On exceptionalism

Simply American

If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. - George Washington, March 15, 1783

The idea of American exceptionalism has become so vague that much of its modern usage is pejorative. Americans allowed an important idea - American exceptionalism to be stolen and misused. Now they need to rescue that idea and let it guide America at home and abroad.

American exceptionalism is an idea that transcends many domains - it encompasses politics, culture, education, family, prudence, community, religion, and capital. All of these areas can be maximized for excellence if pursued in the right manner. An idea as powerful as this is not confined to the geographical borders of the United States, rather the diaspora of people who hold this idea spans the globe. Excellence can be pursued by all that are willing to work diligently to attain it.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton called on Americans to "vindicate the honor of the human race." This is a fitting definition of what American exceptionalism really is. It is not a nationalistic rallying cry, rather an ideology that encompasses liberty, natural rights, and education. The vindication that Hamilton speaks of was an idea that started domestically, but would eventually span the globe. A unique ideology that would propel society forward.

The essence of uniqueness went back to 16th century, when John Winthrop expressed his opinion to fellow Puritans, that there will be a city upon a hill were they would never have to experience the bad things they had gone through in old Europe. To be unique is to push past the status qua.

One of the main factors that influenced the national identity of America at that time was that they had a vast amount of resources, which Europe didn’t have. America now as a nation which supports human rights can refer to the fact that the first people who populated North America were usually eager seekers of a new destiny, better living and the dominant encouragement for their risky location was basically land and the possibility of recognition of their own values and ideas.

So, now North America was called the new world and this inspired those who were against the old world. The illustration regarding society, liberties, wealth, government and God were polished to create a better place for surviving than old Europe.

American exceptionalism is often misattributed to being coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous work Democracy in America. However, the term actually first appears in the 1920’s from the mind of Joseph Stalin. Coming from Stalin, it is apparent that this term was not used in praise of America, rather it was an insult.

This should not be surprising as Stalin was the leader of the most powerful communist regime in history and in his mind communism was the wave of the future. In the 1920’s as now in the 2020’s communism sounds like a good idea. Don’t be confused, communism is never a good idea.

The American proletariat of that era was not interested in communism and Stalin believed that to be heresy. This is an important point that cannot be overlooked, it is very American to take an insult and turn it into a source of pride. American proles did not want to be average communists, they wanted to strive to be excellent. That is what America offers.

WWII

America’s involvement in the Second World War turned the tide toward American exceptionalism in a positive sense. The flourishing of industry and the post-war involvement in world affairs eventually gave rise to a rather short list of descriptions intended to define America’s place and ranking among the nations as exceptional.

Noted characteristics are America’s financial strength and military superiority, its role as benefactor in the provision of aid to other nations (such as the Marshall Plan), its leadership in the organizations of the Western nations (such as NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations), and its many missions throughout the world in the promotion and defense of “democracy.”

Spinoza: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

All these activities—and their driving assumption of American exceptionalism—were seen to be the natural results of America winning the Second World War. America was going to be the power to provide leadership, promote democracy, and build alliances.

American exceptionalism denotes those features of American self-understanding that distinguish it from other modern societies. Most of the features are characteristics familiar to most Americans with some sense of history since the Industrial Revolution. Chief among these is the notion of democracy born of a revolution against monarchy, not driven by an alternative vision of society.

The purpose of the American Revolution was to give the people and their colonies freedom for their own pursuits without any control by the king in England and only minimal control by the other colonies in America. It was this kind of freedom that marked America as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” 

The government that was created was a federation of the thirteen colonies united on the basis of a Declaration of Independence that said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” This last word - Happiness is a key edit by Jefferson, as the original statement contained the Lockean ideal of property. Happiness was inserted above property because Jefferson saw education and philosophy as more important to the well being of the nation.

Unlike revolutions in Europe, the American Revolution was not driven by the vision of a social democracy. Rather the value of personal freedom to pursue the practical projects called for by living in America as a new land. For the first one hundred years, the energies of the people were eagerly devoted to such practical projects. The restless work ethic of the American people was unmatched around the globe.

Can America still lead the world? Yes. Should it? Yes. If so, how? It’s complicated, but American imperialism with liberal overtones is a good start. This idea isn’t new, it has been around since the 1940’s - it went by the name liberal international order.

Youth

One of the issues plaguing American youth is their exposure to an arrogant form of American Exceptionalism that is not rooted in the tradition of the founding fathers. This modern version of American exceptionalism is an entitled exceptionalism that is misunderstood and unjustly wielded. This is a failure of both tradition and education. American youth are largely unaware of why this exceptionalism exists and take it for granted. They are not entirely at fault, rather this entitlement is more of a symptom of misinformation and complacency. Being exceptional is a good thing, how did so many lose sight of this fact?

I was raised in Utah in the 1990s, a child of the internet—of MTV, the Chicago Bulls, and baseball statistics. The ’00s were my high-school and college years. The World Trade Center was attacked. America looked more vulnerable than ever before. All of this made people feel like children of the global War on Terror—of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, drone strikes, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, and, most of all, the Iraq War.

American global influence seemed misdirected and the American domestic situation was eroding due to mismanaged financial firms and off shoring of labor.

Many people aren’t naturally inclined to see American foreign policy through a lens of optimism or desire. Large numbers of young people question the merits of a unique American leadership role in world affairs.

This is partly because they have seen the country’s foreign policy so frequently come up short. But I suspect it is also because they have been exposed to a particularly arrogant brand of exceptionalism. Many only hear of the best parts America - its unmatched “goodness” and “greatness”—conceding nothing, admitting no error.

There is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name ‘American.’ That is the national devotion to ice-water.… I suppose we do stand alone in having a drink that nobody likes but ourselves.Mark Twain

Differing views

Meanwhile, older generations are tilting toward a different outlook: the United States as the world’s worst deal maker. It’s time, many believe, to stop shouldering the burdens and letting others enjoy the benefits. This is a populist vision and is not entirely misguided. However it is a view that lacks nuance and understanding of the macro power games that are at play. America has power and influence around the globe that is wielded by both military might and monetary supremacy.

This calls for rescuing the idea of American exceptionalism from both its chest-thumping proponents and its cynical critics, and renewing it for the present time. The idea is not that the United States is intrinsically better than other countries, but rather this: despite its defects, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest. It more of a cultural supremacy akin to the way Heidegger and Nietzsche viewed the German and other noble cultures. It’s a culture that wants to win and take power while also seeing other nations and cultures rise along with them.

Religion

The concept of American exceptionalism has provided US citizens with a representative form of self-recognition across the centuries. John Winthrop’s admonition to his fellow New England colonists is usually cited as the foundational moment of American exceptionalism: “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Although these stirring words from Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) have fostered a tendency to view America in religious terms—“America” as an elect nation and “Americans” a chosen people—American exceptionalism was more decisively shaped by the ideals of the European Enlightenment.

When it comes to religion, Americans really are exceptional. No rich country prays nearly as much as the U.S, and no country that prays as much as the U.S. is nearly as rich. This is even true today as the rates off church goers declines to rates never before seen in America. America is more secular and less religious than ever before. This is good right? NO. Religion is a hedge against all that is ephemeral and bad.

The government, science, and technology can all be great things for people when directed in a manner that is good for society. Yet, problems arise when these are the only things people rely on. Mainly they are naturally progressive to aims no one can foresee. Progress is progress, sure, but to what aim? Is it better to have Wifi everywhere while people feel alienated and disconnected from their bodies, their families, and their spirit?

Anything leveraged at scale needs prudent guidance to ensure that the net result is positive for everyone that it affects. That is why American exceptionalism is an export Americans should happily embrace. Although America is not perfect, its underlying ideals are the most open and free the world has ever known. There may be pseudo classes, oppression, and discrimination, but it is still better than any other place in the world. If you don’t believe me look at the rates in which people ascend the various wealth classes in America, or the rates in which women have gained equality, or the constant rights marginalized groups gain in America. It is unprecedented.

Again, all of this seems terrific on the surface, but the underlying thought of exceptionalism needs to be at the forefront to guide this projects. Progress needs structure and vision so that the progress that is gained grants more liberty than tyranny.

The founders imagined the United States as an unprecedentedly free, new nation based on founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that announced its unique destiny to become the champion of the universal rights of all humankind. In Rights of Man (1792),

Thomas Paine asserted that the “revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics.” Despite American exceptionalism’s standing as an invariant tenet of the national creed, however, accounts of the discourse’s content have changed with historical circumstances. American exceptionalism has been taken to mean that America is either “distinctive” (meaning merely different), or “unique” (meaning anomalous), or “exemplary” (meaning a model for other nations to follow), or “exempt” from the laws of historical progress (meaning that it is an “exception” to the laws and rules governing the development of other nations).

The particulars attributed to the term have been said to refer to clusters of absent and present elements—the absence of feudal hierarchies, class conflicts, a socialist labor party, trade unionism, and divisive ideological passions, and the presence of a predominant middle class, tolerance for diversity, upward mobility, hospitality toward immigrants, a shared constitutional faith, and liberal individualism—that putatively set America apart from other national cultures.

More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. - John F Kennedy

Although historical realities have posed significant challenge, these tenets have proven uncommonly resilient. Indeed, the “rhetoric” of American exceptionalism permeates every period of American history. The concept undergirds the rhetoric of nearly every American president, from Washington’s (1796) Farewell Address to Barack Obama’s 2014 Inaugural. While descriptions have varied, the more or less agreed upon archive concerned with what made America exceptional would include the following propositions: the United States and its citizens are divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment; the United States differs politically, socially, and morally from the Old World of Europe; and the United States is exempt from the “laws of history” that lead to the decline and downfall of other great nations.

Machiavelli

Machiavelli was a source of inspiration and guidance which many republican philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries consciously suppressed lest they repel their audiences. To call someone a Machiavellian in our current time is to label them evil and deceitful. This is misguided and rather ignorant. This source was such a surprise to historians that they did not even stumble on it until after World War II. This source was born in southern Europe, Catholic Europe, and seemed the antithesis of Biblical morality.

Many are familiar with Machiavelli’s essay The Prince because it’s short, provocative, and highly quotable: what the French call a succès de scandale. In it, Machiavelli seemed to advocate arbitrary rule, ruthless tactics, deceit, brute force, and the principle that the ends justify the means. He had little use for established religion except as a sedative for the lower classes and believed moral corruption to be a necessary evil for political success.

J. G. A. Pocock described in his 1975 classic The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. In it, he argued that the modern political theory of 18th century America mirrored that of 17th century England, which in turn mirrored that of 16th century Italy. Pocock drew on the writings of Renaissance figures such as Francesco Guicciardini, but especially Machiavalli’s long and serious treatises such as Discourses on Livy and Florentine Histories, written between 1510 and 1530.

Pocock meant to educate English readers on the real Machiavelli, the brilliant and brutally honest student of politics whose purpose was not to advocate cruelty and deceit, but to describe, empirically, how real princes behaved in the real world. And if most were amoral in their pursuit of power and wealth, then it behooved high-minded princes to do likewise in defense of their subjects’ liberty and well-being. To be sure, Machiavelli was hostile to the Christianity of his day, but that isn’t surprising given the Papacy had plummeted to its decadent nadir during the Renaissance. But his purpose in separating moral judgments from the facts of political life was simply scientific.

We must remember that men such as Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams were not abstract theorists like Harrington, Sydney, or Locke. Rather, they were statesmen-practitioners engaged in designing real institutions they hoped would foster justice as well as liberty and prosperity.

That moral imperative precluded a wholesale adoption of the Florentine’s system. Indeed, Washington, however realistic his statecraft in war and peace, displayed a character the very opposite from that of a serpentine Machiavellian prince. Nevertheless, the years between the summoning of the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 were assuredly another Machiavellian moment in that earnest men deliberated on how to craft a republic that might endure like the Venetian.

For instance, the Founders all saw the wisdom of such Machiavellian notions as separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, sacrosanct private property, robust commerce, and political tumult. Recall that Jefferson wrote, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Jefferson and Madison never admitted to having Machiavellian ideas, but they were influenced by people who did, such as Sydney, Locke, Montesquieu, and Hume, and their libraries contained Machiavelli’s works. For Madison, Machiavelli had been assigned reading at Witherspoon’s college, and one of his most trenchant contributions to the Constitution—the celebration of political factionalism—was an especially Machiavellian insight. On the other hand, Madison’s abhorrence of war was certainly not Machiavellian, but his arch-rival Hamilton thoroughly agreed with the Florentine’s observations that republics are warlike and that successful ones need an energetic executive ready and willing to prepare for war.

John Adams

No American devoted more thought to the Florentine’s writings than John Adams. He not only studied his works, he quoted extensively from the Discourses on Livy and Florentine Histories in own Defense of the Constitutions of the United States of America published in 1788. Moreover, Adams drew heavily on English Commonwealthmen such as Nedham and Harrington, whom he also discussed at some length in the Defense of the Constitutions.

Needless to add, the New England Puritan also critiqued Machiavelli on various constitutional points and broke with him entirely on moral questions. Adams, like Washington, believed religious faith to be an indispensable buttress for a healthy republic, and he obviously thought it possible to fashion a republic through collective reflection rather than princely force and deceit.

So, what is it we find when we study the origins of the Atlantic Republican tradition? We find that American institutions derived from a Classical Republicanism leavened by Hebrew Republicanism; a Machiavellian body quickened by a Biblical spirit; a civil government inspired by a civil religion.

While no American Founder adopted Machiavelli’s ideas without at least some reservations, the Founders and those who came after them nevertheless owe Machiavelli a very great debt.

Conclusion

The founding principles coalesced into an American creed, which eventually served as the basis for America’s postwar influence abroad. But in recent decades, that foundation has cracked. America’s friends are taking note of the internal divisions, while its competitors are exploiting them. Franklin D. Roosevelt once spoke of the United States as an “arsenal of democracy”; today, an arsenal of autocracy is forming as authoritarian states seek to put pressure on America’s political and economic model. If democracy does not spread throughout the globe authoritarianism will. All nations have a will to POWER.

The current moment calls for a new form of patriotism—for citizens of all political persuasions to embrace a sense of national pride based on America’s founding ideas. In the current climate, this is a task of herculean proportions. But I believe that most people are eager for an inclusive and welcoming patriotic spirits.

It will also require a renewed belief in the power of American values in the world. On the one hand a group will ask why we should make values a priority at all, rather than simply securing our interests. But as the late John McCain once noted, “It is foolish to view reason and idealism as incompatible or to consider our power and wealth as encumbered by the demands of justice, morality, and conscience.” A place for values in the conduct of foreign policy is built into the character of a country founded on ideas. It is also essential to our interests, because freer, less corrupt, more open societies are less likely to threaten America’s way of life. Moreover, the U.S. cannot expect to lead if it is offering only pragmatism, and not aspiration.

On the other hand a group will call out the many times that the United States has not acted on its asserted ideals. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us why this will always be so: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics,” he wrote, adding, “They do not arise where no effort is made to bring the power impulse of politics under the control of conscience.” American leaders do not need to make categorical claims that place values above every other consideration. They should be more honest and more precise, but no less proud.

Values have been a genuine consideration in the weighing of interests, and the U.S. has tried far more than other great powers to take them into account. This is rare and impressive enough. Proceeding from this basis, a new American exceptionalism can more consistently secure a place for values in the conduct of foreign policy. America is the beacon for the world even with its flaws and transgressions, there is not a better place to live.

The current task of America and Americans is to embody the inspirational form of American exceptionalism that made the rest of the world take note of the glory that is the American experiment. By doing so America and the rest of the world can move forward prudently onto more prosperity to be shared domestically and abroad. The world needs an ideal view of the future, an ideal that will shape reality in its image. That ideal is American Exceptionalism in its purest form.

The unknown path forward is guided by a conservative light sparked by the brilliance of the past. The past gives one the ability to gaze upon history to discern what has merit to be carried forward and leveraged to propel humanity towards higher things. Man made nature bend to its will through the use of technology, now man needs to use technology to make recent ideologies bend to the will of power and greatness that underlies all that is beautiful. There is nothing beautiful in authoritarianism and communism. Ugliness does not scale.

America is not just nation, but rather an idea that is built on rebellion, genius, and strength. One must cast aside what has eroded from the glory of American exceptionalism and embrace the magnificence of the American experiment in all its form. There is no good without evil, no light without darkness. March forward with head held high that America and its constituents are still exceptional and remind others of this fact as well.