There has been a lot of talk of “American exceptionalism” of late. In response to a question from a Financial Times reporter, the president said the nation is exceptional in the way that Britain and Greece are exceptional, and he wasn’t talking about levels of government debt. Immediately his critics jumped all over him — and his supporters jumped all over them. You would have thought that John Belushi had popped up in the middle of the national cafeteria and shouted “food fight.”
I myself dislike the term, not because America is or is not exceptional, but because the coinage is so much out of political science. It sounds like a phenomenon observed at a distance – with the viewer aloof from the fray and not taking sides. “America is a willingness of the heart,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, but the term is all about bloodless analysis. It has no heart.
The essential point about America is not that we are the global “hyperpower,” as a French foreign minister put it a decade or so ago. It is not that we are the leader of a great global alliance, though, yes, of course, there is something exceptional about how we have handled our overwhelming power.
Maybe there is another example in history of a nation winning a horrific war (as the coalition we headed won World War II) and then leading the restoration and revitalization of the defeated enemies. If so, I can’t think what nation that would be.
Or maybe there has been a nation with troops deployed all around the world that has had no ambitions for occupation or colonization, only to leave as quickly as maintaining global peace would allow. But, again, I can’t think of one.
Still, the United States was not a global military power before the Second World War and may well not be the kind of dominating power that we have been for the past 65 years by the end of the next 65 years. Some predict that China and India will each account for 20 percent of the world economy by then, with the United States representing considerably less. But slipping in relative wealth or military stature would have not the slightest impact on the essence of our national singularity.
In the first of the Federalist Papers, arguing for the imperative of making the right decision about the proposed constitution, Alexander Hamilton said this about the significance of America:
“[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice…. [Now is] the era in which that decision is to be made; and the wrong election… [would] deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.”
Three score and fourteen years later, in an annual message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln saw similar stakes in another moment of national turning:
“The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, to the latest generation…. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”
America stands apart as history’s first nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. America was the first country in which all were presumed to have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the first where government was acknowledged to receive its just powers from the consent of the governed. Our example in preserving liberty here and making self-government work here gives hope to so much of humanity.
And this historic and ongoing leadership is our nation’s essential meaning and moral stature. Third World Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul has written of “the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness” to peoples around the globe:
“[It] is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside of it and on its periphery. . . . I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand it. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end will blow away.”
As it was in the beginning, so it is now: America’s example as a free and successfully self-governing country is among the most powerful forces moving in the world today, for it moves in the heart of humanity. On this Independence Day, we – all Americans – carry this legacy and this responsibility.