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Tuesday, July 25th, 2017Last Update: Thursday, May 4th, 2017 02:03:55 PM

Why America is Exceptional

By: David Deming

Why America is Exceptional

The political theory upon which the U.S. was founded was the fruition of more than two thousand years of Western political theory and experience.

By David Deming

There is currently a debate in this country as to whether or not our schools should teach American Exceptionalism. But few people seem to understand what American Exceptionalism is.

American exceptionalism has nothing to do with democracy. Many countries have democratic elections. Neither is exceptionalism a claim of supremacy. Americans do not claim to be better than people living in other countries. Exceptionalism does not refer to superiority in wealth, status, or any of the advantages that are derived from civilization. The United States has high economic productivity, good schools, technologically advanced infrastructure, and a high standard of living. But so do many other countries.

America, meaning the United States, is exceptional because it is the only nation built upon the idea that people are born with inalienable natural rights and that governments exist to protect and preserve these rights. The key ideas were expressed succinctly and elegantly by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal" under the law. People have intrinsic natural rights that cannot be surrendered. These include the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." "Governments are instituted among men," not for the purpose of obtaining arbitrary power, but for securing the natural rights of the citizenry from infringement by either individuals or factions.

If the U.S. has enjoyed a preeminence in the world, it is not because our framework was cobbled together haphazardly by a rabble of farmers and provincial rubes. The political theory upon which the U.S. was founded was the fruition of more than two thousand years of Western political theory and experience. Natural rights come from natural law, a concept known and discussed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. A theory of government founded upon the rights of man was fully expounded at the end of the seventeenth century by John Locke in his treatises on civil government. Locke was widely read in the American colonies, and the American Revolution constituted the very embodiment of his ideas.

The origins of federalism and the separation of powers are usually attributed to Montesquieu, but these concepts also have roots deep in time. Federalism can be traced to the alliances and leagues formed by the city-states of ancient Greece. Separation of powers was practiced in the Roman Republic where authority was divided among the consuls, the senate and the assemblies.

For centuries preceding the American Revolution, the English had been asserting their liberties and restricting the power of kings and arbitrary government. From the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the rights of individuals grew as the power of the English monarchy declined. The American Revolution and rebellion against King George III was the inevitable outcome of a long evolutionary trend toward liberty and self government.

How can a government ostensibly erected to protect natural rights have accepted and implicitly endorsed racial slavery? The answer was provided by a contemporary observer and ardent abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet concluded that our ancestors had done the best they could under the circumstances. "If one can reasonably reproach the Americans, it is only for particular errors or for ancient abuses which circumstances have not permitted them to correct."

The United States government was erected to protect the natural rights of its citizens, to establish a national defense, to create infrastructure, and provide other limited functions consistent with a free state. Our government was not designed to provide commodities for individuals, whether these be food, housing, health care, or education. To the extent this occurs, it is a perversion of our founding principles. Our system was designed for a hardy and independent folk, not a people that want to be coddled and taken care of.

The equality spoken of in the Declaration of Independence is equality before the law, not equality in wealth or status. The right to pursue happiness is not the right to obtain happiness. Absolute equality is incompatible with liberty. A free people will sort themselves out according to their individual aptitudes and inclinations. Inequality of circumstances is the hallmark of liberty.

American exceptionalism was obtained at a steep cost. The patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War often lacked both food and clothes. They endured winters without shoes, and their marches were marked by blood on the snow. Rights dearly secured should not be lightly abandoned. If we are to endure as a nation we must cherish exceptionalism as our unique identity.

About David Deming

David Deming is a geophysicist and associate professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma. His book, Black & White: Politically Incorrect Essays on Politics, Culture, Science, Religion, Energy and Environment, is available for purchase on Amazon.com

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