Understanding American Exceptionalism

Deborah Venable



The often mentioned “shining city upon a hill” quote, originally accredited to John Winthrop, the puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and more recently reiterated by Ronald Reagan in his 1974 speech to the first CPAC, defines the dot of American exceptionalism on the map of human experience throughout the world.


Original settlers of this land we call America came here to escape tyrannies from monarchial rulers which made living a life of individual freedom quite impossible.  They had no recognized rights to speak out and stand up for themselves for their religious, philosophical or political beliefs.  They were governed not by the rule of law, but by the whimsical and ever changing rule of man, and were willing to risk their very lives to establish once and for all their own sovereignty.  It was in this furnace that the metal, which became the exceptional American spirit, was forged. 


That small band of American Founders, who came together to write the “law of the land” that would forever define and protect individual rights against the evil in human nature knew that if history ever forgot their reason and sacrifice, future generations would pay dearly.  That founding document, known as the United States Constitution, established this country as a republic with limited government and clear separation of powers.  The main balance of governing power was to remain with the people – never a centralized governing body of any kind. 


Attempts to rewrite our history and abandon our exceptionalism have been constantly at work and ever increasing in intensity.  We see it in the arrogance that tries to remove any moral influence derived from God from any definition of our national character.  Progressive thinkers often like to dress the Constitution in the robes of a “living document” to argue the preference of majority rule of man-made democracy over the wisdom of the established republic under well-defined law.  It sounds so good, but it is so very wrong! 


Democracy itself has long muddied the waters of citizens’ understanding of their own government.  While we are not a democracy, far too many citizens would define our government as such, and far too many politicians willingly assign that label.   


Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman, toured America in 1831 and subsequently wrote Democracy In America, still referenced today as a meaningful American economics, political and social classic. 


De Tocqueville quotes are a favorite among historians seeking to define American difference.  This one tackles a comparison between democracy and socialism:


Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.


While this quote accurately defines that difference between democracy and socialism, I would take it a step further and say that our republic codifies liberty in law – and for that America is exceptional.


Opportunity exists here that exists nowhere else in the world, and the American people continue to share that opportunity with the rest of the world by granting more immigrants our citizenship than any other country every year.  Currently there are over 38.5 million first generation American citizens living here.  We naturalize close to one million per year and grant asylum to approximately 40 thousand per year. 


Marco Rubio’s recent speech to CPAC is a modern reminder of the conservative message that America is exceptional.  As a son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio is much more believable as a purveyor of that exceptionalism than many of the elitists who would rather shy away from that description.


Here are a couple of the many great quotes from the transcript:


Now, I must decide, do I want my children to grow up in the country that I grew up in or do I want them to grow up in a country like the one my parents grew up in?


And so now we must decide. Do we want to continue to be exceptional, or are we prepared to become like everybody else?


He described the 2010 elections as “a referendum on our very identity as a nation.”  That is probably an accurate description given the current government trend toward liberalism, otherwise known as “soft socialism.”  If America had to wear that identity, then her exceptionalism would be lost forever.   


There is no mysticism that we have to wonder about, no guilt we have to shoulder in order to put forth the claim that America is exceptional.  There is a reason for this and it is time we accept that reason for our difference.  


Reagan said it best in that first CPAC speech:


You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.  


He also said:


I know there have been other constitutions, new ones are being drawn today by newly emerging nations. Most of them, even the one of the Soviet Union, contains many of the same guarantees as our own Constitution, and still there is a difference. The difference is so subtle that we often overlook it, but it is so great that it tells the whole story. Those other constitutions say, “Government grants you these rights” and ours says, “You are born with these rights, they are yours by the grace of God, and no government on earth can take them from you.”


People who do not know or accept this nation’s history or the specific and unique language of its founding documents would replace God with themselves or our assumed “rulers” and cheat the future citizens of the greatest country on earth of their very birthright. 



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