Was the American experiment exceptional? Rightly understood, this question should not elicit a value judgment or be confused with claims about American superiority. Because the question is one of history, the indisputable answer is yes.
In his new book, American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History, best-selling author and political scientist Charles Murray explains that American exceptionalism—the idea that our nation was unlike any other from the signing of the Constitution through the nineteenth century—is an unequivocal statement of fact, observed and documented by countless visitors from across the Western world. Murray writes that we must appreciate this historic distinctiveness in order to truly understand what it means to be an American and to chart an informed course for the future of our country.
Just 50 pages long, American Exceptionalism is an accessible, concise primer on the traits that made America unique. The book opens by poetically placing the reader in the unique political and social climate of George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, inspiring us to reacquaint ourselves with the founding fathers and the revolutionary ideals that they upheld. American Exceptionalism is aimed at a college audience, but policymakers, educators, and citizens from across the country can learn from its insightful depiction of our distinguishing characteristics.
In his 1981 address at Yorktown, President Reagan noted that since our founding, the Declaration of Independence “has been copied by emerging nations around the globe, its themes adopted in places many of us have never heard of.” Yet in 1776, it was widely thought to be impossible that a nation built on an ideology of individual liberty could survive. Republican government was viewed as impracticable; the idea that political power could ultimately reside within the people was inconceivable. Even our founders were not convinced that the experiment would succeed.
Murray reminds us that the American experiment had no precedent in human history, and it gave rise to an exceptional nation. From its founding through the end of the 1800s, America was exceptional in four distinct ways:
- An exceptional geographic setting with the Atlantic Ocean serving as a buffer, peaceful neighbors to the north and south, and available land in the West—all of which contributed to the characteristics of the American ideal. Those who crossed dangerous oceans to come to America, and those who ventured into the frontier, self-selected as uniquely courageous and hardworking.
- An exceptional ideology that was both optimistic, because the founders assumed that all humans possess birthrights that cannot be given or withheld by the state and acting in their own best interest will serve the public good, and pessimistic, because the founders believed that humans acting in the political realm tend to be resourceful and dangerous. This produced our system of checks and balances.
- Exceptional politics. Unlike Europeans, Americans never developed a worker’s party. The country has never experienced class warfare. Murray notes that, ironically, the term “American exceptionalism” was first coined by Stalin.
- Exceptional traits. The American civic culture—and its central traits of industriousness, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life—set apart our country.
Are these exceptional traits still a part of our national character today? Is America still exceptional? Throughout the past century, the U.S. government has grown in ways that would likely make it unrecognizable to 18th-century Americans. Murray notes that if the founders were alive today, their views about the limits of government would place them on the radical fringe of our political landscape.
In terms of government spending, entitlements, the secularization of society, and the growing class divide, the U.S. is quickly on a path to become more like Europe.
Yet that course is far from certain. In the latest Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 58 percent of Americans responded that it is more important for everyone to be free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state, while 35 percent said that is “more important for the state to play an active role in society to guarantee that nobody is in need.” As a nation founded on the conviction that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights, it is certainly unsettling—if not terrifying—that more than a third of our citizens do not value securing personal freedom as our foremost national priority. But it is not yet a majority; all is not lost.
In fact, the Pew study concluded that American values continue to differ significantly from those of Western Europeans. The nation surveyed with the most similar views on the role of government was Britain, where 38 percent of respondents—20 points lower than the percentage of respondents in America—believed that freedom to pursue life’s goals was paramount.
American exceptionalism may be fast-eroding in some respects, but a distinctly American national character continues to shine through in recognizable ways. Perhaps now is an appropriate moment in our national history to pause and evaluate the exceptional nature of the American experiment.
If we believe the ideology and civic culture that distinguished America from its 18th and 19th-century peers are positive, and worth preserving, then we must act fast to avoid losing them altogether. American Exceptionalism reacquaints readers with the exceptional ideals upon which our nation was founded and invites us to think critically about who we want to be in the years to come.
Watch AEI's Charles Murray discuss American Exceptionalism below:
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