Americans like to believe that they are an exceptional people. We speak of ourselves as a nation lifting our light beside the golden door, a people who “more than self their country loved and mercy more than life,” in the words of “America the Beautiful.” The first person to apply the term “exceptional” to Americans was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his prophetic survey of American life in the 1830s, Democracy in America. But the germ of the idea had been around even longer, and it has never lost its grip on our imagination. Rallying Americans to his program for a new “Morning in America,” Ronald Reagan described America in almost mystical terms as a “shining city on a hill.” The light it shone with was like none that lighted any other nation. “I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way,” Reagan said in 1983, “that there was some divine plan that placed the two great continents here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the Earth who had a deep love for freedom.” In his 2012 presidential bid, Mitt Romney hailed America as “an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.” By contrast, the man who defeated Romney pointedly spoke of America in unexceptional terms, explaining to the Financial Times that if America was exceptional, it was only in the same sense that “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” American exceptionalism has almost become a modern political litmus test.
But what is “American exceptionalism”—and what is exceptional about it? Reagan’s invocation of the “shining city on a hill” echoed what many commentators have assumed is the basic statement of American exceptionalism: John Winthrop’s layman’s sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered to the colonists he was leading to find refuge for English Puritans in Massachusetts in 1629. But none of the British North American colonies—not even Winthrop’s Massachusetts—saw itself as an exception to the basic European assumptions about how a society should be organized. All the colonies, in varying measures, believed that societies were organized as hierarchies—pyramids, if you will—with the king at the top, the lords and nobility beneath, and the common folk on the bottom. Like all good pyramids, the colonial one was supposed to be static; each layer was to work reciprocally with the others, not in competition. The idea that people could start small and poor and work their way up to the top was considered dangerous. Those who did make it to the top did so, not through work but through the patronage of those already there. There would remain differences between England and its colonies—as native-born Englishmen would remind their colonial brethren—but those distinctions existed within the same recognizable European hierarchy of kings, lords, and commons.
That might have been the way America developed, too, if not for two events. The first was the Enlightenment, which proposed a radically exceptional way of reconceiving human societies. The Enlightenment began as a scientific movement, and especially as a rebellion by scientists like Galileo and Isaac Newton, against the medieval interpretation of the physical world. Medieval thinkers viewed the physical universe as no less a hierarchy than the political world, with Earth at the bottom, and ascending in levels of perfection through the moon, the planets, the stars, and finally, the heavens. This structure had already begun to come apart in the 1500s, when Niklaus Copernicus insisted that viewing the solar system in this way was contradicted by observing the motion of the planets themselves. But it took its greatest blow from Galileo, who trained the newfangled telescope on the moon and observed that nothing about it looked like the next step up in a hierarchy from Earth. It remained for Isaac Newton to show us that the various parts of the physical world were not related by order or rank but by natural laws and forces, like gravity, which were uniform and equal in the operation.
Eventually, people wondered whether the new rules that described the operations of the physical world might have some application to the political world, too. Taking their cue from the revolution in the physical sciences, philosophers sought to describe a natural political order, free of artificial hierarchies such as kings, lords, and commons. They dared to talk about equality rather than pyramids, about universal natural rights rather than inherited status, about commerce rather than patronage, and to question why some half-wit should get to wear a crown, just because his father had done so. But all the Enlightenment’s political philosophers could offer as alternatives were thought experiments about desert islands or ideal commonwealths, and the kings continued to sit undisturbed on their thrones.
The second event was the one that really gave birth to American exceptionalism: the American Revolution. For in one stupendous burst of energy, Americans overturned the entire structure—political, constitutional, legal, and social—of hierarchy and applied the Enlightenment’s thought experiments about equality and natural rights to practical politics.
The confidence that Americans displayed in the existence of a natural political order based on natural rights and natural law was so profound that Thomas Jefferson could describe the most basic of these rights—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—as “self-evident.” The Virginia Declaration of Rights—another product of the year 1776—explained that “all men . . . have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Americans did not merely demand a corrected version of British common law or Britain’s hierarchical society; they proclaimed that they were creating a novus ordo seclorum. Their voice, said Frederick Douglass, “was as the trump of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time-honored tyranny, to judgment. . . . It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages.”
“The idea that people could start small and poor and work their way up to the top was considered dangerous.”
Creating a new politics in America that broke decisively with the past proved surprisingly easier than we might have expected. Whatever lip service they had paid to the old theories of hierarchy during the century and a half before 1776, the colonists, in everyday practice, had developed their own consent-based civil society, created ad hoc legislatures, written their own laws, and spread landownership so broadly across the North Atlantic seaboard that, by the time of the Revolution, 90 percent of the colonists were landowners. Benjamin Franklin remembered that his father, a tallow chandler in Boston, had no particular education, “but his great Excellence lay in a sound understanding and solid judgment in prudential matters, both in private and publick affairs. . . . I remember well his being frequently visited by leading people, who consulted him for his opinion in affairs of the town or of the church he belonged to, and showed a good deal of respect for his judgment and advice: he was also . . . frequently chosen an arbitrator between contending parties.” Americans like Franklin’s father were, in effect, already desert islands and ideal commonwealths; the political philosophy of the Enlightenment gave them a theory that matched the realities they had been living.
The American mix of Enlightenment theory and practical experience in government produced a result that was seen from the first as—there is no other word for it—exceptional. In revolutionary America, reveled Tom Paine, Americans are about “to begin the world over again. . . . The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months.” That “portion of freedom” would be a political order with no ranks, no prelates, no hierarchy; a government that limited itself, and confined itself by a written Constitution; and an identity based not on race or blood or soil or ancestry or even language but on a single proposition as relentlessly logical as it was frighteningly brief, that “all men are created equal.”
In European eyes, this was folly. The American decision to license equal citizens to govern themselves invited anarchy. Too many areas of public life, argued Otto von Bismarck in 1870, required an authoritative government to intervene and direct, and the more that authority was based on hierarchy and monarchy, the better. “Believe me,” prophesied Bismarck, “one cannot lead or bring to prosperity a great nation without the principle of authority—that is, the Monarchy.”
Americans compensated for whatever vacuum was made by limiting government through the invention of private, voluntary associations, “little communities by themselves,” as Pennsylvania leader George Bryan called them, to manage their affairs, without the need for a swollen imperial bureaucracy 3,000 miles away. And so they did: in Philadelphia alone, newly independent Americans created the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes, the Guardians of the Poor of the City of Philadelphia, the Female Society of Philadelphia for the Relief and Employment of the Poor, the Hibernian Society, the Magdalen Society for the Shelter and Reformation of Fallen Women, the Society of the Free Instruction of Female Children, the Philadelphia Society for the Free Instruction of Indigent Boys, the Indigent Widows and Single Women’s Society—all without government sanction. Americans took association to the level of an art. Tocqueville surveyed the proliferation of American self-help groups and concluded that “the extraordinary fragmentation of administrative power” in America was offset by the multiplicity of “religious, moral . . . commercial and industrial associations” that substituted themselves for European lords and chancellors.
Thus, American exceptionalism began as a new kind of politics. Americans had not merely done something different; they had captured in living form a natural order that made the old political systems of Europe look as artificial and irrational as fully as Newton’s laws had made medieval physics irrelevant. “We Americans are the peculiar chosen people,” wrote Herman Melville, “the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”
But establishing a novel political framework was to create only the first leg of what became a three-legged stool of American exceptionalism. If it was not inherited rank and titles that gave authority in society, then it was up to the free initiative of citizens to make of themselves what they wanted, and with government itself so deliberately self-limited, their energies would run instead in the direction of commerce. They would create not only a new politics but also a new economy—the second leg.
“What, then, is the American, this new man?” asked transplanted Frenchman Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in 1782. “He is an American,” Crèvecoeur replied, 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.” Inside the stiff boundaries of hierarchy, Europeans looked down upon labor as slavery and trade as the unsavory pursuit of the small-minded bourgeoisie—in America, there was almost nothing except a bourgeoisie, and it gloried in labor and commerce. British novelist Frances Trollope was appalled to listen to Americans “in the street, on the road, or in the field, at the theatre, the coffee-house, or at home,” who never seemed to talk “without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them.” But other Europeans were enchanted by the liberty of American commerce. J. C. Loudoun’s Encyclopaedia of Agriculture recommended that its British readers emigrate to America, since the American “form of government” guaranteed that “property is secure, and personal liberty greater there than anywhere else . . . and both maintained at less expense than under any government in the world.” In America, wrote the French evangelical pastor Georges Fisch, in 1863, “There is no restraint whatever on the liberty of business transactions.” Nor did it matter much who succeeded on a given day and who didn’t, because the next day those who were down were likely to be up.
Abraham Lincoln captured this dynamic when he said that in America, “every man can make himself.” There would always be extremes of wealth and inequalities of enterprise. What mitigated those inequalities was an incessant tumbling-up and tumbling-down, so that one man’s wealth achieved at one moment could pass into the hands of others at another. “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world,” Lincoln said in 1859 (with his own history in mind), “labors for wages a while, 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, represented a “just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all.” Not all would prosper, but that was no argument against the “system” as a whole.
Significantly, the energy with which Americans threw themselves into unfettered commercial exchange was soon seen as a primary obstacle in the path of a newer enemy of hierarchy—socialism—which emerged out of the self-inflicted wreckage of nineteenth-century aristocracies. Socialism’s great architect, Karl Marx, believed that every society would move out of the old world of hierarchy into capitalism; inevitably, capitalism would yield to socialism; hence, the more advanced a nation becomes in capitalism, the closer it must be to embracing socialism—and eventually Communism.
But Marx was baffled by how the United States defied this rule. No nation seemed more fully imbued with capitalism, yet no nation showed less interest in becoming socialist. This became one of the unresolved puzzles of socialist theory, and it gave rise to frustrated socialists (like Werner Sombart) who struggled with the question: Why is there no socialism in America? Sombart blamed it on the drug of material abundance: socialism, he complained, had foundered in America “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” But another socialist, Leon Samson, had seen better than Sombart that the real enemy of socialism was exceptionalism itself, because Americans give “a solemn assent to a handful of final notions—democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically much as a socialist adheres to his socialism.”
Actually, Marx and Sombart were wrong. There had been an American socialism; they were reluctant to recognize it as such because it came not in the form of a workers’ rebellion against capital but in the emergence of a plantation oligarchy in the slaveholding South. This “feudal socialism,” based on race, called into question all the premises of American exceptionalism, starting with the Declaration of Independence. Nor were slavery’s apologists shy about linking this oligarchy to European socialism, since, as George Fitzhugh asserted in 1854, “Slavery produces association of labor, and is one of the ends all Communists and Socialists desire.” What was extraordinary about this vast step away from American exceptionalism was the titanic effort that Americans made, in the Civil War, to correct it. That struggle—a civil war that (as Lincoln said) understood the American republic to be “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and aimed at the completion of the project of political equality for all its people—may be the most exceptional moment in all of American history, for there is no record of any other conflict quite like the war that Americans waged among themselves, to “die to make men free.” And everyone, down to the slaves themselves, knew that freedom and equality were means toward social mobility and economic self-transformation, not a frozen egalitarianism. “We have as a people no past and very little present, but a boundless and glorious future,” said Frederick Douglass, himself once a slave—one who nevertheless believed that American opportunity was without a copy anywhere else. “America is not only the exception to the general rule, but the social wonder of the world.”
The third leg of the exceptionalist stool was the attitude and relationship that the United States was to adopt toward the rest of the world, where hierarchy still ruled. This has proved a wobbly leg—it divides even exceptionalists—if only because Americans’ notions of what exceptionalism dictates in terms of policy toward other nations have changed since the Founding.
The novelty of exceptionalism’s first two legs—politics and economics—was so great that it was hard for Americans not to see them as part of a deliberate plan. Even before the Revolution, Jonathan Edwards, the architect of American religious revivals, had viewed America as the linchpin of a scheme of divine redemption for the world. “We may well look upon the discovery of so great a part of the world as America, and bringing the gospel into it,” he wrote, “as one thing by which divine Providence is preparing the way for the future glorious times of the church.” Timothy Dwight, Edwards’s grandson, took to poetry to translate these expectations about America’s role in redeeming Earth from Satan into a sacred mission to proclaim an American political gospel:
As the day-spring unbounded, thy splendor shall flow,
And earth’s little kingdoms before thee shall bow;
While the ensigns of union, in triumph unfurl’d,
Hush the tumult of war, and give peace to the world.
But if God did have a special role for America, it was one that America was strictly charged to keep safe on its own shores; its role would be passive and self-protective. Far from any desire to share their nation’s redemptive culture, Americans tended to regard the rest of the world as a potential threat, eager to strangle the American experiment by the reimposition of empire or by association with more unstable attempts at revolution—as in France. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be,” promised John Quincy Adams in 1821. “But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” So when the Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth came to America in 1852 to drum up support for his rebellion against the Austrian Empire, Lincoln spoke of him cordially, based on “our continued devotion to the principles of our free institutions.” But Lincoln made it plain that “it is the duty of our government to neither foment, nor assist, such revolutions in other governments.”
We were not, however, always consistent in this. The outsize influence of Southern slaveholding interests in American politics in the 1840s helped drag us into a war with Mexico, for no better reason than to acquire large stretches of territory that Southerners hoped to convert into slave states. We half-blundered into the Spanish-American War in 1898 and found ourselves with a colonial empire on our hands, in the form of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and, for all practical purposes, Cuba. And in 1917, we thrust ourselves into World War I behind President Woodrow Wilson’s notion that American democracy ought to be exported to Europe. These attempts to convert American exceptionalism into a missionary endeavor nearly always met with sabotage by other nations, which resented our claims to some unique political virtue; and they met with serious criticism by other Americans—even outright rejection, as when America declined to join the League of Nations.
But even those criticisms disappeared after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which not only thrust us again into a worldwide conflict but also presented the question of how we could prevent such world crises from erupting. It had been demonstrated one too many times to American policymakers that the European states, left to themselves, were incapable of establishing a peaceful continental order; so we have found ourselves, ever since, forced into the role of savior of civilization, whether through the Marshall Plan, NATO, NAFTA, the Security Council, or sometimes through simple unilateralism.
We have accepted this role since World War II, often because we believed we had little choice. But this role has had an adverse effect on American exceptionalism by repeatedly involving the United States in foreign-policy projects that do not yield easily to American solutions—and that then raise doubts about the exceptionalist assumptions behind those solutions. When we have turned to multilateral or multinational solutions, we find ourselves yoked to European and other allies, which, even if they have long since shucked the mantle of aristocracy and inherited hierarchy, have often replaced it with vast social bureaucracies that serve much the same purpose. If we act unilaterally, we find ourselves hounded by international condemnations of American claims of arrogance based on exceptionalism. If we fail to act, we are accused of isolationism.
The third leg is not the only one to suffer the wobbles. We are, for one thing, becoming less reliant on voluntary associations to accomplish the tasks of American society. We often see this illustrated in statistics showing how millennials have staged an unprecedented withdrawal from American churches, so that the share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. But this is only part of a larger American withdrawal from a broad range of voluntary associations, from the PTA to bowling leagues. Between 1973 and 1995, the number of Americans who reported attending “a public meeting on town or school affairs” fell by more than a third; PTA membership fell from more than 12 million in 1964 to barely 5 million in 1982. Even mainline civic organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, have suffered declines since the 1970s. In the most general sense, Americans’ trust in one another has declined from a peak in the mid-1960s (when 56 percent of survey respondents affirmed that “most people can be trusted”) to a low today, in which only one in three Americans believes that “most people can be trusted.” Among millennials, it’s as low as one in five.
In the place of voluntary association, we have come to rely on state agencies and administrative law. This development has roots leading back to the Progressivism of the past century, which believed that American society had become too complex to be left to ordinary citizens, who lack the expertise to make government work efficiently. The same conviction animates modern progressives, as illustrated by the notorious 2012 campaign video The Life of Julia, which casts the life of one American as an utterly unexceptional progress through one European-style bureaucracy after another.
We have also seen the rise of identity politics, which has made us shy of asserting the old exceptionalism because every identity is now considered exceptional in itself. One’s identity as an American fades—even becomes optional—beside one’s identity as part of an ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural minority. This moves us a world away from Lincoln’s belief that the proposition set out in the Declaration trumped all other identities.
We’re no longer even sure that the Declaration has persuasive power. We are, writes Peter Beinart, “products of an educational system that, more than in the past, emphasizes inclusion and diversity, which may breed a discontent with claims that America is better than other nations.” Even conservative jurists like the late William Rehnquist allowed that U.S. courts should “begin looking to the decisions of other [nations’] constitutional courts to aid in their deliberative process.”
But nothing in our national life has so undermined confidence in American exceptionalism as the erosion of economic mobility. From the time we began measuring gross domestic product in the 1940s until 1970, American GDP grew at an average annual rate of 2.7 percent; from 1970 to 1994, it slid to a growth rate of only 1.54 percent, recovered briefly to 2.26 percent, and then began sliding to its pre-Trump level of 1.21 percent. From 1948 until 1972, Americans in the lower 90 percent of income-earners saw their incomes rise by 2.65 percent annually—almost twice the income growth experienced by the same group between 1917 and 1948. Since 1972, though, the growth rate for the 90 percent has collapsed—in fact, turned negative—and middle-class workers who began their careers in the center of the earnings curve have seen their fortunes decline by 20 percent since 1980. The United States has become as economically immobile as the United Kingdom, where the top 10 percent calcify into a self-perpetuating aristocracy that sees itself as part of global networks of communications and exchange and feels little sympathy for those left behind.
“Nothing has so undermined confidence in American exceptionalism as the erosion of economic mobility.”
Is American exceptionalism merely an artifact of an earlier, more confident time in our history, which should now yield to the blandishments of globalization and conformity to multinational expectations? Only, I think, if we regard the ideas of the American Founders as being mere historical artifacts, too. What made the American experiment exceptional was precisely that it was not founded (like other national identities) on some myth or tribal legend but on the discovery of natural laws and natural rights as unarguable as gravity and born from the same intellectual source. Unhappily, natural law philosophy has been bumped from its place as the American philosophy by the pragmatism of William James and his heirs, and even more by the values pluralism of John Rawls and literary postmodernism. These approaches were supposed to liberate the mind from the restraint of fictitious narratives of honor, truth, and law—but overthrowing these principles merely became a platform for egotism and unfettered lust for power.
To discount American exceptionalism is to suggest that the American political order itself was only a figment of one nation’s imagination, at one time. If there is no such natural law, then, yes, let us discard exceptionalism; but let us then say that neither the old hierarchy nor the new bureaucracy is wrong, either, and accept that all politics is merely an arena in which power, rather than law or right, determines our future.
I believe that the American experiment, based on the Declaration and embodied in the Constitution, belongs to an exceptional moment in human history, and remains exceptional. I believe that the U.S. economy is flexible enough to recover its mobility and astonish the world with its capacity to disrupt artificial barriers. And I believe that we can repair the deviations we have sustained from an overconfident mission-mentality without needing to accommodate ourselves to the mores of globalization. Globalization, after all, has been no great success; its main accomplishment, as Christopher Lasch reminded us in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites, has not been international peace or prosperity but “the cosmopolitanism of the favored few . . . uninformed by the practice of citizenship.”
The task of restoring confidence in our exceptionalism will nevertheless be a daunting one. Exceptionalism will have to become what Lincoln called a “civil religion,” to be “breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap . . . taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges . . . written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs . . . preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.” The task will require a determined pushback against progressive unexceptionalism and the idea that only government can ensure efficiency and happiness. It will involve the revival of the rule of law (rather than agencies), the rejuvenation of our voluntary associations, and the celebration of their role in our public life. And it will force us to lift the burden of economic sclerosis, not merely with the aim of producing simple material abundance but also with the goal of promoting a national empathy, in which, as Georges Fisch saw in 1863, Americans rise and fall, and rise and fall again, without the stigma that consigns half the nation to a basket of deplorables.
Can this, realistically, be done? Can we disentangle our public life from the grasp of the new hierarchy of bureaucrats and, overseas, pull back from foreign-policy crusades? Can we, in short, recur successfully to our first principles?
Well, we did it once before.
Top Photo: A scene from the American Revolutionary War, as depicted on the Washington Monument (PHAS/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES)