Many people today have a basic misunderstanding of what is meant by “American Exceptionalism”. They think that those of us who believe in the concept of American Exceptionalism simply think our country is the best, sort of like how we brag about our favorite sports team. As President Obama is known to have described it, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
But if everyone is exceptional, than nobody is, right?
On the contrary, being “exceptional” has very real meaning. Being exceptional is being rare or unusual, as in “an exception to the rule”. At the time of our founding, and virtually all history prior to that, the “rule” in the world was that people were ruled by monarchs or some type of government that had ultimate power over the people. Most people had very limited freedom to live their lives as they saw fit. Opportunities to exceed beyond your “station in life” were essentially non-existent. For the most part, this rule still holds true today. Then along came the United States of America, where the people have the ultimate power over their government, a classless society where opportunities for upward mobility were limitless no matter what you started out as or who your father was. The liberty enjoyed by the people was unprecedented.
America was the “exception” to the rule, and for the most part, still is, although it is diminishing.
Because it was and is such an exceptional concept, our self-governing, freedom loving, Constitutional Republic is often referred to as the “American Experiment”, because it really had never been tried before to this extent. Many did not believe it would or could possibly work, including King George. Even our own George Washington had doubts that it would last more than about 20 years. And then there is Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, where upon leaving Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention, he was approached by anxious citizens who asked him what form of government we will have. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
I sincerely believe we are on the verge of losing it.
What Franklin was referring to was the responsibility of the people to remain informed and vigilant in protecting their own liberties and natural rights through the power of this new experiment of sovereignty of the people and self-governance. Having an electorate consisting of informed citizens is the key and Franklin (as well as many other founders) was not sure if the people would live up to that responsibility and, therefore, if self-governance was even possible for the long-run. It had never been tried before, so they had their doubts.
In the end, thankfully, they decided it was worth a try.