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The Quest for American Exceptionalism

Photograph of a sketch of the French author an...

Alexis de Tocqueville

These days, when someone hears “American Exceptionalism“, they think of some form of national superiority. This is a popular but dangerous appeal to pride. An excess of pride leads to arrogance and complacency. This is not, however, the original meaning of the expression.The phrase was taken from comments by a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed that we enjoyed the advantages of an Old World country without the disadvantages, that we were in the unprecedented position of starting as a modern (at the time) industrial and agricultural country without having to build our way up to it. Without the problems of limited land and well-established neighboring countries. He saw us as having purged ourselves of entrenched aristocracy

In 1831-1833, he traveled through the United States, officially studying the prison system while personally studying American society. He published his observations in his book “[Of] Democracy in America”, part 1 published in 1835 and part 2 published in 1840. Chapter 9 of part 2 is where he made his reference to “American Exceptionalism”. He does not actually say “American Exceptionalism”, he states that:

“At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly distinguished one, to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. Amongst this people they found distinguished men of science, artists of skill, writers of eminence, and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without requiring to labor in amassing them. I cannot consent to separate America from Europe, in spite of the ocean which intervenes. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World; whilst the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote its energies to thought, and enlarge in all directions the empire of the mind. The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin—their exclusively commercial habits—even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts—the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism—a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important—have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward: his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.”

He was clearly not referring to the achievements of Americans, but in the uniqueness of their circumstances. I say “their” instead of “our” because, like adolescence, it was a point in our history that we have outgrown.

We began as English colonies. Everyone “knows” this, but how many understand the significance? Unlike other English colonies, we did not exist as a subjugation of an indigenous people. We were a part of England transplanted into virgin wilderness. We were all one People, with a shared culture, technology, and laws.

Tocqueville noted that it is inevitable for a nation to delve into science and the arts, that it was needful for the advancement of a people. He said, in effect, that we were in the unique position of being able to import our advances in science and the arts, what he called “the pleasures of the mind”, without the need to invest a portion of our efforts in such advancement. We could devote all our energies into business and the creation of wealth.

This exceptionalism was the result of a number of factors. Tocqueville noted that their lack of cultural diversity, which concurred with an observation John Jay made in Federalist 2, was one of those factors. We are now, of course, the most culturally diverse nation in the world.

Another was our essentially parasitic approach to science and the arts. How odd it is that those who most vigorously wave the flag of exceptionalism, embracing policies that undermine the advancement of arts and sciences, also take pride in the role of leadership that we enjoy but is incompatible with those policies.

Next time someone talks about American Exceptionalism, ask them what, precisely, they mean by it.

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Posted by on September 22, 2011 in We The People

 

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We The People, part 2 – Origins

In Federalist 2, John Jay wrote of the land and the people of America:

“It has often given me pleasure to observe that independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, widespreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams, for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants. A succession of navigable waters forms a kind of chain round its borders, as if to bind it together; while the most noble rivers in the world, running at convenient distances, present them with highways for the easy communication of friendly aids, and the mutual transportation and exchange of their various commodities.

With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

Map of U.S. territorial acquisitions

U.S. Territorial Acquisitions

It is important to note that his America was not the diverse and sprawling country that we have all grown up in. They began as British colonists, with King and state Church. It was the abuse and misuse at the hands of the Crown and the East India Company that spurred them to rebellion and independence. To be sure, there were factions that disagreed on various issues, but the country was predominantly monocultural. They populated lands left unspoiled by the native population for thousands of years.

As we expanded west, we acquired land from Native American, French, Spanish, and other sources. Through Ellis Island, we absorbed immigrants from all over Europe. Japanese and Chinese came to California. Cajuns came south, and Latin Americans came north.

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Immigrants entering the United States through ...

Ellis Island Immigrants

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

More than any other country, we have welcomed and absorbed a multitude of immigrants and the diverse cultures they brought with them. The land of “E pluribus, unum”, the great “Melting Pot” society. From St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, to Kwanzaa, Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, and Chinese New Year, we have assimilated culture as well as people.

Demographically, culturally, geographically, technologically, socially, economically, militarily, politically, and religiously, America has grown and changed enormously from the days of the original Thirteen Colonies.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in We The People

 

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We The People, part 1

We the People

The very first words of our Constitution, writ far larger than all others. And why not, for what is the foundation of a nation if not it’s people?

Governments rise and governments fall. Constitutions are replaced. Businesses form and last for a moment, a generation, a lifetime… but not forever. Partnerships dissolve. Businesses go bankrupt. The people remain.

It is the people who abide and endure when all else fails.

We the People, and the land we claim for our own, ARE the country.

“Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.”

John Jay, Federalist 2

Where there is unlimited liberty, there is inevitable conflict between the competing liberties of multiple individuals. To participate in a human society, some restraint is required. Even animal communities have their rules. Humans are more complex, and need more complex rules. Society exists on the premise that more liberties can be preserved through common cause than can be preserved by the individual alone. The effectiveness of society could be measured by the degree of liberties preserved v.s. the degree of liberties ceded in their defense.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

Declaration of Independence.

The consent of the governed, the consent of We the People. – The fundamental restraint on the powers vested in the government. The power of government can only be Just when nothing comes between the citizens of this country and their right, their unalienable right, to exercise that restraint. To allow others to interfere with that restraint, or to exert their own restraints on our government, is to surrender to them a portion of our sovereignty and the portion of our liberties ceded to government so that it can function on our behalf.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2011 in We The People

 

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