"Unlike most of the 111 that preceded it, the 112th Congress must begin the process of restoring the national regime and civic culture the Founders bequeathed. This will require reviving the rule of law, reasserting the relevance of the Constitution and affirming the reality of American exceptionalism."
America's Exceptional Founding
At a NATO summit in France in 2009, President Barack Obama stated, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." The President's remarks reflect the common observation that all nations pride themselves on some unique quality: a common ethnicity, language, or history. The United States, however, is exceptional in that it is the only country founded upon a philosophical idea: the idea that government exists for and must be limited to protecting the individual liberties of man.
The colonists left the Old and sought the New World in order to succeed at an unprecedented experiment. Their awareness of themselves as the vanguard can be found as early as 1620 in the Mayflower Compact, and in John Winthrop’s allusion to a "City upon a Hill" in his 1630 address to his Puritan followers on the way to New England.
Of course, the Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by what came before them: ancient Greek and Roman political ideals, Judeo-Christian teachings, British common law, and Scottish Enlightenment. Yet, explicitly establishing a regime on the principles of natural rights and limited government as intended in the Declaration of Independence and later codified in the United States Constitution to "secure the Blessings of Liberty" -- that was truly radical.
And it was that radicalism which allowed Americans to build a society that abolished feudal chains, destroyed the traditional class structure, and fostered hitherto unseen social mobility and economic prosperity.
The exceptional nature of America’s founding was acknowledged by a number of writers in the years that followed. Traveling the United States in the early 1830s, French philosopher and social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville was deeply impressed with America’s market revolution, constitutional order, Christian ethic, frontier spirit, westward expansion, appeal to immigrants, and Jeffersonian democracy. Tocqueville documented these observations and first described America as "exceptional" in his two-volume classic, Democracy in America, published in 1835 and again in 1840:
"The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."
Unfortunately, the ideals of freedom and equality have not always been put into full practice in America. One hundred years after the Founding, President Abraham Lincoln was compelled to remind the country of its founding principles as justification for achieving "new birth of freedom" -- even at the cost of Civil War.
Although the notion that the founding of America has made it exceptional has provided inspiration to many a leader -- George Washington, James Madison, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, to name a few -- it is not without its critics.
Some, while conceding that there may be some aspects to America's founding that make it distinctive, contend that its ideals have never been unique to this country. Some see in assertions of American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency toward arrogance and assertion of superiority, resulting in the U.S. exempting itself from international law or inter-governmental cooperation. And some eschew any notions of positive exceptionalism, instead focusing on America's negative aspects -- a seemingly never-ending list populated by items such as militarism, crime and imprisonment rates, racial disparities, income inequality, dysfunctional healthcare and education systems, and a debased popular culture.
American exceptionalism is the subject of countless debates, both in academic settings and in everyday political conversation. This topic page examines the exceptionalism of the American regime's origin and creation by drawing on the views of the Founders themselves, historians, politicians, and other commentators.
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