American Exceptionalism is the idea that the United States of America is unique among the nations of the world in that it was founded on the principles of individual liberty, private property rights, and equal justice for all. Because it is unique, the United States has a special role in the world and in human history.
America is a country uniquely founded upon a successful idea, rather than ethnicity, religion, borders, tribal identity, or other such traits.
In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island on September 9, 1790, George Washington expressed eloquently what made the new nation he led the most exceptional nation in the history of human existence.
“The citizens of the United States of America have the right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The values of the United States’ founding were always about aspirations, not claims of national perfection. Through freedom, this nation aspired to foster greatness among its people. As an honest look at American history shows, our founders and their successors succeeded admirably in creating a nation in which individual freedom set the stage for unprecedented levels of human accomplishment. Other nations began to adopt some of our principles, and they benefited accordingly.
Importantly, our founders understood that greatness and exceptionality come from the people, not the government, and government can foster goodness only by protecting individuals from aggression by others. As the nation’s founders recognized was likely to occur, governments at all levels in the United States have made countless unwise and indecent decisions, imposing great injustices, such as chattel slavery, indentured servitude, mistreatment of native populations, forced segregation, suffrage limitations, cronyism, and the like. These were not the actions of free people, however, but of governments, which are always subject to corruption, just as our nation’s founders and Constitution acknowledged and did their best to prepare for.
Unfortunately, beginning early in the twentieth century, many thinkers from other nations and within the United States began to characterize America and its traditional values as an impediment to progress and human thriving. That was the very opposite of the truth, but it made its way into the American psyche through a concerted effort by propagandists such as followers of Antonio Gramsci, Progressive politicians and writers of the early twentieth century, educator John Dewey, the Frankfurt School, the New Left, and teacher and writer Howard Zinn, whose A People’s History of the United States has been hugely influential in the past four-plus decades in synthesizing these other writers’ thinking into a characterization of the United States as uniquely corrupt and evil throughout its history.
Zinn and those others took what has always been less than perfect in the United States—our governments— and characterized governments’ failings as the essence of American history. These polemicists ignored or denigrated the principles of the nation’s founding, which were aspirations, not an expectation of perfection, as the latter is never to be fully achieved because of the limitations of human nature.
The principles on which the United States was founded still stand and are still noble. The idea of American exceptionalism is a tradition of which we should be proud. It points the way toward national greatness: the greatness of a people despite the imperfections and limitations of government.