Are We Still the Shining City on the Hill? Or is it Time To Change the Justification for the Term “American Exceptionalism?”
By Howard James
In so many ways the concept of American exceptionlism has, from the beginning, been closely tied to religion and politics.
For hundreds of years America has been considered a unique and exceptional nation with the mission of spreading liberty, egalitarianism, and democracy around the world.
Alexis de Tocqueville, French political thinker and historian, was among the first to actually refer to our young country as “exceptional” in his two volumes, Democracy in America, published in 1835 and 1840. His words are still being quoted 180 years later.
The early Puritans believed God had a covenant with our people – chosen to establish an example of liberty for other nations to follow.
As early as 1630 they referred to Proverbs 4:18 – “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”
They also refer to Matthew 5:14 – “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.”
The influential Educational reformer, the Rev. Holmes McGuffy, author of McGuffy’s Reader, which sold 125 million copies between 1836 and 1920, also suggested God gave the United States the responsibility of producing liberty and democracy throughout the world.
Confidence in American Exceptionalism was bolstered by our successful role in World War I when Germany accepted the “14 points” outlined by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and agreed to an armistice that ended the war.
Later we were credited with saving Europe from the Nazis and defeating the Japanese in World war II. The steps we took to establish democracy in Germany and Japan and to rebuild war torn countries bolstered the belief in American Exceptionalism.
This long prevailing theory undoubtedly had a role in our intervention in Korea in an era when it appeared the Soviet Union intended to export communism to the rest of the world. Korea had been split in half at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union backed the government in the northern half, the United States supported the government in the southern half. When the Soviets invaded Korea it appeared they intended to control all of Korea.
Today Korea remains divided and the Department of Defense declines to tell us how many U.S. troops are still there due to “sensitive and political reasons.” The Congressional research service has used the number of 28,500, but some say that is too high.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Soviets continued to spread communism to other countries, including Vietnam. When America became involved it caused an uproar around the nation by those who opposed the war.
Was President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in Iraq a deliberate decision or just a subconscious desire to fulfill our longstanding obligation to spread democracy around the world?
Do segments of America refuse to accept the longstanding belief in American Exceptionalism? Or because our educational system has faltered and failed, are millions of citizens unaware of what our forefathers saw as an obligation?
Whatever the reason one can accurately argue we are an exceptional country on other grounds. We are undisputed leaders in creativity, innovation, and problem solving.
Next: A new concept behind the words “American Exceptionalism.”