Why America is Exceptional

Ed. Note: Our country was founded on the principle that the citizens are in charge, not the government. The government exists to serve us and provide some big ticket items like national defense and to conduct foreign policy but otherwise to leave us alone to live in our own States. No Founder intended for it to be providing stuff, regulating lives, and dictating that we have to buy health insurance or anything else. We can and have taken care of ourselves, at least until the last one hundred years. Coddling citizens does not allow them to live free and grow in their personal and economic freedom. Republished from Washington Times, by David Deming, December 29, 2014.

There is a debate in this country over whether or not our schools should teach American exceptionalism. Few people, however, seem to understand what American exceptionalism is.

It has nothing to do with democracy. Many countries have democratic elections. Neither is exceptionalism a claim of supremacy. Americans do not claim to be better than people living in other countries. Exceptionalism does not refer to superiority in wealth, status or any of the other advantages derived from civilization. The United States has high economic productivity, good schools, technologically advanced infrastructure and a high standard of living. Still, so do many other countries.

America, meaning the United States, is exceptional because it is the only nation built upon the idea that people are born with inalienable natural rights, and that governments exist to protect and preserve these rights. The key ideas were expressed succinctly and elegantly by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal” under the law. People have intrinsic natural rights that cannot be surrendered. These include the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” “Governments are instituted among men,” not for the purpose of obtaining arbitrary power, but for securing the natural rights of the citizenry from infringement by either individuals or factions.

If the United States has enjoyed pre-eminence in the world, it is not because our framework was cobbled together haphazardly by a rabble of farmers and provincial rubes. The political theory upon which the nation was founded was the fruition of more than 2,000 years of Western political theory and experience. Natural rights come from natural law, a concept known and discussed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. A theory of government founded upon the rights of man was fully expounded at the end of the 17th century by John Locke in his treatises on civil government. Locke was widely read in the American Colonies, and the American Revolution constituted the very embodiment of his ideas.

The origins of federalism and the separation of powers are usually attributed to Montesquieu, but these concepts also have roots deep in human history. Federalism can be traced to the alliances and leagues formed by the city-states of ancient Greece. Separation of powers was practiced in the Roman republic, where authority was divided among the consuls, the Senate and the assemblies.

For centuries preceding the American Revolution, the English had been asserting their liberties and restricting the power of kings and arbitrary government. From the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the rights of individuals grew as the power of the English monarchy declined. The American Revolution and rebellion against King George III was the inevitable outcome of a long evolutionary trend toward liberty and self-government.

How can a government ostensibly erected to protect natural rights have accepted and implicitly endorsed racial slavery? The answer was provided by a contemporary observer and ardent abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet concluded that our ancestors had done the best they could under the circumstances. “If one can reasonably reproach the Americans, it is only for particular errors or for ancient abuses which circumstances have not permitted them to correct.”

The United States government was erected to protect the natural rights of its citizens, to establish a national defense, to create infrastructure and to provide other limited functions consistent with a free state. Our government was not designed to provide commodities for individuals, whether these be food, housing, health care or education. To the extent this occurs, it is a perversion of our founding principles. Our system was designed for a hardy and independent folk, not a people that want to be coddled and taken care of.

The equality spoken of in the Declaration of Independence is equality before the law, not equality in wealth or status. The right to pursue happiness is not the right to obtain happiness. Absolute equality is incompatible with liberty. A free people will sort themselves out according to their individual aptitudes and inclinations. Inequality of circumstances is the hallmark of liberty.

American exceptionalism was obtained at a steep cost. The Patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War often lacked food and clothes. They endured winters without shoes, and their marches were marked by blood on the snow. Rights dearly secured should not be lightly abandoned. If we are to endure as a nation, we must cherish exceptionalism as our unique identity.

• David Deming is professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “Black & White: Politically Incorrect Essays on Politics, Culture, Science, Religion, Energy and Environment” (CreateSpace, 2011).

Republished from The Washington Times.  CLICK HERE to read the original.

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