contemporary building facades against sea in usa

American Exceptionalism

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Photo by Quintin Gellar on

I started this article a few weeks ago and have let it sit here for a while. I needed time for the idea to marinate, and still do, really. So, here are my random thoughts influenced by my recent experiences in the classroom and influenced by a book I’m currently reading about the infamous Samuel Adams.

Something I’ve noticed while teaching: my students tend to be afraid of talking too positively about America.

Particularly, students seem to display an aversion to the idea of American exceptionalism… not all of them, but many. And in some ways, rightly so. It’s easy for citizens of any country to wear rose colored classes when looking at their own country, and unintentionally demean other countries. We should never blindly worship or critique America, but rather see her a whole country, with the good and bad parts.

However, even knowing this, I still wince when my students scoff at the idea of America being exceptional in any way. Even though America has flaws, can she not also have exceptional traits? All countries are exceptional in some way, is America an exception?

statue of liberty

Now, this is just my own anecdotal experience so I can’t argue that every American is reticent to talk positively about America, but I think that we all likely notice the current zeitgeist, which is to easily and frequently critique but rarely praise this country.

Let me set the record straight. It’s a normal and even healthy trait to feel allegiance towards and pride in one’s country. If no one loved their country, or found anything exceptional about them, countries would cease to exist altogether. The perversion of national pride has led us to believe that all national pride is somehow evil and to be avoided. I feel the need to clarify this here as I’ve had to say this to my classes many times. It’s as if my students are ashamed to feel pride in America. And while no one has to feel pride in America, or has to see certain aspects of America as exceptional, my concern is more that student’s are being taught that there is nothing exceptional about the idea of America. And it’s the idea of America that, if successfully killed, destroys liberty.

See, as I teach, research and learn more about America, I recognize, more and more, what has made her so exceptional.

This does not mean that America is the only exceptional country. All countries have something exceptional about them because all countries are unique and different.

So, we should not be embarrassed or ashamed to admit that America is truly exceptional. Saying that one country has exceptional qualities about her does not in turn mean that others do not. And America’s exceptionalism is not a personal opinion, it’s reality. There are simply certain aspects of America that are unlike any other country–in world history (as I’m sure most countries could say). The world has changed because of America, and in many ways, changed for the better.

I think sometimes we lose sight of what true liberty does for people, societies and the world. America, even with her flaws, has been, and continues to be a symbol of liberty. It’s not America, per se, but liberty that changed the world.

And liberty is a rare commodity. The creation of this country, based upon the ideals of liberty, happened against all odds.

Everything in American affairs happens contrary to probability,” said Thomas Hutchinson, the beleaguered and royal governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony at the dawn of the Revolution.

The rarity and even sheer impossibility of a country created upon the ideals of liberty and limited government should be acknowledged and appreciated. It should be seen exceptional.

When something is exceptional, it’s also considered precious, rare, and valuable.

The modern day definition of exceptional is: “being out of the ordinary”. If something is out of the ordinary, it’s rare, abnormal, phenomenal and peculiar.

America–more notably, the liberty and limited government that America stands for–is out of the ordinary, rare, abnormal, phenomenal and peculiar.

Friends, it just is.

Yet, more and more, “American exceptionalism” is considered taboo, wrong, or short-sighted. Which implies, what?

crop unrecognizable patriot celebrating memorial day showing american flag

That liberty, and limited government are not rare, out of the ordinary, abnormal, phenomenal and peculiar. Sure, America, the flawed country, has had her problems–but the liberty that has been allowed to grow here is truly exceptional.

Pretending otherwise is to devalue and minimize liberty and the cost that liberty required. If Americans begin to see their ability to complain at government without government retribution, or to go out and look for a job, or go to a grocery store and buy what they want unmonitored–in short, liberty–as ho hum, ordinary, expected and deserved then they will no longer see their way of living, or liberty, as worth fighting for… as worth educating themselves for or as rare and precious as it truly is.

Liberty is then no longer exceptional.

It’s expected and ordinary.

And friends, liberty is and has never been ordinary–nor has it ever been long kept, or expected.

Someone once said, “It is easy to take liberty for granted, when you have never had it taken from you”.

I wince when I hear people berate American exceptionalism and until articulating here, I don’t think I fully understood why. I know America has her demons and I truly believe it’s unhealthy to pretend that America’s past is unblemished.

contemporary building facades against sea in usa

So, it’s not that I believe America should be blindly glorified as exceptional beyond reproach. But when people drag America down to be unexceptional, ordinary, ho hum and no different than any other country in the world or in history (which can be said of no country ever anyway), I flinch because it’s not the flawed humans in our past who I care to protect, but the idea America stands for and represents. To drag America down and claim that she has nothing exceptional about her is to diminish liberty itself, the lives lost to protect it, and the lives saved and bettered because of it. To say America is unexceptional is to say liberty is unexceptional. This means that generations who are taught to see America as unexceptional are never taught to value and cherish liberty as the rare and precious gem that it is.

Because friends, liberty and limited government are rare and are valuable and are exceptional. Liberty and limited government should never be minimized.

Now that I think about it, perhaps the government wants a generation believing that America and American liberty is unexceptional so that they will not fight to protect that liberty by limiting the power of government.

And who’s to say government wouldn’t want that?

The Liberty Belle

3 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism”

  1. It can take thousands of words to describe American exceptionalism but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

    American Exceptionalism is not propaganda or a myth; it is the understanding that the only way to the make the most of oneself is to have the freedom to do so. Some of the first colonists to land on the shores of the new world believed that they had a mandate from God to create a new society here. ”A Shining City on the Hill”. Later in our history the founding fathers attempted to define it further with the Bill of Rights and Constitution. A Constitution designed to protect our rights not by evolving, but by enduring. Even later it is defined by the tablet on Liberty Island about welcoming “the tired and the weak”. American exceptionalism doesn’t specify who is more American than the next but simply defines it by the phrase “E pluribus unum” (one out of many)

    When we say the “American experiment”, this is not a cliche. The creation of the U.S. government really was an experiment, based on theories and assumptions about human nature and government. The framers had no idea if what they put together would actually work and result in liberty not only being preserved but promoted. America is unique in all the world in that we are not formed based on geography, or ethnicity, or religion, but on an idea. The only nation in the world founded on an idea. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Sure we have slipped over the course of our history and there is room for improvement in our actions. But much of that fallibility was brought on by our fears and prejudices of the immediate times. By the faults of human nature which the founding fathers attempted to address but realized was impossible. We can do better, but exceptionalism means “We the people……” must determine our future not factions or demagogues. “We the people means ALL the people with no exception!

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