What does it mean to be exceptional?
There are two principal meanings of this word. The first meaning listed by several reputable dictionaries is: Unusual, not typical. The second meaning is: Unusually good, outstanding.
Note, both meanings are valid interpretations of the word, depending upon context either or both may apply. However, the dictionaries agree on the first meaning as being the primary meaning. Exceptional means, out of the norm, or even unique.
The two headed calf was exceptional, most calves only have one head.
A human being breaking the sound barrier was an exceptional event, it had never been done before.
The American system was exceptional, no other country had tried something like this.
It was only later that the second meaning began to apply and be confused with the first when speaking about America.
Because America was different, America became exceptional in the way an Olympic athlete is exceptional – both different and superior.
So, let’s look at this concept of America being exceptional using both the first definition and the second.
Do you doubt that America is different, or exceptional in the first sense of the term?
There are republics that predated the American experiment, in fact, founders like James Madison studied them in great detail when crafting what would morph into the Constitution. Of course, there were democracies as well. Both of these forms of government had been tried, and had ultimately failed. Madison was determined to learn from the mistakes of the past and not to repeat them.
Ultimately, Madison knew that majority rule would prevail, but he hoped that incorporating the numerous checks and balances in the Constitution would provide the necessary time for sound judgement to prevail over mob rule. However, even the concept of checks and balances was not necessarily exceptional. The Magna Carta could be considered such an instrument – to check the power of the monarch with the rule of law. Even further back, the set of laws known as the Twelve Tables were implemented in ancient Rome with the purpose of preventing the oppression of the ordinary citizen by the ruling class. Ultimately the Roman system failed under the absolute power assumed by its emperors.
So, while a good thing, republican government wasn’t unique, democratic rule had been tried in Greece, and even respect for the rule of law had had it’s go in political systems.
None of these things were exceptional.
So, what set the United States apart?
The United States Government was different because it was formed under the assumption that people had natural rights and that these rights superseded any political system. Philosophers had been discussing and writing about natural law, but no one had ever attempted to craft a system of government based upon it until the United States.
The founding documents of the United States start from the position we are created by God and have been instilled with equal value in His sight. But, the founders did not attempt to create a theocracy. They recognized that just as God grants free will, so should institutions formed by his creations. In order to ensure that free will the founders made certain that people would have the right to worship as they chose or not at all. It did not attempt to remove consequences or impose them.
Similarly, if the starting position is that man is sovereign in his “unalienable” rights, then he is superior to any institution he might create. He may decide to empower a government “to provide for the common defense,” but in so doing, he does not abdicate either responsibility or right to provide for his own defense.
The United States was exceptional because it was the first government “instituted among men” that was rooted in the position that men were not subjects, but sovereign in their being.
Unlike the French Revolution, the United States did not try to exclude or excise God from government. Instead it sought to excise or exclude government from God. The difference is important. Under the United States, citizens are free to worship or not as they see fit. Even today, under many governments people are not free to worship at all, or only the state proscribed religion.
The notion of the inherent value of an individual, instilled by “nature’s God,” is the fundamental building block of the United States and the foundation on which all of its principles are laid.
If a Vietnamese boat person, a Mexican immigrant, and an indigenous American all become citizens of the United States, they are all presumed equal under the law. They are not guaranteed equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity.
This distinguishing factor is the core of American Exceptionalism. It is why a melting pot of different nationalities and cultural heritages can live peaceably with one another, provided they share the same ideology of America – Freedom.
Freedom breeds success and prosperity. One has only to look at the growth of the United States, the unparalleled prosperity, and the exceptional accomplishments in every realm of science, agriculture, medicine, and technology, to recognize that America has been exceptional in the second sense of the word, as well as in the first.
What many fail to understand, is that the latter is a direct consequence of the former, and is not guaranteed to continue, if the principles which set America apart and made it exceptional are not cherished and maintained.
As long as America retains the foremost meaning of the term, it will retain the second meaning as well. Once America has decided not to be different than Greece – both modern and ancient, not to be different than Spain, France or the rest of Europe, then America will no longer by exceptional in the second sense either.
We have a blueprint for success and many for failure. We are free to choose which plan to follow. Let’s hope we choose wisely.