American exceptionalism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, well after the founding of our country. The founders did not use this phrase, but it is easy to see that this concept was true to their beliefs as well that this noble experiment in self-governance was genuinely inspired and vastly different than any effort in history.
The modern era has seen this phrase used by politicians and elected officials; conjuring up images of what our nation should be or might be.
In the late 1700s, a group of tremendously talented, daring, and giving souls were driven to build something new, something different; a noble experiment that would serve to change the ages. We are blessed as a people and have been endowed with much. But have we lived up to the gifts we have been given?
American exceptionalism includes the notion that we differ tremendously from other nations in part due to our history, geography, origins, historical evolution and most importantly our national credo. It is the belief that we hold a distinct place in history as a nation where there is hope, progress, and opportunity, balanced on the fulcrum of individual rights and freedoms granted to us at birth and endowed by our Creator as inalienable rights. Yet we risk the loss of these rights on a daily basis as life becomes more complex and the governance of man gets more intrusive.
The words of those who fought for American independence ring true even today.
Thomas Paine wrote, The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. And John Adams wrote, Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, and measure in which the lives and liberties of millions yet unborn are intimately interested, are now before us. We are in the midst of a revolution the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.
The founders knew the depths in which they were delving, and they sought to create something that would endure to the ends of time. They had no blueprint or predesigned notion. They dealt in the theoretical as they invented a country and how to govern the affairs of this new idea.
Before the American Revolution, the various colonies experimented with self-governance for most of a century as England developed what could be called a laissez-faire attitude, as long as there was a place to negotiate international trade and as long as there were few problems. In reality, there were very few external influences over the individuals and the small communities of our newly-minted country grew exponentially. As these communities grew, they used concepts brought from European political thoughts; largely liberalism, as John Locke provided the intellectual foundations of this theory. Central to this theory were the elements of individualism, God-given rights, freedom (at least for some and one day for all), essential equality of opportunity, a developing social contract, and most importantly, a limited external government outside of the communities in which one lived. These elements served us well as a new nation was born, found freedom from England, and struggled to put the new experiment into place.
From President Lincoln forward, we began to view government as a greater tool of enforcement of these basic rights. Mr. Lincoln did not fear government, he feared tyrannical government, and he fought to keep the constitutional balances in place that he believed should serve a struggling nation well.
Since that time, we have seen the constant growth of the role of the federal government. Slowly but surely over time, it has covered us like kudzu along a highway. When the colonies were formed into a new nation, there were about the same number of people on the continent as now are employees of the federal government. My, how things have changed!
George Orwell once wrote, If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever. Is this the slow path on which we are headed? Are we going to allow the threats of external forces within to use our fears, concerns and weaknesses, that are inherent in an open and free society, to willingly have us place a slow chain of shackles upon ourselves under the guise of security?
A vastly different group of men, from the far reaches of the new land, came together to create something the world had never seen: a governance of society driven by the foundation of all history, the rights of the individual triumphant over all, built upon the acceptance that our rights were inalienable, given to us at birth by God and not to be taken from us by any other force.
Remember, it was Thomas Paine who wrote in "The American Crisis," The cunning of the fox is as murderous as the violence of the wolf. As we surrender our rights in exchange for possible security, as we watch large cities, like Detroit, file for bankruptcy, and as we see a nation divided instead of united, we must ask ourselves these questions. Are we up to the challenge of American exceptionalism? Can we listen to the voices of reason? Or will we see the continued erosion of faith in the principles upon which our nation was founded?
The strength of our nation has always come from how we function as a body to overcome our own omissions, errors, and bad choices. We consistently seek ways to make them right. There is no nation on earth like ours, where anyone can own property, all can be educated, and all can find their own paths to prosperity no matter how humble ones beginnings.
In the past we have risen to every challenge. Will we do it now? Or will our collective confusion and frustration serve as the intractable obstacles from which we retreat.
Dr. Moore is president and CEO of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.