July 4th Independence Day: How 'exceptional' is America?

'American exceptionalism' has been studied and debated from the nation’s founding more than two centuries ago. Did the United States of America emerge that way, or is its exceptionalism the work of every generation?

Hyungwon Kang/REUTERS
Fireworks light up the sky over the United States Capitol dome and the Washington Monument as the U.S. celebrated its 235th Independence Day in 2011.

In his farewell speech as president, Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city upon a hill.” It was a phrase he’d used throughout his political life, one he acknowledged came from John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It posited the United States as unique in the history of mankind, perhaps God-ordained as a model for other countries and societies.

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity,” Mr. Reagan said that day. “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

It may have been more aspirational than historically actual, but it was certainly inspirational.

Is America really exceptional among nations?

In “Democracy in America,” 19th-century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the position of the Americans is … quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” 

It was a notion reflected in “Manifest Destiny,” the belief played out in later years (sometimes by force) that Americans had the right and perhaps the duty to expand their influence across North America, and in some instances beyond – what some critics called imperialism.

“Why has the myth of American exceptionalism, characterized by a belief in America’s highly distinctive features or unusual trajectory based in the abundance of its natural resources, its revolutionary origins and its protestant religious culture that anticipated God’s blessing of the nation – held such tremendous staying power, from its influence in popular culture to its critical role in foreign policy?” Timothy Roberts and Lindsay DiCuirci asked in “American Exceptionalism,” the 2013 collection of writings they edited.

Reagan’s answer (in a 1974 speech before he became president): “We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages…. We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

“You can call it mysticism if you want to,” Reagan said then, “but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”

More recently, the debate over “American exceptionalism” has taken on a sharper, more partisan tone.

In response to a reporter’s question in 2009, shortly after he took office, President Obama seemed dismissive.

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said.

"I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world," Mr. Obama said, but then went on: “I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.”

Philosophically, it was an approach to international relations – he was speaking at a NATO summit meeting in France – which any previous president likely would have agreed with.

But Obama’s stated view here has come under attack ever since.

In his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused Obama of believing in a “post-American world,” that the United States “is in a state of inevitable decline.”

“He therefore sees his task as somehow managing that decline, making the transition to post-superpower status as smooth as possible, helping Americans understand and adjust to their new circumstances,” Mr. Romney wrote.

"His worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as reported by Politico. "He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."

Earlier this year, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani hit that theme even more harshly.

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Mr. Giuliani said at a private political gathering. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

That’s not the impression Obama gave in his weekly radio address Saturday, which fell on Independence Day this year.

“We remember that this is the day when, 239 years ago, our founding patriots declared our independence, proclaiming that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “A couple of centuries later, we have made ourselves into a big, bold, dynamic, and diverse country.  We are of all races, we come from all places, we practice all faiths, and believe in all sorts of different ideas.  But our allegiance to this declaration – this idea – is the creed that binds us together.  It’s what, out of many, makes us one.”

Obama did not speak of “American exceptionalism,” but he may have been hinting at it when he said: “It’s been the work of each successive generation to keep this founding creed safe by making sure its words apply to every single American.  Folks have fought, marched, protested, even died for that endeavor, proving that as Americans, our destiny is not written for us, but by us.”

Exceptionalism, in other words, is the continuing work of all Americans.

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