When the notion of the United States of America and American Exceptionalism is shot across the bow, there is an amazing and yet diverse tapestry of opinions. One citizen might feel a sense of pride, while another citizen might feel a sense of skepticism or shame. Thus, American Exceptionalism is like a Rorschach Test for many Americans in that they see what they want to see. But what if American Exceptionalism has been misunderstood? What if both the patriot and the skeptic have misunderstand the notion of American Exceptionalism?
I always had a notion of being an American but I was not able to put it into words in a succinct way until I heard George Will commentate on the concept of American Exceptionalism. He states the following:
You have heard of the phrase “American Exceptionalism.” People think that is a crude form of “American Nationalism.” No, No; the idea traces back to de Tocqueville. Who, the author of the greatest book ever written by one country by the citizen of another; Democracy in America.
He said, “Americans are exceptional because unlike Europeans, Americans were born free. Free that is from feudalism, free therefore from an entrenched aristocracy and an established church. Americans have an exceptional revolution; one that did not try to give them happiness but set them free to pursue happiness as each individual defined it. Americans have an exceptional Constitution; one that doesn’t say what the government must do for them but what the government may not do to them.
We are exceptional because of one word in the Declaration, the most important word in the Declaration of Independence is SECURE. “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” and governments are instituted among men to SECURE those rights, not to give us our rights, the rights pre-exist government. The government is not a fountain of rights, it exists solely to defend natural rights.”
— George Will
This is something that the patriot and the skeptic; the liberal and the conservative; the Republican and the Democrat can unite under. They can say that they are proud to be an American because of American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism is essentially a kind of pride in oneself because it is a notion that YOU know what happiness is to you and you are allowed to pursue it because the government is a defender of your national rights. Your rights pre-exist the American government.
While the United States has made some horrific mistakes, it is this notion of American Exceptionalism that was put into place that, while there may be present evils at any given time, our form of government has a built in prescription to correct and amend such evils.
There is no beautiful example of American Exceptionalism than in Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. At first glance, you might tilt your head to the side like a confused dog, but hear me out. In his speech, “I Have a Dream” Martin Luther King Jr. said,
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Well, who wrote this promissory note? It was Thomas Jefferson… a slaveholder. Either Jefferson was intellectually inept or he foresaw the broad scope of how this truth that all men have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will be played out.
America had fallen short of its promise to a certain population of its citizens at the time, but it already had the cure. Don’t you see that?!
Dr. King went on to say:
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
What an incredible nation we all live in! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not march on Washington to demand that America change. He demanded that America remember her promise and become the nation it was meant to be. George Will is saying that we are born free and we have a government set up and bound by a Constitution that preserves that freedom.
The notion of American Exceptionalism encourages pride but not arrogance. It promotes humility but not self-hatred. You should be proud of your American heritage but that should not morph into a sort of “America Only” attitude. Nor should it promote a type of self-flagellation over the sins of the past. An American Patriot is one that both grieves over their country’s shortcomings but is hopeful about the future because in our national DNA is a self-correcting mechanism that heals injustices with liberty.
This fourth of July, embrace this truest form of American Exceptionalism and either renew or establish a sense of pride in your country. While not perfect, our Founders thought it best to put we the people in the driver’s seat of our own destiny. Make sure that you are doing as such.
Happy July 4, 2014, My Fellow Countrymen/women.
Now I am off to overeat and wash my Japanese made car. #Murica