Though the very phrase “American Exceptionalism” is often mocked as simple-minded flag waving, there are concrete reasons that the American civilization is unique. The United States has a special place in world history. Despite the bumps, bruises, and outright contradictions that the country has muddled through in its very short existence, Americans can take pride in its numerous accomplishments, actions, and principles throughout the last two centuries.
Below is a list—nowhere near comprehensive—of some of the greatest moments, ideas, and principles that have defined the American civilization.
1.) George Washington Stepping Down as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army
George Washington was in all respects a great man, but so were Julius Caesar and Napoleon Buonaparte. What made The Father of Our Country different? Restraint, and understanding that ultimately laws and institutions must be put before the whims of men, great or small.
In resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Washington set a precedent that civilian authority would always be placed before the military. Additionally, by stepping down after two terms as President of the United States, Washington ensured that America would not be ruled by monarchy, aristocracy, or family dynasty. The founders hoped that the ablest would rise to the top and have the virtue to relinquish power. Naked ambition would not be prized, but virtue, duty, and restraint would be the hallmark of great American leadership. No man symbolized those qualities better than Washington; he was truly an “American Cincinnatus.”
2.) The Principles of Federalism and a Written Constitution
Roman republic had an unwritten, evolutionary constitution, as did Great Britain. Yet, Rome dissolved after degenerating into empire and tyranny, and Great Britain never matched the United States in either power or freedom of its citizens. The United States has a written, specifically laid-out Constitution that serves as the buttress of our law and institutions. This was a truly revolutionary moment in man’s relation to government. It created strong limitations on the size and scope of governmental power, while carefully balancing local and federal powers.
The great historian of the American Revolution, Forrest McDonald, wrote of the Founding Fathers, who cobbled together the 1787 Constitution, in his book Novus Ordo Seclorum: “They devised a new order out of materials prescribed by the ages, and they were wise enough to institutionalize the pluralism with which they worked and to draw their Constitution loosely enough so that it might live and breathe and change with time.”
Once established, McDonald postulated, the later generations of “pygmies” who came to infest the public councils could do little to to overturn constitutional government, which had “become part of the second nature of homo politics Americanus.”
Though now groaning under cultural changes that place results above law, that the Constitution has endured so many attacks and interpretations is almost a miracle. Those who fret that the Constitution is seeing its final days can draw inspiration from the plain text, which can be read and understood by anyone with common sense. This will always be a stumbling block to tyranny.
3.) “Republicanism” and the Idea of Patriotism
Unlike most countries, American citizenship is based on principles, ideas, and a way of life, not ethnicity. Ideas about “republicanism” and citizenship were derived from the history of Greece and Rome and passed down through the ages in Western thought.
At the Imaginative Conservative, Dr. Bradley J. Birzer wrote about Joseph Addison’s 1712 play, Cato: A Tragedy, which had such an influence on George Washington that he had it performed at Valley Forge.
Addison’s play was about the final days of the Roman republic, during which Cato wages a losing fight against Julius Caesar. In the play, corrupt sycophants in the capitol welcome their new tyrant, while honorable and virtuous men like Cato become anachronisms.
Juba—an African Numidian and admirer of Cato who recognizes republican virtue as one that his own people lack and that the Romans are throwing away—is told by Cato that he has more of a “Roman soul” than the corrupt men in Rome.
Birzer wrote of Roman republicanism, which could also be said of the American variety, “As Cato so wisely notes, being a Roman is more than being a citizen of a certain time and place. It stands for something eternal, something greater than any one moment, one place, or one person can contain. And, it has nothing to do with skin color, gender, or any of the accidents of birth.”
America will not survive without “republicans” who uphold its noble heritage. Fortunately, the country has numerous individuals to draw inspiration from.
4.) The Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg Address, and the Individual Rights Tradition of the United States
Abraham Lincoln once wrote of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence in 1859:
All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
Americans have been blessed with the Declaration of Independence, which stands at the cornerstone of our principles and heritage. This revolutionary document, which the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Timothy Sandufur called the “Conscience of the Constitution,” contains timeless principles that will always be an inspiration to those who believe in a “new birth of freedom” for the United States.
The Declaration of Independence, which talks about individual rights endowed by our “Creator,” was described by President Calvin Coolidge during a 150-year anniversary tribute in 1926. He said, “It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.”
5.) Finance Capitalism
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew recently announced that Alexander Hamilton would be either removed or diminished from the $10 bill. This is a travesty and a shame. Hamilton was the father of the American financial system which turned a sleepy, out-of-the-way set of colonies on the edge of western civilization into a burgeoning commercial republic more prosperous and powerful than any nation in the world.
On top of bringing great riches to the nation as a whole, American-style capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any system in human history. Charles Murray wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “Everywhere that capitalism subsequently took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn’t take hold, people remained impoverished. Everywhere that capitalism has been rejected since then, poverty has increased.”
No civilization has ever adapted to and embraced capitalism more than the inquisitive and entrepreneurial people of the United States.
6.) The Election of Andrew Jackson, and the Rise of the “Common Man” in American Politics
The presidential election of Andrew Jackson ensured that America would not be governed by a quasi-aristocratic elite but would include the broad participation of a robust middle class. The first “western” president who was the child of poor, Scotch-Irish immigrants, Jackson represented a new man in American politics. Born into neither wealth nor a family prominence, Jackson rose to the highest station in American life through merit and talent.
The political class in Washington D.C. looked down on Jackson and the assumed-to-be riffraff that he brought into the nation’s capital. However, Jackson and his lieutenants were neither a mob nor simpletons. Most were accomplished men— business owners, soldiers, editors, merchants, and small-time politicians—who were merely neophytes in DC.
When an old woman in Salisbury, North Carolina, was told that Jackson was a candidate to be president, she exclaimed in disbelief: ”What! Jackson up for President? Jackson? Andrew Jackson? The Jackson that used to live in Salisbury? Why, when he was here, he was such a rake that my husband would not bring him into the house! …Well, if Andrew Jackson can be President, anybody can.”
7.) America’s Role in World War II and the Cold War
In the 19th century, America was a promised land for those seeking freedom. In the 20th century, it became a crusader state liberating people throughout the world. Though this new role has certainly come with pluses and minuses, there has been little doubt that the U.S. has become the defender of the “free world” since it operated as the “Arsenal of Democracy” in World War II. Though some have argued that it was really the Soviet Union that won the war against Nazi Germany, it must be noted that Stalin’s Communist empire started the war alongside Hitler. By taking such an active role in liberating Western Europe, America became the primary defender of the war-ravaged free people of the Old World.
In the confrontation with the Soviet Union, all the principled virtues of the American republic were pitted against Communism and the Soviet Union. A constitutional republic empowered by republican patriotism and capitalistic prosperity stood up to to the collectivist Soviet machine which subverted the individual rights espoused in the Declaration of Independence.
Ultimately, it was the American common man who rejected the seductive leveling principles of revolutionary Communism and stood strong against an ideology which would, in the end, eradicate his freedom. New World victories over the “isms” of the 20th century are a great tribute to the enduring strength of the American people and the tradition they carry into the 21st century.