Sunday, July 4, 2010

American Exceptionalism

Set apart from the nations of the earth, the United States is like no other. Where other nations are built on a shared ethnicity and historical, geographical boundaries, the United States is built on “self-evident” principles or truths. In our Declaration of Independence, we announced these truths to the world. Boldly, we stated that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

With this announcement to the world and our subsequent open debates, these principles have been at the forefront of our national identity. Hiding from them has not been an option. Willingly and openly we have allowed the world to judge us in light of our values. Have we always measured up to our own standards? No, of course not. We have stumbled and we have fallen. But overwhelmingly our story is one of progress for us and mankind.

From our very beginning we have hoped to create something new and different, something better. Having escaped the aristocratic inertia of Europe, we allowed for new opportunities for all people. Our forefathers toiled for a nation where an individual would be free to pursue their dreams, bound only by their personal limitations. As Thomas Jefferson stated: “Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author.” Or as Henry Ward Beecher proclaimed: “The real democratic idea is, not that every man shall be on a level with every other, but that every one shall have liberty, without hindrance, to be what God made him.”

These ideals, put into action on the American continent, set the course for our nation one individual at a time. As a nation of immigrants, we invited others, the world’s poor and downtrodden. Escaping the drudgery of class-based societies, often they sacrificed all they possessed to include property, relations, and names to come to America. Longing for the opportunity to take charge of their own future and well-being, they came to a land where success was not only possible, but likely when pursued with intelligence and hard work. They arrived penniless and turned their misfortune into fortune. Each brought the best of their culture and contributed it to our culture. Each adopted the best that we had to offer, passing it on to new generations.

Our society placed freedom of the individual on a pedestal. Our Constitution sought to protect those freedoms from those with good and ill intentions. Individual freedom naturally combined with personal responsibility to demand of each their best if they hoped for prosperity and success. We abandoned mercantilist ideas that admitted that wealth was a limited quantity. Rather we dared to declare that wealth could be created by the value of our lives and our efforts. And we created wealth. We created wealth on a scale never before seen.

The competitiveness inherent in the American spirit has contributed to our successes. Each individual, each businessman, each politician, each athlete knows that the hope for success demands their best. Success in America can suffer no less. Competition calls forth the best in ideas and effort. Today’s losers learn and become tomorrow’s winners. The competition of our free market creates a cycle of progression. Stagnation is not natural to such a system. Each set back demands new ideas and greater efforts. Every time we have stumbled, each time we have fallen, the current generation has stepped forward and embraced the challenge.

In America, the successes and failures of the government belong to us. They are our responsibility. Our Constitutional form of government was developed with this purpose in mind—to lay the responsibility of the government at our feet. Our elected officials and their actions are a reflection of us. Throughout our history we have elected great leaders committed to our values. And when necessary, we have replaced elected officials willing to ignore our values.

Our failures and missteps glare at us, often highlighted by our friends and enemies alike. How do we justify the existence of slavery and Jim Crow laws when compared to our Declaration of Independence? We can’t justify those aspects of our history and we shouldn’t try. America is great because some part of us has always known those things were wrong. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The greatness of American lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly we have overcome our weaknesses and mistakes. Progress will continue.

For the majority of our individuals, our founding principles remain firmly fixed. As any traveler through mortality, striving to do his best, America ought to be held to the highest standard and expectations. Looking back, however, let us forgive ourselves of mistakes overcome. Let us celebrate our founding principles and our willingness to allow not only ourselves but the entire world as well to hold us to them. Hold to them and do not abandon them.

America is exceptional. Whether or not she remains so is up to us.

- Jarad Van Wagoner

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