The Passing of American Exceptionalism: How We Became Like All the Other Nations

Yes, once upon a time there really was an American exceptionalism. America was a light unto the world. This exceptionalism was a long way from perfect, of course (looking for perfection in a mass of humans is silly), but it was legitimate and substantial.

Alas, that was long ago. People who say that American exceptionalism still exists don’t understand what it was. They may not have bad intentions, but they have strayed badly from real meanings.

(Others promote the idea simply 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 found in 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 mythologies, we see this:

  • The Dutch and the Brits created central banking, and the US followed right along.
  • The French came up with the will of the people being embodied in national assemblies, 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 claim control of communications; the US guv claims control of communications.
  • 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 those are just stories—what those men believed no longer matters in American life… nor does the founding philosophy of John Locke.

The US is just 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:

[N]othing 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:

[T]his 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.

I could go on, but I think the case has been made. These men were creating something separate, something apart, something radically different than the usual machinery of government… something that has been fully lost.

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. I’ll go through the details some other time, but Hamilton trashed the monetary system prescribed in the Constitution (honestly minted silver and gold) 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, criminal 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 still 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 US federal government supported slavery until the end of the war. Furthermore, slavery ended peacefully for England, France, and the rest of the world. Only in the US was there a dreadful war… a war that eliminated differences between the US and the other nations.

1898: The Spanish-American War. Again, we have no space for details, but this is when the US went Big Military.

1913: Whatever life the old republic had left was strangled 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 bankers’ 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. Some of the founders used “democratic” in a descriptive sense, but they were all crystal clear that they were building a republic, not a democracy. For example, 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.

And does no one remember that World War I was fought to “make the world safe for democracy”? It didn’t work out too well.

And how’s democracy doing in Cuba, or Iraq, or Afghanistan?

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 reigns supreme. Personal sovereignty has been outlawed.

There are still a few currents from the early days running through American hearts, and I do pray that they continue. But to pretend that American exceptionalism exists on any level beyond that is misleading propaganda… a pretty lie that encourages us to praise ourselves.

Paul Rosenberg

This article was originally published by Casey Research.