On the Death of American Exceptionalism

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The assertion that America has unfairly led the rest of the world is not a new claim. For decades the argument has been pushed forth that it is incumbent on the United States to lower its standards around the globe, share its power, scale back its presence and a fairer, more equitable world would rise. We are led to believe that for civilization to advance it must all be in the direction of less individual freedom and more bureaucratic control. It is unjust, they insist, for America to realize such unprecedented prosperity, success and progress while the rest of the nations live in poverty, decay and oppression. Meanwhile, the denial of individual liberty and government by men instead of laws — notions irreconcilable with America’s ideals — are never recognized as central causes to all the suffering. It is as if the subordination of America’s ideals is something over which to rejoice and hasten. Such attitudes are like condemning the victim for the crime rate.

Why America is different is only impugned and criticized, never understood. After all, they assume, Americans took all this wealth, opportunity and its historic living standards from everyone else. Containing far more envy of America’s power than reality warrants, it is conveniently omitted that America is the exception to the rule because of a voluntarily agreed upon set of principles. These ideas, including government by consent, freedom of conscience, the sanctity of individual life, liberty and one’s pursuit of happiness, do not originate from the tyranny and injustice that have defined normal human existence since the beginning.

The rule of a few on the backs of the many has been tried, weighed and found wanting. It makes no difference whether it be called absolute monarchy, democracy, socialism or liberalism, it is the same prevalent, recurring weed that releases the same toxins upon society every time. America, founded as a refuge from suppression of conscience, denial of political choice and refusal of economic opportunity, applied the years of practical experience gleaned since ancient time to forge a government that served a sovereign people, not the people enslaved to government. Authority would reside not in personalities and social classes but in duly enacted laws through representatives delegated with specific responsibilities from the sovereign people. Endowed with the infusion of freedom, restrained by virtue and directed by sound education, America worked beyond the highest expectations of our visionary and audacious founding men and women. Preserved by the duty and service of each generation to those proven ideals, America demonstrated the exception not only succeeds, it perpetuates a very real good at home and for the rest of the world.

Simply because America is no more perfect than any other nation does not disprove that goodness and righteousness are either unattainable in her future or altogether absent from her past. In less than two and a half centuries, America has empowered millions with unprecedented upward mobility, withstood dictators, toppled regimes wedded to personal power rather than the might of its ideals, ventured into every corner of the globe not to dominate and conquer but to defend the weak, build trade and goodwill with all, share with those in distress and serve those in need. Where there has been need for improvement, our constitutional system affords remedy through amendment and circumspect legislation insofar as it follows reform in the people themselves. America has soberly embraced what Coolidge understood so well: With great blessings come greater responsibilities.

America has done all these things because at one time or another, no one else in the “room” stood up when the occasion demanded. The world has been and will continue to be far better off as long as moral power triumphs over material power. While the few redistribute wealth and call it “fairness,” the only commodity being equalized is misery and its attendant restriction of opportunity for everyone. The only ones who gain from this denial of eternal truths are those who already hold political power, and seek to extort more from the rest of us.

America’s ideals, as the exception to the ancient “might makes right” governance of world affairs, will prevail only if the original sovereigns — we, the people — reclaim our governance. The world will not rise simply by our descent. The vacuum will not be filled by some other equally legitimate set of lofty standards. We will do nothing for the world by relinquishing moral leadership now, expecting that fairness comes by descending to the lowest common denominator. The world will simply be less equal, less just, less free and less morally coherent.

As Calvin Coolidge said, “Some say we cannot go on maintaining a higher standard of living for our people than that enjoyed in other nations. We have done so for generations. That is the fact. The theory that it cannot continue may be no better than the theory that it will last indefinitely. Some nation always has taken the lead. But supposing we shall finally reach the same position as others that is no reason why we should now relinquish our supremacy and descend to their level. It is our business to make our conditions the best as long as we can. We would not be justified in tamely surrendering our treasure now because at some time it may be exhausted. To become equal to others we must go down or they must go up. For us to go down would not in itself raise others. Our example of a free and prosperous people has been the sovereign remedy for world oppression. The truth is our trade regulations are more fair to others than theirs are to us. And what is of chief importance is the great service we render by giving credits and furnishing markets. The higher our standards, the greater our progress, the more we do for the world.”

Coolidge once put it even more concisely, “Do not expect to build up the weak by tearing down the strong.” Those who advocate ultimate liberation on the wings of America’s departure from exceptionalism expect more than reality can give. As with so many observations on government and human nature, however, Coolidge could not be more correct. It is a wisdom that can never be escaped, however much nations or individuals wish to jettison the obligations of righteousness or the constraints of moral standards.

President Calvin Coolidge

On Factual News Reporting and a Responsible Press, Part 2

Having ventured into the ways in which the press impacts, even undermines, America’s friendly relations around the world, President Coolidge turned to the very valid reasons why America continued to be worth loyalty and admiration without compromising the press’ solemn task. He explained,

“Progress and civilization have always depended upon effort and sacrifice. We have set up our institutions, established our ideals, and adopted our social standards. We believe that they are consistent with right and truth and justice. We live under a system that guarantees the sanctity of life and liberty through public order and protects the rights of private property under the principle of due process of law. We have thrown every possible safeguard around the individual in order to protect him from any invasion of his rights even by the Government itself. It is peculiarly an American doctrine, now usually accepted in principle if not adopted in practice by all civilized countries, that these are unalienable rights, that they ought to belong to all persons everywhere, and that it is the chief function of government to provide instrumentalities by which these rights can be secured and protected. We have adopted these ideals because we believe that they are of universal application and square with the eternal principles of right. But we may as well realize that they will not continue to prevail unless we are prepared constantly to put forth great efforts and make large sacrifices for their support.”

It what could not be less timely, especially instructive with the ongoing “War on Terror,” Coolidge did not end there, but drove the point home,

“While we have not been willing to assume any general attitude of crusading toward other nations and, realizing that institutions can not be bestowed but must be adopted, have left them for the most part secure in their rights to work out their own destiny, yet we have always been willing to encourage and assist, in so far as we could in harmony with international law and custom, other people in securing for themselves the benefit of these principles and ideals. In that conflict between freedom and despotism, which is as old as humanity, and which constantly recurs on one form or another, both among ourselves and among other people, it has always been the policy of this Government to extend its sympathy and, in so far as it lawfully could, its support to the side of freedom.”

Well-established international law did not only preclude the right of America’s Government from interfering “in the purely domestic affairs of other nations in their dealings with their own citizens,” it just as strongly sustained that “certain rights over and certain duties toward our own citizens and their property” follow the American wherever one goes. The Nation bears a duty to protect both the persons and property of its citizens “wherever they may be” since “these rights go with the citizen.” This is not to say that when our people enter a foreign country, they are somehow exempt from the laws of that sovereign people. Just as our Government is obligated to uphold our own laws so are the other nations of the world, free of interjection from us. Yet, as Coolidge reminds his audience, domestic rights and duties are not mutually exclusive, they are taken together with international law recognizing rights and duties of equal potency. “There is nothing unfair, nothing imperialistic, in this principle.” Together they are accepted even between the civilized nations of our time and place because they remain, as Coolidge observed, “the only reasonable method by which enlightened humanity can safeguard friendly intercourse among the citizens of different nations.” This method, the President declared, has been forged from a belief that law must reign not upon the transient basis of borders, ethnic identity or where society is currently but upon what is universal and essential.

Discussing these great principles of law and justice in our relation to the world was supremely valuable but President Coolidge understood that placing them into practical application was just as necessary. Addressing many who knew the daunting circumstances Coolidge was about to recount, the President illustrated how the principles he had commended actually work in order for responsible media organizations, like United Press, to inform the American people with the facts. He starts by reviewing the situations in Mexico, Nicaragua and China.

At its heart, the problems in Mexico, spanning several years and involving the loss of American lives as well as the confiscation of property running into hundreds of millions of dollars, was a legal question. Mexico, adopting a constitution of its own in 1857, approved terms under which American citizens could acquire property both as individuals and as corporate owners. This remained the law until a new constitution was ratified in 1917. This newer document threatened government confiscation of those properties previously approved as lawful. Two commissioners were dispatched from the United States in 1923 who, through extensive discussion of this provision in Mexico’s constitution confirmed by signature of both President Obregon and President Coolidge that property would not be divested retroactively. Having reached so formal an understanding satisfactory to both nations “that our property rights would be respected” President Obregon’s government was grant official recognition by the United States on September 3, 1923. As efforts to overthrow the Mexican government intensified, however, in the fall of 1924, a new President claimed office who joined with the Mexican Congress to pass laws that again threatened that agreement on property ownership. The new President, Calles, refusing to recognize any prior understanding between Mexico and America, positioned to remove American citizens from their property and any right to possess it in Mexico altogether. As Coolidge summarized, “We do not question their right to take any property, provided they pay fair compensation.” Americans under the Coolidge administration sympathized with the aims of the Mexican government to return people to care of the land but at the same time recognized how the nation to our south, running too far into nationalism, was only hurting its own future. By “preventing the investment of outside capital so necessary for their development” the people of Mexico were unwittingly placing themselves at debilitating economic disadvantage, impairing “their friendly relations with other interested nations.” In effect, Mexico was telling the world it was removing itself from investment, trade and cooperation with anyone not Mexican. All the while, Mexico was also informing the rest of the civilized world that its word was not to be trusted, property could be taken without the legal safeguard of just payment and if those fundamental rights could be jettisoned, on what grounds were religious liberty, government by consent and the sanctity of life to be protected? When talk turned to arbitration, Coolidge shot it down. How could the cardinal principle that private property cannot be taken without fair compensation be up for grabs in the give and take of of the arbiter’s table? It was neither in America’s interest nor that of any other nation, to question this long-recognized right. As he would prepare to send Dwight Morrow to Mexico that summer, the President could report to this gathering of world news specialists that “the Mexican Ambassador has recently declared to me that she does not intend to confiscate our property; that she has shown diligence in capturing and punishing those who have murdered our citizens, and expressed the wish, which we so thoroughly entertain, of keeping cordial and friendly relations.”

President Coolidge had devoted a portion of his Annual Message the previous December to the problems in Nicaragua but would reiterate the key points at issue. Approached years before by the government of Nicaragua to dispatch a force of our Marines to that country, the United States had helped restore peaceful conditions for some twelve years. Nearly as soon as withdrawing the Marines, however, Coolidge saw revolution break out again. In the midst of violent upheaval, the Nicaraguan Congress confirmed a a National Executive and the U.S. joined by Nicaragua’s Central American neighbor-nations recognized the new President as having “constitutional title” to the office. As time elapsed, it quickly became evident that the new government was not protecting “American lives and property” so Coolidge sent in the Marines a second time. In the process of fighting for peace, a misinformation war was simultaneously underway. President Coolidge was disappointed to see cartoonists depicting the conflict as a squabble over oil even despite the verifiable fact that Nicaragua had no oil to develop let alone over which to fight.

Deviating from his point briefly, Coolidge sought to correct this irrational prejudice against oil consumption as an inherent evil. He said, “Our country consumes vast quantities of oil and gasoline in its use of automobiles, gas engines, and oil-burning furnaces. If these products are to be kept within a reasonable price, which is very important to a great body of our citizens, our people who go abroad to develop new fields and to increase the supply ought to have the encouragement and support of our Government.”

Returning to a discussion of the facts on Nicaragua, the President retorted, “We are not making war on Nicaragua any more than a policeman on the street is making war on passers-by. We are there to protect our citizens and their property from being destroyed by war and to lend every encouragement we can to the restoration of peace. While the destruction of life and property has been serious enough had it not been for the presence of our forces it would undoubtedly have been much worse.” The President noted the irony of those who had eagerly insisted there was ample mandate for American involvement in “far-off countries in Asia, where we have no interest that does not attach to all humanity” while our involvement, principally employing “the peaceful method of elections” in Central and South America, found those same people shrinking back with hesitation and criticism. When it came to the unique moral responsibility the United States had for those countries to our south, those same people found fault with “attempting to encourage the maintenance of order, the continuity of duly established government, and the protection of lives and property of our own citizens under a general reign of law in these countries…near at hand…where we have large and peculiar interests.”

Finally, the President moved to the volatile set of issues surrounding China. Undergoing revolution, the country had been segmented into numerous parts, “each claiming to represent a government, none of which we have recognized,” Coolidge affirmed. “Our main difficulty here is the protection of the life and property of our citizens.” Most of these lives and properties were missionaries, a few commercial enterprises and their possessions. America was not holding Chinese property. During the Coolidge administration, the mission of our Navy and Marines was one of concentrating our citizens in the port cities where they could be protected and transported to safety. We were not there to impose seize land or impose our ways on others. It was during these tenuous efforts to protect American citizens and their possessions that one of them was murdered, another was wounded and our consulate ransacked at Nanking. Coolidge explained what happened next, when “the house in which our people had taken refuge was surrounded and they were actually under fire it became necessary for one of our ships…to lay down a barrage” in order to drive away the soldiers and mob so that our citizens could reach “a place of safety on our ships in the river.” President Coolidge outlined why the United States deployed forces again when, just weeks prior to this address, the warring elements in China refused to grant America’s request to avoid fighting in the designated foreign sections of Shanghai. Having the most genuine sympathy for a restoration of freedom, unity and even the voluntary establishment of republican government to China, Coolidge realized that the internal upheaval can “be let loose temporarily beyond their power to control” which is why the United States continues a presence there to uphold the duty of protecting American nationals. America was not there to display aggression but “to prevent aggression against our people by any of their disorderly elements.” Coolidge retained an optimism for China’s eventual reclamation of its obligations. “Ultimately the turmoil will quiet down and some form of authority will emerge, which will no doubt be prepared to make adequate settlement for any wrongs we have suffered. We shall of course maintain the dignity of our Government and insist upon proper respect being extended to our authority. But our actions will at all times be those of a friend solicitous for the well-being of the Chinese people.”

America had inescapably stepped into the position of a world power. Attendant with that immense moral authority is the unavoidable criticisms which must be borne. While others have marched across the globe, using their leadership for conquest and subjugation, it will be assumed (falsely) that America will follow suit. “Such, however,” Coolidge emphasized, “is not the spirit of the American people.” We should expect that baseless accusations of imperialistic motives will be thrown against us, even when legitimately engaged in the support of international law, upholding our national interests and protecting the rights of our citizens. Holding ourselves “up to high standards of justice and equity…[w]e should be slow to take offense and quick to grant redress.” Civilization moves forward by the “acceptance and general observance of definite rules of human conduct.” The press functions in the indispensable role of both an advocate and expositor of America’s dutiful positions and “unwavering faith in those principles” not only to those at home but to the rest of the world. While America’s attitude to every nation remained one of “friendship and good will,” those who cast aside the rule of law “can not hope for our approbation.” America does not reward the lawless and violent. Those who struggle to rise in the pursuit of what Coolidge calls “a larger liberty,” America has abundant forbearance. America is to stand by the requirements of what is right and just but also ready to show generous mercy and compassion. To accomplish these obligations, however, America must be united and constantly prepared to serve. A free and responsible press helps furnish, through reliable reporting of the facts, a renewing commitment to America’s ideals by a truly informed citizenry.

On Factual News Reporting and a Responsible Press, Part 1

The younger, smaller but historically relentless competitor of the Associated Press, United Press Associations, as it was originally known, broke coverage on some of the most pivotal events in history. It was the first to announce Armistice to the world in 1918 from France, the first to cover developments during the Second World War through reports obtained directly from various points in the European theater, the first to disclose the horrific assassination of John F. Kennedy and the first to secure interviews with most of the twentieth century’s foreign leaders, from Emperor Hirohito to Joseph Stalin to Adolf Hitler. Under its President, Roy W. Howard, the United Press achieved a preeminent reputation for world news coverage throughout the Coolidge years, upholding its motto, “Get it First, but First, Get it Right.”

Looking back over its first twenty years, the organization that had begun in 1907 with E. W. Scripps combining three Midwestern papers, had much for which to be proud as part of America’s press. United Press was hardly resting on its laurels, however. It is illustrative that it not only recognized its serious role in international relations but recognized, by inviting President Coolidge to deliver the address at their twentieth anniversary Dinner in New York City, there was much more a responsible press has to do.

President Coolidge, not about to forgo the importance of balancing a consideration of obligations alongside privileges, would keep this a central theme in his speech before those gathered from the United Press. “It is axiomatic,” he would remind his audience, “that a free press can exist only in a free country. One of the first efforts of all kinds of absolutism is to control the press and the schools as the sources of information and education of the people.” The press enjoyed freedom in this country out of both National and State constitutions, but “it has a reciprocal duty of its own to perform toward the administration of the Government, of giving true reports to the people of the actions of public officials.” The press, if it were to retain its First Amendment freedoms, cannot cover for the wrongs of those in power. The press cannot conveniently hide or twist the truth to suit personal political agendas, protect friends in office, manipulate electoral outcomes or otherwise adopt attitudes foreign to America’s history, people, institutions and interests. To do so, Coolidge knew, “would be to establish a petty tyranny of its own.” Retaining an unsinkable faith in the judgment of the American people, he then boldly asserted, “In America the general sources of information are so numerous and on the whole so correct that any publication which constantly misrepresents very soon becomes marked as unreliable and loses its influence both for good and for harm.”

The President continued, “It is natural that the press should represent the character of the government under which it lives and of the people which it serves. I have come to have a profound regard for the American press because it represent America. In the accuracy of its reports, the intelligence of its comments, and the freedom of its actions, I know of no other country where it is surpassed…Because America is what it is, you are what you are.” However, Coolidge’s praise for what constitutes a responsible free press included warnings about the danger of departing from those standards. “Whenever any section of our press turns on America and on American institutions, and assumes a foreign attitude, every informed person knows that it has fallen from the high state which is our common heritage, and becoming no longer worthy of regard is destined to defeat and failure. No American can profit by selling his own country for foreign favor.”

The President surveyed the room full of reporters and editors, seeing many who had covered the happenings at home and abroad since the adventurous days of Roosevelt, out of the turmoil of war under Wilson and finally, through the work of reestablishing peace under Harding and Coolidge. Even before he stood to speak, Coolidge recognized the need to explain the Nation’s foreign policy. He started by outlining basic principles, the role America as a new power plays as well as the crucial part the press holds in world affairs. “The policy that our Nation is trying to promote throughout the world is one of peace and good will based on a better understanding through justice and fair dealing.” This was accomplished by relying on three elements to advance this cause. First, the National Government promotes this better understanding as it “comes into contact through its duly constituted officers with the governments and people of other countries.” America is no belligerent country “desirous of oppression or bent on conquest. Our whole history and tradition, the moderation of our Military Establishment and the general attitude of our people, would altogether disprove any such assumption.”

Second, the connections of trade and commerce promote this better understanding. The advantage, Coolidge reminded his audience, was not a one-sided “exploitation” of the world by Americans. Commercial interaction rendered a very strong and vibrant mutual benefit to those who come here from abroad to engage in business, to those who go overseas to lend their skills to opening undeveloped parts of the world and to all who build, invest and serve. It is the law of service in operation after all, Coolidge observed. As such, there is no justification for utilitarian motives, seizure of property or the “failure to give fair compensation for their labor.” Eeach individual’s labor has worth in the market, not merely those with political strength or social standing. Justice and humanity, accurately defined, has to direct our interaction with other nations “to maintain the respect and friendship of foreign peoples.”

Third, the state of the public mind is the most important means of promoting a better understanding. Nations grounded in an ongoing effort to comprehend one another and exercise a healthy measure of good will do not “find themselves at war” overnight. It is after a “long series of misunderstandings and abuses” that the hostile feelings harbored inside the mind break out into the open with the smallest provocation. By preempting this first step, removing the clutter of animosity and unfamiliarity that accumulates between different people through ignorance, the road to just and equitable dealings with the world is made all the clearer. The press can either accomplish remarkable good or inflict great harm in proportion its commitment: either to inform Americans with honest news reporting or merely exacerbate prejudices and enmities with tainted information. “It is for these reasons that the public press, especially the daily newspapers and weekly periodicals, has such an enormous influence in creating a situation that brings the blessings of peace or is fraught with the perils of war.”

Coolidge elaborated plainly how the press can “endanger our friendly relations,” being under no illusions that America’s media does carry this immense degree of influence around the world. If not directly creating war, the press has the ability to injure the indispensable foundation of trust between nations vital for trade and understanding to exist. Yet, if the press were to engage in “constant criticism and misrepresentation of foreign people” prompted by a “narrow and bigoted nationalism,” it would not only misinform at home but foster an unnecessary bitterness abroad. Furthermore, if the press indulges in “malicious and misleading partisan attacks on the conduct of our own Government in its efforts to defend American rights” an outcome equally as destructive results. The President condemned both extremes. Instead, when our Government is proceeding deliberately to “adjust differences,” defend “the rights of its citizens,” and maintain “national dignity” it is necessary that the press exercise “great care…to give the public the exact facts and avoid the appearance of seeming to support the position of foreign governments.” To take such a side against America “only furnishes ammunition for our adversaries,” attacking “our own forces in the rear.”

Coolidge grasped not only the rewards of freedom of the press, he encouraged some of the best journalists of his day never to forsake that behind those freedoms depend great responsibilities. Coolidge reminds us that the press exists to provide the people with the precise facts and honest reporting to be expected from those who are to represent America’s ideals. The press is to render its support and service to its country because America is worthy of so high a standard of excellence. Consequently, patriotism is not a betrayal of responsible news coverage, it is a manifestation of a free and credible press. It is seen in the daily demand of informed citizens to be armed with the truth and equipped with those facts to better understand the world and America’s righteous role in it. That ideal role endures, not as a force for oppression and exploitation, but as a firm friend of anyone on the side of lawful liberty. That role endures as an advocate of genuine fairness and justice everywhere. But also, that role endures as a peacemaker, laying aside ignorance, martial conquest and nationalist bigotry for a truer understanding and readiness to serve. Love for all that America is is not a narrow nationalism, it is simply a commitment to our eternally right founding principles. Or, as Coolidge ever succinctly put it, “An American press which has all the privileges which it enjoys under our institutions, and which derives its support from the progress and well-being of our people, ought to be first of all thoroughly American.”