Once upon a time there really was an American exceptionalism and America was a light unto the world. That exceptionalism was a long way from perfect (looking for perfection in a mass of humans is silly), but it was legitimate.
Alas, that was long ago. People who say that American exceptionalism still exists may have good intentions, but they don’t understand what it was. Others, with less noble intentions, promote the idea to whip up support. Telling people to praise themselves is always a big seller.
Exceptional Means “Not Like the Others”
A Bible passage that has always stuck in my mind is I Samuel, Chapter 8. In it, the Israelites, then living in a tribal anarchy, go to Samuel the prophet and tell him to appoint a king for them. Samuel warns them profusely not to ask this (“Your king will take your children away, take your crops, you’ll cry out for relief,” and so on), but they wouldn’t listen. “No!” they said, “We will have a king over us and be like the other nations.”
In other words, they threw away their exceptionalism and became like everyone else.
This is what happened to the United States—it became just like Britain and France and Germany. It became like all the nations ‘round about. And that’s the precise opposite of “exceptional.”
Thinking about this directly and not through the rose-colored lenses of flattering political talk, we see this:
- The Dutch and the Brits created central banking, and the US followed right along.
- The Germans created social welfare, and the US followed right along.
- They tax income; we tax income.
- They regulate private commerce; we regulate private commerce.
- They built massive armies and conducted foreign wars; the US did the same and now exceeds them all.
We could, of course, extend this list for many pages. Any difference between the US and the rest of the “developed nations” is now minimal.
Americans like to claim people like Patrick Henry and Sam Adams as their great founders, but what those men believed no longer matters in American life… nor does the founding philosophy of John Locke.
The US is now like the nations ‘round about—and that, by definition, means that it is not exceptional.
It Was Exceptional at the Beginning
As I say, once upon a time, America was exceptional. It was wildly different from the other nations. The uppity American commoners claimed that their rights were above kings and parliaments. The other nations said that they were spitting on both tradition and order, and that they were crazy.
Here’s how Thomas Jefferson saw the fruits of his revolution:
All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them …
In Jefferson’s time, Americans faced no direct taxation (income tax, sales tax, etc.) and no armies of bureaucrats. That changed a long time ago, however, and Americans are now saddled just like everyone else… and saddled far worse than they would have been under the old English system.
George Washington said this in his farewell address:
Nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded …
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.
Nowadays, we have almost nothing but the above. In fact, entangling alliances are looked to as the essential guarantor of safety.
So we have exactly the opposite of exceptionalism, and precisely the opposite of what George Washington wanted.
What Washington and the others believed was that the United States would be different—that it would be a haven for actual freedom in the world. Here’s Washington again:
I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.
And here’s Sam Adams, writing in 1770:
This little part of the world—a land, until recently happy in its obscurity—the asylum, to which patriots were accustomed to make their peaceful retreat.
These men were creating something separate, something apart, something radically different from the usual machinery of government.
How It Happened
American exceptionalism failed steadily. Some of the key moments were these:
1790: Alexander Hamilton’s bank and his ripoff of the revolutionary war soldiers. Hamilton trashed the monetary system prescribed in the Constitution (silver and gold coin) and replaced it with a massively manipulable bank. He sold this plan by corrupting a great number of congressmen, enriching them through a massive ripoff of Revolutionary War soldiers. It was a large, dirty affair.
1798: The Alien and Sedition Acts. In the name of national security, the Federalists, under Hamilton’s influence, gave the president power to deport anyone he wished (after he first branded them as “dangerous”) and restricted any speech that criticized the government.
Because of these laws and other political manipulations, the election of 1800—in which Thomas Jefferson was elected—was called a “second American revolution.” (One of Jefferson’s first acts as president was to pardon people in jail from the Sedition Act.) To illustrate the depth of this change, here’s what Alexander Hamilton said during the election:
If Mr. Pinckney [Jefferson’s opponent] is not elected, a revolution will be the consequence, and within four years I will lose my head or be the leader of a triumphant army.
1850-1865: I’m not going to go through details on the Civil War, but it’s crucial to understand that all three branches of the national government supported slavery until the end of the war. Furthermore, slavery ended peacefully for England, France, and the rest of the West. Only in the US was there a dreadful war.
1898: The Spanish-American War. This is when the US went Big Military.
1913: The life the old republic was squeezed out in 1913. The ban on direct taxation was removed, the power of the states to control Washington, DC was handed to political parties, and the dollar was handed to a banking cartel.
Bringing Democracy to the World?
It’s very odd to hear people try to tie American exceptionalism to “bringing democracy to the world,” since that was no part of the American difference at all. The American founders were crystal clear that they were building a republic, not a democracy. Here’s John Adams on the subject:
Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
Once, but Not Now
The original American exceptionalism was about individual self-determination. It was clearly not about cradle-to-grave control, administered by two interlocked cabals in the capital city.
Once, America was truly different: People lived as they wished and barely saw the government. They had rights that government couldn’t touch, not just in propaganda, but in real life.
Now, America is the same as all the other nations and government is God. Personal sovereignty has been outlawed.
There are still a few currents from the early days running through American hearts, and I pray that they continue. But to pretend that American exceptionalism exists on any level beyond that is mere propaganda… catchy lies that encourage us to praise ourselves.
This article was originally published by Casey Research.