.
Just as much, when we turn away from embracing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the world thinks the idea is failing and thus not worth aspiring to. Those who would be threatened by an “anytime, anywhere” America know nothing will happen and they amp up what gives them power and wealth. Those on the fence of what to do shrug their shoulders and seek to make the best of their meager circumstances.
These two scenarios aren’t fanciful. The good examples are drawn from the America that was most clearly present 1900-1960s, the bad drawn from the 1960s onward. I need only remind about the “red line in Syria” that was promptly crossed with no action, compared to the immediate blockade of Cuba by JFK in 1962.
Power through Example, Not Force
One of the cardinal mistakes that we’ve made in recent decades is assuming that because America is a superpower, it must use force to accomplish anything (whether it be political, economic, diplomatic, or outright military action). All of America’s success derived first from the ideas that suffuse the American identity, then from the proper application of force.
The utter failures in policy over the course of American history, whatever they be, can often be traced straight back to people presuming that America speaks in the old tongue of monarchy: might makes right.
While it certainly can, the loudest voice is with the still-exceptional message that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”