Do We Still Believe In “American Exceptionalism? Do the ideals that justified the Declaration of Independence still resonate in our society? Do our leaders believe in them?

By Paolo von Schirach

June 8, 2013

WASHINGTON – Early in his first term, while abroad President Barack Obama dodged a question about “American Exceptionalism”. He tried to be clever by saying that, yes, America is exceptional…but, hey…so is every other country, because each one has its special history and unique culture, blah, blah, blah. May be Obama, cognizant of America’s bad image caused by George Bush’s bellicosity, wanted to avoid anything that might have been construed as jingoistic by a foreign audience. May be.

Our history

Or it may be that he –President Obama– does not really believe in “American Exceptionalism”, that is in the uniqueness of America as the first republic consciously and deliberately created in the modern world. America was the first modern state to establish the principle of popular sovereignty.

In the age in which there was no constitutional law but only the almost universally accepted principle of the “divine right” of Kings, America established that governments represent the people and are legitimate only in so far as they fulfil their obligation to protect the rights of the people. And the American government would be secular. No state religion in America. People would be free to practice their own religion. But the state would be neutral on religious matters.  Furthermore, America would welcome diverse people as rightful citizens, as long as they, in good faith, would declare allegiance to America’s basic principles.

America was not and is not an ethnic state in which people who share a language and a territory are also organized politically. America is the country in which foreigners can choose to become Americans not by denying their heritage but by subscribing to the principles of its constitution that talk about rights and duties that have nothing to do with a particular culture, ethnicity or religious belief.

In the end, a true regime of liberty in which the people would not have to fear arbitrary power would allow the unleashing of human potential. People would be free to undertake any economic activity.  People in America would have opportunity. No guarantee of success, of course; but opportunity.


Well, we do know that this beautiful picture is not entirely true. But I contend that, despite all,  it is mostly true. Sure enough easy to point out the obvious. America was about freedom and also about slavery. Black people were not real people. And it took centuries to remedy this incredible injustice. The Civil War abolished slavery; but it failed to introduce real equality. Segregation replaced slavery, with similar impact. We had to get to the 1960s to formally end segregation.

Killing Native Americans

And then we have the wars against Native Americans. They were chased out of their land. They were killed and finally forced into small reservations. Again, the Native Americans were not viewed as real people. And you can add more negative stuff. The overwhelming power of monopolies and Robber Barons. Wall Street dominance and what not. Huge inequalities, poverty and more. Yes, all true.

No paradise, but still “exceptional”

America was and is hardly paradise. And President Obama, with his half African heritage, may understand all this more than others. He can appreciate more than others how a large section of America sees its history as a history of oppression, rather than liberty.

But here is the question. Do all these major defects and shortcomings undermine the entire notion of “American Exceptionalism”? As America clearly did not live up to it ideals, does it mean that it is all just a big hoax?

I believe that, major shortcomings notwithstanding, America is basically good. The ideals of our Founding Fathers were noble, realistic and sound. Even though America did not live up to its own principles, it tried to. The ideals were about the dignity of Man, about the sanctity of Freedom and about constructing a new, modern society that would encourage the pursuit of knowledge through education and enterprise.

These are all principles that people across the world can subscribe to today without denying their culture, language or traditions. They are true Universal Principles. They are good and they were articulated in a cogent fashion by our Founding Fathers for the first time in modern history. This is “American Exceptionalsim”. And it is good.

3 comments to “Do We Still Believe In “American Exceptionalism? Do the ideals that justified the Declaration of Independence still resonate in our society? Do our leaders believe in them?
  1. Paolo,
    I think your article misses two of the most important points:
    1. The USA is not perfect but is always striving to the right goals as a country. One thing that makes us exceptional is having the political infrastructure in place to be able to do so.
    2. The USA has been the preeminent place in the world where one can achieve virtually any goal given the abilities, drive, and persistence. It is not at all clear that this wonderful attribute does or will remain true with the rapid growth of government. Political pressures on governments are universally in the direction of equal-outcomes as opposed to equal-opportunities. When governments start “creating opportunities” they are of course picking winners which unfortunately results also in creating losers.
    – Tom

    • I see no disagreement. I believe in “American Exceptionalism” and I have stated that it is “good”. My concern is that our leaders may not believe in it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *