Much has been discussed in recent years about America’s specialness in history, especially with the advent of an administration that seems content to deny what makes us different from the rest of the world. In place of this outright humiliation and shame toward America’s exceptional accomplishments, these latest advocates of nihilism and pessimism would revert us all back to before a New World was known, to when tyrannical government and daily subsistence were the best for which anyone could hope. Such is the “fundamental transformation” Obama has had in mind since he said those words five years ago. It is the same throwback dreamed by Vladimir Putin who wishes we Americans would give up our arrogant adherence to individual rights and government by consent and just follow the dysfunctional frameworks of the rest of the world.
Our exceptionalism is not a claim to genetic superiority. It is not a boast that we are somehow better people of superior knowledge, ability, or social standing than everyone else. It is not even a claim that we are in some way closer to perfection than others.
What so many confuse with schoolyard pride, we understand as foundational principles of equality before God, liberty under law, freedom of the individual, and a limited government by consent. The norm all around the world has, and continues to be, one of oppressive government power by an elite few self-endowed with the right to rule over subjects. In this normal environment, the individual lives at the behest of the State. The inequality, warfare, lawlessness and crippling lack of opportunity all trace from the institutionalized denial that the individual possesses any liberties not granted by their masters, the Government. It is the same whatever era of time, whatever name it wears and wherever it is allowed to take root. Given the power, this normal rule strangles liberty and supplants an individual’s sacred freedoms.
America deliberately departed from that dominant system, enshrining — in the very foundation — protections for those God-given rights to individuals through a written constitution. Further defining, limiting, and curtailing what government could not do insulated those individual liberties from the erosion of time and corruption by human ambitions. It is the best attainable foundation ever built and the strongest basis upon which to construct an exception to the rule governing the rest of the world.
As usual, Coolidge said it best,
“The new country offered not only material opportunities, but possibilities of a spiritual and intellectual emancipation which they ardently wished their friends on the other side to share. Citizenship in the New World meant something that it had not meant in the Old. It was seen that the New World offered something new. There was increasing realization that many burdensome traditions and institutions had somehow been shed. Here at last the individual was lord of himself, master of his own destiny, keeper of his own sovereignty. Here he was free.”
Or again, when he said,
“The fundamental principles on which American institutions rest ought to be clearly understood. Being so understood, they can never lack for defenders. They had been thought out and fought out by the original settlers of the colonies, and whenever they have been in jeopardy they and their successors have not failed to rise and make whatever sacrifice was necessary for their preservation and, from time to time, for their extension. It would be idle to claim that our country has yet reached the goal toward which they plainly lead, but more idle still to deny that the path is open and that the people are continuing to make progress in that direction…”
Coolidge, reflecting on defeat of Spain and the rise of the Dutch and then the English, continues, “Despotism lost. The material power of the sword, of riches, and of arbitrary rule was vanquished. The spiritual power of freedom of conscience, of personal judgment, of personal responsibility, of religious and political liberty was victorious…”
But what about those bigoted, greedy, violent, ignorant whites who came to an already settled land to pollute and despoil it? As usual, recasting history through so biased a prism may serve the current political agenda but it does not serve truth. History is a study of the whole picture not merely selecting deviants. It searches for essentials, timeless truths and fundamental principles. To skip those in order to discredit them is neither honest nor instructive. Coolidge explains the real lessons that resulted when individuals lived up to America’s special ideals, “These settlements were at first trading-stations. They required little in the way of government and absolutely nothing in the way of protecting themselves against any infringement of their rights by the authorities at home. They needed no independent establishment to guard their liberties. They were not unmindful of religion. It is related that after holding a council of peace with the Indians, where the tomahawk was buried, the Dutch promised to build a church over it so that it could not be dug up, an evidence that, in their opinion, peace was supported by religion…Religion was followed by education.”
“…Joined to these Dutch and English defenders of liberty, differing from them in particulars but agreeing in the broad essentials of human freedom, were the French Huguenots. America became the common meeting-place of all those streams of people, great and small, who were undertaking to deliver themselves from all kinds of despotism and servitude, and to establish institutions of self-government and freedom.”
Ultimately, these ideas of “personal judgment” came to religious matters and “set the common people to reading the Bible. There came to them a new vision of the importance of the individual which brought him into direct contact with the Creator. It was this conception applied to affairs of government that made the people sovereign. It raised up the common man to the place which, heretofore, had been reserved for a privileged class in church and state. It ennobled the people. The logical result of this was the free man, educated in a free school, exercising a free conscience, maintaining a free government. The basis of it all, historically and logically, is religious belief. These are the fundamental principles on which American institutions rest…It was because religion gave the people a new importance and a new glory that they demanded a new freedom and a new government. We cannot in our generation reject the cause and retain the result.”