The idea of American exceptionalism has become one of the primary pivot points that now divides the political right and left in America. What was once an established and accepted truth about the American people has come under assault by liberal radicals who would rather deny even the existence of American exceptionalism.
President Barack Obama, when asked whether or not he believes in American exceptionalism, said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne penned a column on May 10 called Obama’s American Exceptionalism in which he said that conservatives were taking a “Western European path of austerity.
“The Obama administration, by contrast, has chosen a distinctly American path that kept austerity at bay,” Dionne said.
Dionne went on to say. “Obama’s thoroughly moderate economic policies are an excellent example of a practical American exceptionalism.”
Although Obama tends to guard his words in order to sound moderate, many of his liberal allies have no qualms about directly attacking the idea of American exceptionalism.
Another recent article by Terrence McCoy in The Atlantic took a different track and claimed that the term “American exceptionalism” originated with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, not the frequently attributed early 19th century French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville.
All of these liberal statements on American exeptionalism are either based on an ignorance of its origin or an egregious abuse of its meaning.
Tocqueville is often given credit as the originator of the term because he wrote in his famous treatise Democracy in America, “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.”
Stalin said of the American Communist Party, that it had the “heresy of American exceptionalism,” which is how McCoy tries to tie the origination of the idea of American exceptionalism to the brutal Soviet dictator instead of Tocqueville.
McCoy wrote that this was meant not as a compliment but a ridicule of America for its “abnormalities.” McCoy then goes on to claim that the idea of American exceptionalism became big “a few years ago.”
However, the argument of McCoy on other liberals is merely over the etymology of the phrase instead of the ideas behind it.
Leftists clearly mean to denigrate American exceptionalism as a fictitious term created by conservative Republicans a few decades ago, instead of a timeless characteristic of the American experience.
American exceptionalism has even earlier roots than Tocqueville. American colonist John Winthrop gave a speech in a1630 called “A Model of Christian Charity,” also known as the “Shining City Upon a Hill” speech, in which he explained the special conditions of the New World and its incredible potential for the future.
“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world,” Winthrop said.
That Stalin meant to use the term “American exceptionalism” as a way to ridicule America should really be considered a positive instead of a negative. It was American exceptionalism that prevented communism from ever taking hold in the United States; the values of private property, popular government, individualism, and natural rights prevailed over the statist and collectivist ideas that took hold of countries throughout the world.
Toqueville said, “Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
As America was burgeoning into a powerful new country in the early 19th century, observers inside and out of the United States began to understand and express the ideas underpinning American exceptionalism.
The great American orator and statesman, Daniel Webster, who was originally from New Hampshire, but spent most of his political career in Massachusetts, described the special American character in a few famous orations.
In the Plymouth Oration in 1820, celebrating the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock, Webster said, “They left behind them the whole feudal policy of the other continent. The character of their political institutions was determined by the fundamental laws respecting property.”
In this statement Webster was describing how Americans left behind feudal and aristocratic institutions in Europe. There were no great class divides in America even before it became a country.
Webster further described the historical American character in his Bunker Hill Address in 1825:
They were accustomed to representative bodies and the forms of free government; they understood the doctrine of the division of power among different branches, and the necessity of checks on each. The character of our countrymen, moreover, was sober, moral, and religious; and there was, little in the change to shock their feelings of justice and humanity, or even to disturb an honest prejudice. We had no domestic throne to overturn, no privileged orders to cast down, no violent changes of property to encounter. In the American Revolution, no man sought or wished for more than to defend and enjoy his own.
All of the statements and observations about what construes American exceptionalism originated in the 18th century, were expounded upon and advanced in the 19th century and became the most critical factors in saving Western Civilization in the 20th century.
These American values are antithetical to the left-wing agenda, something educated liberals are keenly aware of. That is why they must discredit and subvert them at every opportunity, hence the attempted connection of American exceptionalism to Stalin.
In an article titled, Why America Needs the Left, written by Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York City, the author reveals the values that are at the heart of American liberalism and why they are out of step with the most deeply held American values.
Zaretsky wrote, “The American Left inherited the idea of a crisis from Marx, not just the kind of ‘economic crisis’ that characterized the Great Depression and that afflicts the country today, but also broader crises reflecting Marx’s influence on modern historiography.”
For the American left to survive in America there must be a crisis, according to Zaretsky. This is the only way that Americans will even consider abandoning their values. He claims that the three crises were “slavery, corporate capitalism and hyper-globalization.”
The connection to the left and abolition is fairly shaky, as the people that were most extreme in trying to free the slaves were either extremely religious, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, or considered the Constitution to be foundation for undoing the “peculiar institution” of slavery forever, such as in the case of men like former slave Frederick Douglas.
Modern parallels to abolitionists can probably more accurately be drawn to pro-life advocates calling for the end of abortion or Tea Party protestors demanding a return to the Constitution. These people are by no means a part of the liberal coalition in America.
The French writer, J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur, who became a naturalized American citizen, was the first to write about the character of the American people after the nation was formed.
Crevecoeur wrote in his Letters from an American Farmer in 1782, “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world,” he continued, “The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?”
What Crevecoeur was explaining was the American dream; the idea that every American has a chance to succeed based on their own merit, and that equality is achieved by unleashing humanity to pursue what is in their own self-interest. He is describing the melting pot that has been, and always should be, a part of the American ethic.
Embracing the idea of the melting pot is how America achieves racial and ethnic equality without losing its most deeply held values, something leftists have no desire to retain or restore.
Liberals have to fight traditional American ideals, because they stand in the way of the leftist radical agenda. They need to promote the idea of the “salad bowl” so that racial division continues, which is their only hope of creating the kind of class conflict and envy that allowed other countries to succumb to leftist ideology.
Counter to what E.J. Dionne claimed in his column, American exceptionalism does not stem from the policies of the president or any other governmental institution for that matter.
American exceptionalism is based on traditional characteristics embraced by American culture and described by Tocqueville: liberty, equality of opportunity, individualism, popular government and laissez-faire economics. It runs counter to collectivism, top-down government control, a massive and unaccountable bureaucratic-administrative state and equality of outcome.
These are the collectivist and statist ideologies that America resisted and defeated in the 20th century. It is why liberals must claw and scratch at every opportunity to undermine America’s very old, yet radically different values.