“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — Barack Obama April 2009
The following is my view on the subject of American Exceptionalism.
My view of “American Exceptionalism ” of necessity begins with the founding of the nation, and continues through history to today’s news. I am not a professional historian, nor do I have a university degree in history. But I have paid attention over the years, and have loved the study of history most of my life.
When I look back and study the founding of this nation, I see an exceptional event; an event that was unprecedented in human history at the time, and a rare, if not unique, event also in the years since. What I see is the creation of a nation and a governing political philosophy that attempted to answer the question “can man govern himself?” You see, up until that time in the late 18’th century, governance was by kings, queens and other types of autocratic and dictatorial means, some better than others, but in all cases government by the elite over the masses.
The American Founders had a better idea, an idea that fostered a “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people…”. An idea that said in its essence that ‘government cannot and should not be trusted’, and placed the ultimate governmental authority with the liberty of the individual. An informed liberty that would keep government in check by the very nature and structure of the government they formed through the Constitution, written by free men and ratified by the states then belonging to the United States of America.
The Constitution, and the Bill of Rights added to it immediately upon its ratification, was an exceptional document, and has remained an exceptional document through to the present day.
Do I think of the Constitution, or America as perfect, and something to idolize or worship? No, no and no again! Why would I elevate that document, or our nation to a position that the writers themselves did not hold. In reading through the Federalist Papers (yes, I do read them) you can see that the authors (Hamilton, Madison and Jay) recognized them to be the imperfect work of imperfect men. James Madison, considered by many to be the chief architect of the Constitution, and writer of many of the Federalist Papers, said this in The Federalist No 51 “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”.
And imperfect we have been, no doubt. One of the most flagrant imperfections of the new nation, and it’s Constitution was of course slavery. Many of the authors of the Constitution recognized this flaw as sin, but also recognized that there would be no union without a compromise of some sort. Madison, again in The Federalist Papers No. 41 writes “The Constitution includes a clause that will stop the slave trade in 1808. This is a great advantage of the proposed plan of government because such a barbaric practice should not be part of a modern government.”  The sad fact is that this barbaric practice was only ended by a civil war that took the lives of some 650,000 Americans. Even the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln remained skeptical that slavery could or should be ended, and this as late as 1861, fifty some years after the Constitutional date of 1802.
The so called Reconstruction period following the war, and the racially segregated Jim Crow south is further evidence of the imperfection of America, with segregation finally ending only recently in the 1960’s.
However, the fundamental and underlying ideal of the worth and dignity of the individual embodied in the founding of the nation; in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, ultimately prevailed and allowed (at great cost) the preservation of the union. This is an exceptional evolution of events in the exceptional evolution of a great American civilization.
There are other examples of the imperfection of the nation, and you can dwell there if you wish. However, I will now shift my focus to those things which truly have made America an exceptional civilization, and places it above others past and present.
The very ending of the Civil War sheds light on the greatness of America in several ways: The nation survived and was reunited as one nation. This was no small matter as we look at the then future role America was to play in an increasingly more dangerous world, particularly the 20’th century carnage around the world; slavery was abolished forever as an American institution; defeated Confederate soldiers were given official Pardons for their criminal acts of treason and sent back home to help rebuild the nation. Such a magnanimous gesture is almost unheard of in the annuls of history where defeated armies are typically humiliated, imprisoned, tortured and killed.
American involvement in World War II, as well as its aftermath are other examples of American exceptionalism.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, the world was facing the wrath of a very different form of exceptionalism, the German exceptionalism that metastasized into the National Socialist Party, the NAZI party. This movement sprang into being in large part through a massive propaganda campaign orchestrated by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. The basis of NAZI exceptionalism was based primarily on race; on the one hand, the lifting up of the German people as the pure race, and thus destined to greatness regardless of the cost or the truth of their claims. On the other hand, was the demonic hatred of races not Aryan, in particular the Jews who were looked upon as vermin, an attitude not unlike the attitude we see in Islam towards the Jew.
Germany acted out this fantasy of theirs with catastrophic consequences; The invasion and conquest of most of Western Europe, the Balkans, the invasion and conquest of Norway, the invasion and attempted conquest of their ally the Soviet Union. All this happening at the same time that this “exceptional” Aryan civilization was methodically killing millions of non-Aryan Jews simply because of who they were. The last Western European stalwart against this juggernaut was Great Britain, aided greatly behind the scenes by the (then neutral) United States under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt.
Once the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the gloves were off. The Allied nations led by the U.S. sought total and complete surrender of the German and Japanese forces, which was achieved in mid-1945, but at a horrific cost in lives around the world.
Hopefully, this is a history that is well known by most Americans of all ages, but I now want to focus on a few things which happened in the immediate aftermath of the war that sheds light on the American brand of exceptionalism.
It became obvious following the collapse of the German Empire, that the next major threat to world peace and human liberty would come from another form of Socialism, this being the Marxism that metastasized into the Communist Empire of the Soviet Union, and later China. The Western powers, led by the U.S. stood up against this gathering threat, and among other things established NATO as a military shield against the expansionist Communist empire. President Truman also set loose the Marshall Plan, a massive aide effort to rebuild Western Europe led by General George C. Marshall. The Marshall Plan did more than enabling the physical and economic recovery of Europe. Perhaps as important was helping (imposing upon?) Germany develop a more democratic form of government and re-enter the community of nations. A similar situation in Japan saw post war Japanese government develop into a modern western style constitutional government.
Allied (American) occupation of Germany formally ended in 1955, and the occupation of Japan formally ended in 1951. Although many consider the United States to be an imperialistic nation, I think the facts surrounding the occupation of its adversaries speaks of another truth.
The blockade of West Berlin by the Soviets from June 1948 to May 1949, and the subsequent airlift by the U.S. to break that blockade, is a sterling example of American exceptionalism. Surrounded by hostile forces, the citizens of West Berlin had little hope of escaping the Soviet stranglehold and becoming slaves to an occupying power. Yet planeload after planeload of life sustaining supplies were airlifted and dropped into the beleaguered city by an American civilization that would not stand idly by and permit such a travesty. In a materialistic sense, what was to be gained for America by such a gesture? The free city of West Berlin was one small part of a city in the midst of a tyrannical empire, hundreds of miles from sympathetic allies, with no hope of survival should the Soviets chose to invade, conquer and occupy it. Yet we did it! An exceptional act of defending the defenseless.
What followed the Berlin blockade was 40+ years of cold war, a war which pitted the free nations of the west against the world wide ambitions of Soviet style Communism. This threat was real, and it was deadly, and America stood fast against that threat through 40+ years, and under the leadership of Presidents Truman(D), Eisenhower(R), Kennedy(D), Johnson(D), Nixon(R), Ford(R), Carter(D), Reagan(R) and G.H.W. Bush(R). We wandered about throughout the world, wasting money and putting our nose into everybody’s business for one simple reason: Liberty; our own as well as that of millions around the world where American forces were what stood between liberty and slavery.
Recently, in honor of President Reagans 100thbirthday, and to honor a great man who did so much to bring down the tyranny of Communism; Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Great Britain erected statues of President Reagan as reminders of the victory over Communism. The three former Soviet dominated Eastern European countries are especially grateful for the American exceptionalism that brought liberty to their people.
About American exceptionalism, Peggy Noonan presents it well: “… The world looks to America. It doesn’t want to be patronized or dominated by America, it wants to see America as a beacon, an example, a dream of what could be. And the world wants something else: American goodness. It wants to have faith in the knowledge that America is the great nation that tries to think about and act upon right and wrong, and that it is also a beacon of things practical – how to have a sturdy, good, unsoiled economy,how to create jobs that provide livelihoods that allow families to be formed, how to maintain a system in which inventors and innovators can flourish. … “ (WSJ July 9,2011)
As Noonan’s essay points out, America is also a land of economic opportunity. Her free market economic system is unequalled in providing millions from around the world a new life, and an opportunity to succeed limited only by initiative, hard work, imagination and circumstances. My father came to America in 1929 as a young 21 year old, and though faced with severe economic depression, was able to find steady work, and eventually start a business of his own and raise a family.
Examples abound of innovative and inventive Americans creating new labor saving tools and life saving devices. Eli Whitney, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers…. the list goes on and on.
Immigrants from all over the world have come to America and have risen to the top in their fields. A CEO of Intel Corp, and CEO of American Airlines came from India to make a new life in America,
No, America is not as some “greatest person on the planet, soooooo cool. And rich, damn and so rich”.
“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
 The Original Argument:The Federalists’ Case for the Constitution, Adapted for the 21st Century by Glenn Beck and Joshua Charles
 And the War Came by Algis Valiunas in Commentary Magazine July/August 2011.
 April 1865, The Month That Saved Americaby Jay Winik