We hear a lot of talk about American exceptionalism. The left poo-poo's
the very idea. Conservatives extol it while not really not knowing what it
is. President Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I
suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe
in Greek exceptionalism.”
Even believers aren't exactly sure what they mean when they speak of it.
Do we believe Americans are somehow smarter, stronger, or more
virtuous? Obviously not, but this is the argument used to deride the
theory, because this is the only argument the left can muster against it.
(Because they don't understand it either.)
Webster's dictionary defines exceptional as: Rare. Better or worse than
the norm, usually superior.
I see American exceptionalism in two parts: the origin and the
Our Constitution (and thus the country) was formed in a unique
circumstance: we were not conquered, we were not at war, nor was there a
second (counter) revolution. This is how most nations are created.
Instead, a group of learned men discussed and debated just how a country should
be run. Ideas were entertained, some embraced but many discarded.
The root of it all was the idea that the power of government would be held by
the people. Instead of most power being vested in a monarch, or even a
legislature (parliament), this government would be centered around the very
Constitution they were creating. This is why office-holders swear to
uphold the Constitution upon taking office. So, by definition, this was
both rare and superior to nearly every scheme that had been tried before.
The convention of learned men who created the Constitution had nearly all
read Adam Smith's book, The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776). As a
result, the federal government was restricted in what it could do to limit or
infringe on a free market economy. Article I, Section 8 mentions that
although the government can impose taxes, duties, imposts and excises, all must
be uniform throughout the US. (no special interests, no lobbyists getting
sweetheart deals, no picking winners and losers).
The government can regulate commerce with foreign nations, Indian tribes, as
well as among the states. We would expect a central government to handle
foreign trade treaties etc. The regulation of interstate commerce was
mainly seen (at the time) as a way to handle disputes and ensure fair
trade. Otherwise, the federal government had no authority over private
businesses. The Founders wanted no repeat of the turmoil created by the
Stamp Act (1765 to 1766).
The new government insured profitability of new ideas with trademarks and
patents. (Also included in Article I, Section 8)
Businesses large and small were allowed to succeed or fail based on their
merits. Commerce had the flexibility to weather bad times and embrace the
industrial revolution. From the local cobbler to General Motors to
everything in between, businesses had the freedom to succeed or fail on their
own, unencumbered by the central government. The entrepreneurial spirit
could be harnessed by anyone with an idea for a new product or service and the
willingness to try.
Some of these entrepreneurs became very wealthy. Most did not.
But even moderate success is still success. Many of the businessmen who
failed at one thing succeeded later at another venture. Are you aware that
the Ford Motor Company you know was Henry Ford's fourth attempt at creating a
company to make cars? As the name indicates, the Model T was his 20th
design. No one ever said the right to pursue happiness would be easy.
America not only allowed entrepreneurs to try, the nation encouraged
it! (up until the twentieth century, but that's another story).
Although only having about 6% of the world's population, within 150 years, our
nation produced 50% of the world's manufactured products. This makes our
nation very rare and superior, indeed.