Far-left ideologues and self-styled intellectual illuminati have, for years, labored overtime to highjack the notion of American Exceptionalism by equating it with their own notion of American arrogance. Let us put an end to this calumny. Let us recall and, indeed, praise the American Exceptionalism at which Alexis de Tocqueville marveled when, during his travels through the young country in 1831, he coined the term in his treatise, “Democracy in America.”
De Tocqueville was writing for the European reader, especially for his fellow Frenchmen far more than he was writing for the new and vibrant American marketplace. Whereas revolution had produced chaos and anarchy and hatred of almost anything that smacked of religion in France, de Tocqueville was quick to observe that something quite the contrary had emerged in America. Here he saw the budding fruits of freedom, individual liberty, equality of opportunity and a people absolutely free to practice religion however they chose or not to practice any religion at all. What he saw, first hand, was the world’s first functioning meritocracy, and what he described so eloquently was the fantastic differentiation of America from Europe. He called it American Exceptionalism. It was, and has been, that exceptionalism that produced the most industrious nation the world has ever known.
That is something we should celebrate each and every day…that which made us different, that which made us great, and that which, thankfully, a rapidly growing number of Americans are determined to reestablish as the great American paradigm. And while American Exceptionalism shouldn’t merely be about what was, but rather about what is, it is worth remembering that twenty-five thousand Americans died during the War of Independence to establish the great American experiment. Relative to population that first American war was the second costliest in human treasure, exceeded only by the Civil War. During the course of the 235 years since the shot at Concord that was heard around the world, more than 1.3 million Americans have died defending freedom and liberty.
We should also remember that independence wasn’t the end game of that first great historical American struggle. It was but the starting point of the American Exceptionalism that Alexis de Tocqueville described. Our founding fathers, who may have disagreed about many things, were of one mind when it came to our raison d’être, what would be our very reason for being…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “Liberty” is clearly the operative word, for without liberty “life”, they clearly believed, was not worth living, and “the pursuit of happiness” would be but a contradiction.
It is easy to forget that a mere 235 years ago, no nation existed with a bedrock principle that all of its citizens had a birthright to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was the most radical of ideas. And to punctuate how serious that principle was, the founders went on to enshrine in the Constitution a few years later that America would only be governed with the consent of the governed. These were the principles that differentiated America from Europe and the rest of the world.
What the people gave their consent to when, state-by-state, they ratified the new American Constitution was the establishment of a government with very specifically enumerated powers. Clearly, what was fought for and established 235 years ago was a national government that never could ride roughshod over the rights of the several states or, more important, over the rights of the individual citizen. That’s what we celebrate, or should have been celebrating on Independence Day last week.
America has, of course, evolved greatly during the years since its founding and that was expected. We have amended our Constitution many times and we have even repealed, on one occasion, that which we had previously amended. Generation after generation of Americans have prospered and continuously improved their quality of life because of the exceptionalism that de Tocqueville spotted in the fabric of the new nation so long ago. Citizens in every generation knew that their children would do even better than they had done.
As the twentieth century progressed the role of government evolved in response to the changing social and economic landscape. America was becoming more complex and new laws, rules and regulations were instituted as one might expect in a rapidly changing society. But soon the growth in laws, rules and regulations began to far outstrip what a healthy and growing society required. Soon the very principle of non-intrusive government began to rapidly erode and recede into distant memory. The commitment to equality of opportunity soon began to transform into a commitment, simply, to equality.
And, in short order, the worthy goal of social equality began to morph into the demand for economic equality requiring massive public subsidies to equalize the benefits and advantages earned by the more productive members of society with those of their less productive countrymen. By definition economic equality, or parity, as national policy is predicated on either directly siphoning wealth from the more productive for redistribution to the less productive or indirectly siphoning phantom wealth by incurring massive public debt as much of Europe has been doing for the better part of the last two generations.
We don’t have to theorize where such economic statism leads. We watched the utter collapse of the Soviet Union. We watched as every socialist country under the Soviet yoke, once freed, fled and immediately recalibrated their economies more to the once classic American model. And now we are watching as most of debt-ridden Europe begins to recalibrate as well. Political leaders in Great Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Iceland are now all fighting to reverse their decades-long flirtation with egalitarian economies by reigning in their unsustainable spending and debt…amazingly, to the consternation of their American counterparts.
We can now make two undisputable observations about such statist governance. First, it is not sustainable and, second, it requires a degree of government central planning and control that is the antithesis of what the founders created as well as the antithesis of what de Tocqueville observed when he coined the term, American Exceptionalism. Unchecked, America’s drift toward unbridled statism and the ever-mounting and unsustainable public debt that is its hallmark will produce future generations that will have to rely on the sacrifices of their children to sustain the burden of their own profligacy.
The individual liberty and the equality of opportunity that American Exceptionalism introduced to the world 235 years ago, while imperfect and subject to occasional abuse as we so recently experienced, is still, by far, the most successful, the most promising and the most equitable governing model. America is still one of the few places on earth where every citizen can realistically aspire to the height of his or her own capability. Hopefully, most Americans understand that.
Three Cheers for American Exceptionalism. Pass it on.