To say America is exceptional does not imply superiority, but acknowledges that the nation taught the world how to transfer power peacefully and translate individual liberty into a governing creed.
Imagine it is April 30, 1789, a sunny spring day, and you are a European who has traveled to New York to see the inauguration of George Washington as the first president of the United States. Standing in the crowd in front of Federal Hall on Wall Street, you are watching the beginning of an experiment in governance unlike any in the history of the world. Four million people, spread out over thirteen colonies stretching from New England to Georgia, have separated themselves from the world’s greatest power and then invented a new nation from scratch. That all by itself makes the United States unique and also makes it impossible to predict what might happen next.
It isn’t just the newness of the nation that makes its future so imponderable. The Americans could easily have chosen familiar institutions. If George Washington had been declared king of the United States, the Founding Fathers given hereditary titles, and a deliberative body created as a counterweight to the king’s powers, you would have had a European framework to help you think through the new nation’s prospects. But instead the founders of the United States have created a form of government that will attempt all sorts of things that are widely thought to be impossible.
Republican government itself is widely thought to be impracticable and unstable. No country in continental Europe has a constitutional monarchy, let alone a republic in which all power ultimately resides in the citizens. Even Britain, Europe’s most politically liberal nation, still expects the sovereign to play a major role in the governance of the nation and shudders at the memory of its own brief experiment as a republic.
It is widely thought to be impossible for a nation to function with a head of state elected for a limited term. How can the Americans realistically expect a successful, popular president who is head of state and commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces to retire voluntarily? Every lesson of history teaches that transmission of power through an electoral system doesn’t work for long. Surely it is impossible that a piece of paper, the Constitution, can command the allegiance — indeed, the reverence — that the American system will require. The consensus at the Constitutional Convention and in the debates over ratification of the Constitution is that the new Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws already passed by the legislature and implemented by the executive power — an unprecedented level of judicial independence.
Most stunning of all, you are watching the first nation in the world translate an ideology of individual liberty into a governing creed. As an educated European of the eighteenth century, you are familiar with the ideology itself as expressed by John Locke and other writers of the Enlightenment. But philosophy is one thing. It is quite another to restrict the power of the central government as radically as the new American Constitution does.
Your imaginary self at the inauguration of George Washington had many real counterparts in the early decades of our history. A long line of Europeans — most famously Alexis de Tocqueville, but also widely read observers such as Harriet Martineau, Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens, plus thousands of other lesser-known visitors — wrote books, letters, and journals describing the Americans to their fellow countrymen. They often had the tone of a zoologist writing about a hitherto unknown species. For whatever else these observers might say about the United States, they all agreed on one thing: the United States was quite unlike their own or any other nation. It was exceptional.
The concept of American exceptionalism has been used in many ways. Some have interpreted “exceptional” to mean “wonderful,” and American exceptionalism has been used as a framework for describing whatever the proponent thinks is wonderful about America. It has been interpreted to mean that America has a special mission in the world and used in support of whatever measures that mission is taken to imply. Those who don’t like the idea of American exceptionalism have attempted to refute it by pointing to the ways in which the history of the United States parallels that of other great imperial powers, arguing that the United States has the same awful defects as other empires.
So the concept of American exceptionalism has become associated with meanings that are filled with emotion and value judgments—intertwined with patriotism, for those who approve of it, or connoting jingoism or chauvinism, for those who disapprove.
I write about American exceptionalism from another tradition that has four characteristics:
American exceptionalism is a concept that was shared by observers throughout the Western world, not just Americans. The Founders certainly believed that they were creating something of extraordinary significance. That's why the motto on the Great Seal of the United States is novus ordo seclorum—"a new order of the ages." But it was foreigners who took the lead in describing the United States and Americans as being unlike all other countries and peoples.
American exceptionalism does not imply American excellence or superiority. Americans tend to think that most of the traits of American exceptionalism are positive, but others, especially European elites, have always disagreed. Even those of us who think they are positive must acknowledge aspects of American exceptionalism that are problematic.
American exceptionalism is a fact of America's past, not something that you can choose whether to "believe in" any more than you can choose whether to "believe in" the battle of Gettysburg. Understanding its meaning is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand what it has meant to be an American.
American exceptionalism refers to qualities that were first observed in the opening century of our history. There's no reason why they necessarily still apply today. The extent to which they still apply is an empirical question.
The current state of American exceptionalism cannot be captured solely through the measures I have presented. There are many ways in which the typical American personality is still recognizable around the world. America still attracts more immigrants than any other country. America still has the world’s largest economy, its armed forces enjoy unchallengeable military supremacy, and American democracy still gives its citizens more direct power to affect government policy than do most other democracies. America continues to transfer power peacefully across administrations and continues to abide by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution.
But the exceptionalism has eroded. That erosion would not have surprised the Founders. As Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” His answer epitomized the views of all the Founders. In the course of designing the Constitution, they had systematically studied the experience of every republic that had ever existed, so that their creation could resist the forces that had destroyed them. But they were under no illusions that their solutions were foolproof. They all knew that the political system they had created was fragile.
Half a century later, young Abraham Lincoln, just twenty-eight years old, stood before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, and gave the address that first brought him to public attention. His topic was “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” In it, he reflected on the prospects of maintaining the American experiment. America was in no danger of being conquered from abroad, he observed, but at the time he spoke, 1838, the nation was facing a new environment. Until then, “the noblest cause—that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty”—had been sustained by the living presence of the generation that fought the Revolution. But by 1838, all but a handful of them were dead. “They were a fortress of strength,” Lincoln told his audience, “but what the invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls.”
The silent artillery of time has been at work for many generations since Lincoln spoke. America still has exceptional aspects, but we are no longer the unique outlier that amused, amazed, and bemused the rest of the world from its founding through the first half of the twentieth century. Which of the changes that have diminished American exceptionalism are gains to be applauded? Which are losses to be mourned? Thinking through your answers to those questions is one of your most important duties as an American citizen. Only after you have reached those answers can you know what you want for America’s future.