Some years ago, during the reign of President of George H.W. Bush, I stopped during a campaign walking tour for a talk with an old friend, a good old boy Democrat in farmer’s overalls, who took one of my signs for his lawn.
I always remember what old Tom said to me apropos of the party then in control of the White House:
“I thought we got rid o’ them Tories back durin’ the Revolution. By God, now we got ‘em again, rulin’ the roost in Washington, D.C.”
Franklin Roosevelt had his own name for the type of people Tom was talking about; he called them “economic royalists.” My own homespun, salt-of-the earth- supporter in overalls had nevertheless delved even deeper into the American psyche. Those Tories we kicked out or shoved aside in the 18th century were not only money-grabbers, but also social snobs.
Their aim was to amalgamate themselves with the top of the pecking order in Great Britain, a rigid class system that ran from the Crown and Court favorites downward. The Thomas Hutchinsons and Andrew Olivers in Massachusetts and their counterparts throughout the 13 colonies had been on their way to creating a fixed New World aristocracy when the old Toms of America rose up and said: “Whoa! We’re different. We ain’t buyin’ none o’ that fancy King’s prerogative stuff!”
So, here began American Exceptionalism. The EXCEPTIONALISM part was not our having broken away from a Monarchy and formed a Republic. There had been Republics in the world prior to 1775, going back even to the days of the ancient Greeks. However, the conventional wisdom was that no Republic could ever be successful in a large country. Switzerland, okay. The Netherlands, okay. Yet even as constricted an area as the original 13 British North American provinces was deemed too big to self-govern successfully, never mind the unimaginable concept of someday 50 federated states stretching between the Atlantic and Pacific.
Thus, the very structure of the United States of America became EXCEPTIONAL. Through trial and error, we figured out a way to add to our very essence as a nation. E Pluribis Unum – “Out of many, one.” And it was done on a scale hitherto unknown to history and in a manner that Lincoln could credibly claim was: “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
President Barack Obama has come under attack from right wing politicos for not being attentive enough to “American exceptionalism.” Sarah Palin has scolded him for not assuring “the survival of American Exceptionalism.” No doubt, the former Alaskan has a different view of “American Exceptionalism” from that of our President (or myself). For example, I am sure she would be absolutely mystified by my own deeply held belief that Barack Obama, in his very person, life and career, represents, himself, the finest example of American Exceptionalism.
After all, the ex-Mayor of Wasilla, Arkansas, who treats the Constitution with the same reverence as the Holy Bible and waves it about like our star-spangled banner, may be surprised to learn that in its original form, Barack Obama was treated like three-fifths of a human being. Although her beloved Tea Party’s reading aloud this sacred document in Congress unpardonably saw fit to desecrate the sacred document by censoring out this phrase, the three-fifths formula as any school kid should know, was for voting purposes only, giving slave holders more representation without the necessity of allowing slaves to vote. Now, a partial descendant of the Negroid race, deemed hopelessly inferior then, occupies the White House. If that’s not American Exceptionalism, I don’t know what is.
Sarah Palin speaks of “Real Americans.” Her code words clearly proclaim: “Of course, I don’t include them,” [as Real Americans] and “certainly not him” [Obama], the basketball player from Hawaii whom some of her admirers claim could only have advanced through a somehow rigged affirmative action to become president of the Harvard Law Review. Clearly, though, there is nothing of American Exceptionalism in such snobbery. If American history teaches us anything, it is that we have always eventually been successful in dealing with bigotry and snootiness of this ilk, going back even to the dawn of our democracy when moves were made to curtail voting privileges to all Americans who couldn’t prove they owned $2,000 worth of property. Thus, American Exceptionalism has been the steady expansion, slow at times, excruciatingly painful at times, of the definition of a “Real American.” In the present age, true enough, the battle still continues, but as long as American Exceptionalism survives, the ultimate victory will always be with inclusion.
Our educational system is currently, more than ever, riddled by verbal bullets from disbelievers in inclusion. But yet another facet of American Exceptionalism is that we try to educate everyone. This may not seem unusual, but the practice in most countries in most ages has been to make education the property of the elite or of religious inculcators. Even today and even in some advanced western democracies, universal testing at an early age determines whether one will advance in school or not. The trouble with this type of testing is that if your parents can afford cram schools, you have a much better chance of, passing, while your whole approach to learning is bent on vaulting over such formidable barriers as the vestibular test in Brazil and the baccalaureate test in France. In the U.S., on the other hand, we believe in life-long learning, and life-long self-improvement. We also, to the greatest degree possible, have emphasized not rote learning that can be regurgitated back in standardized testing but the ability to think creatively and to innovate. Your American Exceptionalism dollars are clearly at work in the steady parade of American Nobel prizewinners in all fields and in a distinguished constant output of U.S. transformational inventions, from the cotton gin upward to the Internet and Google.
Also, who invented environmentalism, not a gadget, but a state of mind toward our natural world? Henry David Thoreau, stand up and take a bow. His insights were certainly American and certainly exceptional. Who invented National Parks? We did over here and the rest of the world took note. American Exceptionalism – another Exhibit A. The gnashing of teeth in some polluting corporate boardrooms is a sure sign of its effectiveness, despite a humungous gusher of well-financed push back. Better still even a number of these polluting industries are at least paying lip service to the issue of planet degradation and the need to take action.
Early on in our nation’s history, American leaders were already expressing the concept of “exceptional.” In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson was declaring his Louisiana Purchase an exceptional act – while his Federalist opponents howled that it was unconstitutional (which it probably was) – and yet, had this acquisition not been made, the United States might never have been able to consider itself “exceptional” but merely another poor little island of republican democracy amid a sea of monarchy.
The pundits of today have raised the question of whether or not the U.S. is in decline. Particularly that our military power, although still fearsome, is no longer supreme in the world.
But who says that military power is a sign of American Exceptionalism? Even as we began our expansion after Jefferson’s bargain Missouri land buy, our third president had a devil of a time finding money for warships to keep the Barbary pirates from capturing American vessels and enslaving American seamen. As late as the last quarter of the 19th century, America’s Navy was smaller than that of Chile, with whom we almost went to war. Still, we were already exceptional, without being militaristic. Our jingoism in the years since has been nothing to celebrate about, but a look at the record on the side of exceptionalism can be seen in our being the first western country to voluntarily grant a subject nation – the Philippines – its independence, without having it been done at gunpoint. Where we have deviated from our anti-colonialism has never been an example of exceptionalism and most decidedly, never fruitful for us.
Perhaps we need a nationwide contest. Put American school kids to work, studying our own history, seeing how well we have adhered – not to Roman Empire standards of power – but to our own ideals that we released in the exceptional (for its time) creation of our country at the end of the 18th century.
In future blogs, I will examine this fascinating topic further.