What Makes the USA Exceptional?
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide…whether societies…are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. (Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1)
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. (Washington’s Farewell address)
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address)
You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close to lift your eyes beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind. (JFK’s ‘Berlin Wall’ speech)
I hear talk of the revival of ‘American exceptionalism’. But before evaluating the significance of that phrase, reason and common-sense demand that we reflect on its meaning. It brings to mind something singled out on account of some unique or extraordinary feature or characteristic, which distinguishes it from what is, as a general rule, to be expected. When the United States simply had no serious rivals for wealth and power in the world, it was tempting to think that this preeminence was what made us exceptional. This warranted the view that, as our preeminence dwindles, the term must gradually cease to apply. Ironically, this is somewhat confirmed by President Trump’s commitment to “Make America Great Again” by restoring our economic and military might.
But when the greatness of the United States was still a future prospect, George Washington spoke of Americans as “a free, enlightened people”, worthy to give humanity an exceptional example of justice and goodwill. Even before Washington spoke, Hamilton cited the common opinion that humanity’s escape from the tyranny of force and happenstance hinged on America’s example. As quoted above, the first Republican President, and the last Democrat fully worthy of that name, expressed the understanding that the commitment to right and well-doing was America’s vocation, in service not just to ourselves alone, but to all humanity.
Thus, through all the generations since our nation began, people have understood that our exceptional character as a nation is not, at its heart, a material fact or goal. It has to do with our determination to serve justice, doing what is right according to a standard that applies and appeals to people everywhere. It calls them to advance toward “the day of peace with justice”, when the nations of the earth have learned to cherish the special nature of their distinct and separate identities—not as rubrics of conflict and exclusion, but as particular expressions of the good nature all people have in common.
Isn’t this vocation for humanity the special common ground that upholds our identity as a people? It does not mean that we should not adamantly defend ourselves, as a nation. But it does mean that we should never do so without remembering our determination to respect the obligations of humanity. We are bound to respect them, even when others, by refusing to do likewise, prove themselves to be our enemies.
To be sure, this special sense of obligation is a function of our faith in the benevolence of our Creator. God makes us free to be what we are, in particular, according to His will. He determines, once and for all, what makes us especially outstanding, in respect of the rest of Creation. This juxtaposition of distinctiveness and commonality; individuality and community, means that we are, at once, self-consciously a nation, but nonetheless conscious of our union with the rest of humanity, and even the rest of Creation. Isn’t this self-consciously humane nationalism the truly exceptional characteristic of the American people? It has ever been reflected in our ultimate determination to welcome and represent the best that nations of every variety have made of the humanity we have in common.
It is therefore especially right that we preserve ourselves as a nation. But we are not thus preserved by acting for ourselves alone. We must self-consciously serve the good of all humanity. As God, though answering for the whole, still calls each thing by name; so, we, in answering for ourselves, must heed the responsibility God gives us for the whole. For in proving thus responsible to Him, we reflect the truth that actually accounts for the exceptional quality of our existence—as individuals; as a nation; and as a species of the whole He has ever in mind for us.
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