Americans like to believe we are an exceptional people. We speak of ourselves as a city upon a hill, a nation lifting our light beside the golden door, a people who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life. Exceptionalism was a topic of debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, and for others it continues to serve as a litmus test of patriotism. But what is American exceptionalism? And why should it matter?
At the founding of the republic, America certainly seemed not only exceptional but almost peculiar. From time out of mind, human societies had organized as hierarchies—pyramids with kings at the top, nobles in the middle, and commoners on the bottom. But the Enlightenment overthrew hierarchy, starting in the 17th century with Newton and other naturalists. They dismantled the “Great Chain of Being,” which described creation as a hierarchical system, and came to understand nature as a rational order.
By the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers transferred the overthrow of hierarchy to the political realm, arguing in the same vein that no human being was born with inherent qualities that entitled him to rule or be ruled. When the American colonists rebelled against King George III, their replacement was not another hierarchy, but a republic with no orders, ranks or prelates, religious liberty for all, and an equal title for everyone to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This was simply without precedent. “The birthday of a new world is at hand,” wrote Tom Paine.
Europeans were less enthusiastic. “Believe me,” prophesied Otto von Bismarck in 1870, “one cannot lead or bring to prosperity a great nation without the principle of authority—that is, the Monarchy.” But Americans compensated for the vacuum created by monarchs and nobles by inventing a cornucopia of private, voluntary associations. “The extraordinary fragmentation of administrative power” in America, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville—who may have been the first to use the word exceptional about America—is offset by the proliferation of “religious, moral . . . commercial and industrial associations” which substituted themselves for the lords and bureaucrats that choked European societies.
In the absence of hierarchy, any American could make what he would of the American landscape. “What, then, is the American, this new man?” asked the transplanted Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in 1782. “He is an American,” Crevecoeur concluded, who has stopped doing what others tell him he must do. He has escaped “from involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour,” and has “passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence.”
Abraham Lincoln captured this perfectly when he said that Americans “stand at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world.” And why? Because “every man can make himself.” With his own history in mind, Lincoln described how in America “the prudent, penniless beginner . . . labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” This, Lincoln believed, is “the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all.”
Not quite for all, though, as Lincoln knew, and especially not for the nearly four million blacks who were held in slavery before the Civil War. But the war itself became an instance of exceptionalism, since it was fought to eliminate slavery and redeem the American republic’s claim to have been “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Civil War may be the most exceptional moment of all in American history, for there is no record of any other conflict quite like the war Americans waged among themselves to “die to make men free.”
The stupendous success of our politics and economics inevitably triggered the urge to export them to an unenlightened world—which is where exceptionalism began to wobble. Until the 20th century, Americans generally understood their political and economic freedoms as examples to be followed, not commodities to be transferred. America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” insisted John Quincy Adams in 1821, “She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
But the two world wars thrust Americans, willingly and unwillingly, into the role of democracy-exporters. And we have learned, often to our embarrassment, that other nations do not welcome such exports, or do not offer fertile ground for their growth. To the contrary, Americans have often been handed back examples of their own shortcomings, along with demands that they conform to the standards of international institutions. And from that has arisen the anxiety that our exceptionalism is at best simply odd, and at worst simply arrogant.
After the horrors of the 20th century, it may be that no nation-state, no matter how perfect its founding principles, can seem sufficiently free of errors to warrant the label “exceptional.” Americans certainly have become less economically mobile, less likely to participate in voluntary associations, and more likely to look to a European-style administrative state for solutions.
But to reject exceptionalism is also to reject the fundamental philosophical principles on which the republic was founded, relegating the guarantee of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to the level of tribal myth. We do not need to claim perfection to reclaim exceptionalism. And the exceptional principles that guided our founding may turn out, as Lincoln said, to be “the last best hope of earth” after all.
Mr. Guelzo is a professor of history at Gettysburg College.