American Exceptionalism on July 4th

Shortly after beginning his presidency, President Obama was asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism.  He replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”  Many took that comment to say that America was only exceptional in the eyes of those predisposed to believe in American exceptionalism (i.e. Americans).  Is there any reason to believe that America is actually different from the other nations in the world?


As we celebrate our nation’s birthday today, I thought I’d venture into the things that make our country unique… exceptional, if you will.

Richard Cohen, an opinion columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a column recently entitled, “The myth of American exceptionalism,” in which he writes, “the problem of the 21st century is the problem of culture, not just the infamous ‘culture of poverty’ but what I would call the culture of smugness.  The emblem of this culture is the term ‘American exceptionalism.’  It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God.”

He gives no evidence that the political right actually believes that America is favored by God, and probably derives this view from an opinion that the political right is more religious than the political left, and therefore they MUST believe that God favors them and their country.  An odd argument, and thoroughly indefensible.

Much of the political right has, however, used the term “American exceptionalism,” as he says (he mentions Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann as examples).  What do people who actually believe that America is exceptional offer as evidence?  Let me offer a few things:

America is different from other nations
Most nations are bonded together by common blood.  America is a nation of immigrants, and we’re not bound together by our ancestry, but by our revolutionary ideas.  Our country is one of the most diverse nations in the world (if not the most diverse nation), and America has been called a “melting pot” of immigrants. 

We are not only different in terms of diversity, but also in terms of the idea of America.  Our country was founded on revolutionary ideas.  The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution set out some of those revolutionary ideas:

From the Declaration of Independence: “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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

From the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Our country is founded on the ideas of freedom and liberty.  It is these ideas that have propelled America’s exceptionalism–our embrace of individual liberty and freedom has led to prosperity; our love for liberty has led to a peaceful and creative commerce.

America was the first modern democratic experiment
Democracy fell out of favor as a political philosophy after Greece and Rome, and fell into disuse until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 and America became a representative democracy.  Or, more accurately, I guess, a representative republic (if you want to know the difference between the two, you can read an article here).  Benjamin Franklin, according to one story, left the building where the Constitution had just been signed, and someone asked him what kind of government they’d developed.  He replied, “A Republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.”

The American form of democracy has been exported to many other nations, as they have seen the success it has brought America.  Many countries in Europe converted into democracies after World War II, and there is a trend toward democracy today in many countries in Africa and East Asia.  Not all of these can be attributed to American influence, of course, but America did seem to start a trend.  NOTE: One can also say that other countries have had varying success with democracy, and there is debate over whether democracy is always the best form of government, but that’s a topic for another time!

America is a uniquely productive nation
Our nation has, over its 235-year existence, seen tremendous productivity and growth.  This productivity and growth has made us a world leader, politically and economically.  We have seen tens of millions of people pull themselves up out of poverty, and even become wealthy!  80% of today’s millionaires are first generation wealthy; they did not inherit their wealth from their parents.  America has, to this point in our history, been an environment that is fairly conducive to inter-class movement.

America has been a bastion of innovation and invention, a font of creativity and entrepreneurship.  Our great productivity has also led to great generosity; we have always been generous to other nations in the world, providing assistance to countries in need, including those where America is not popular.

American exceptionalism implies the responsibility to lead
America leads the world.  The world economy rises and falls (to a certain extent) on the American economy.  The other nations of the world look to America for political leadership.  Our president is sometimes called “the leader of the free world,” but this really means that, since he’s the leader of the world’s principal democratic superpower, the other nations follow his lead.

American exceptionalism today doesn’t imply that America will always be exceptional.  We could lose those characteristics that have set us apart from other nations–our liberty, our freedom, our productivity, our leadership.  But as we celebrate our nation’s 235th birthday, we can say, today, that America is truly exceptional.

Questions: What do you think sets America apart from other nations?  You can leave your comments by clicking here.

  • TNeal

    Robert–having traveled and worked in various countries, I’ve seen first-hand one of America’s qualities. We tend to “get ‘er done,” whatever done is. Twice I visited a Caribbean nation with work teams which helped to build a community center strong enough to withstand hurricane-strength winds. Though the 1st team and the 2nd were separated by a full year, little happened on the construction site between their visits. The project was finished by a 3rd team, one on which I didn’t participate.–Tom