Last weekend, the Ashbrook Center hosted 18 teachers from across the country in the exceptional city of New Orleans, Louisiana, for a conversation on the topic of American exceptionalism.
Throughout American history, America has been seen, in many ways, to be distinct as a nation and as a people. Through readings from the colonial era, founding era, Civil War, Progressive era, and from contemporary times, the teachers who gathered with us in New Orleans discussed ways in which America or Americans have been viewed as “exceptional”.
During its youth, America offered the hope of freedom from the limits of the Old World. Participants read from the letters of the French settler to America, John Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, who explained how the European landing in the new world, “is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury…. There he sees a parson as simple as his flock, a farmer who does not [live in excess] on the labor of others. We have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed. We are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free as he ought to be….”
The 19th century saw conflict about whether this freedom should extend to African-Americans as well as Americans of European origin. Participants explored writings from both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln, who in his famous Gettysburg Address called America to an exceptional purpose – of dedicating ourselves, after a brutal war fought over the meaning of America’s founding principles, to the proposition that “all men are created equal” and to the task of guaranteeing “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In the 20th century, Americans struggled with the question of whether, with the closing of the American frontier and the rise of the industrial economy, some dramatic change was necessary in American political ideals or institutions. Was it the case, as Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, that 18th century conceptions of liberty were out of date, and that in the modern age, Americans should embrace the political principle that Woodrow Wilson had borrowed from European political science and admit, “The day of enlightened administration has come”? Or should Americans heed the counsel of Herbert Hoover who argued, “Our country has a political, social, and economic system that is peculiarly our own. It is the American system. It grew out of our revolt from European systems and has ripened with our experience and our ideals…. It has been the moving force of our progress. It has brought us into the leadership of the world.”
As long as American represents Lincoln’s ideal of a government that is of, by, and for the people, America will remain exceptional. Teachers and students of American history and government must continue to ask whether this requires a radical departure from the model of self-government established at America’s founding, or whether there is something exceptional (as Hoover argued) in America’s tradition of decentralized and ordered liberty.