America used to be truly exceptional. In some respects it still is. Today’s exceptionalism could be argued because of the wildly high levels of material wealth enjoyed, and due to the fact that most of the world’s best and brightest are still drawn here because of the relatively high levels of political and economic freedom in comparison even to Europe.
America’s modern, lingering exceptionalism, however, is much less revolutionary than it was in the past. The exceptionalism of past was in thought—in the way people felt about themselves, their neighbors, the state, and how they were all related. In many ways the exceptional material aspects of today’s America are leftovers from the exceptional thought of its earlier inhabitants.
Now, I know that today it’s not exactly politically correct to speak about America as exceptional or as having had an exceptional history. But like all PC vendettas, this is just silly. The concept of American Exceptionalism originally (and still today by most historians or social scientists) did not imply any sense of superiority or positivity. It was simply a term used to describe the different path and development that America underwent due to being disjointed from the aristocracy and political/sociological/economic systems of Europe. But I, however, am using the term to imply something positive.
What was truly exceptional about American culture was the idea of the individual being supreme and sovereign. The founders were far from perfect and the Constitution did indeed do much to destroy the revolutionary individualistic nature of both the Declaration of Independence and the rebellion alike (for more information see this), but the overall guiding principle began conceptually with the individual and went from there.
And aside from politics, the individualistic culture of Americans persisted strongly up until the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century. This revolutionary idea that you were the supreme judge in the conduct of your own affairs and the government was there for a specific job—security and arbitration—and if they left those boundaries you would feel justified in defending yourself and acting outside the rules of the state.
We see individualistic and rebellious nature reflected in Shay’s Rebellion, The Whiskey Rebellion, the refusal of state militias to take part in the invasion of Canada in The War of 1812*, the refusal of funds to finance The War of 1812 by Northeastern Banks**, the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, stiff resistance to a central bank, the Texas Revolution, abolitionist activity in defiance of State and Federal laws, the secession of the Southern States, The 1863 New York City Draft Riots, homesteading, and countless other examples. Though there are probably multitudes of books written about the finer negative and positive points of all these instances, the point is that it was the exceptional nature of American individualistic thinking which ultimately led people to feel justified and motivated to take part in them.
And this brings us to the sister point of American Exceptionalism that works in tandem with the idea of individual sovereignty. And this is the idea that, regardless of political rhetoric from the time, America was less a nation or country than simply a spot on the Earth where individuals could be free to pursue their own ends—and to their own success or peril. As a corollary is also follows that the government was seen as an entity providing the limited service of protecting this spot on the Earth that had been carved out for individuals. The government, in other words, was only as good to people as its ability to protect their personal interests, and terms like nation or country (when used the same as nation) had little real meaning.
Two telling examples of this idea of America being less a nation than a geographical haven for freedom seekers is the extensive history of homesteading and the migration to Texas. Homesteading is the principle by which someone gains ownership of a previously unowned resource. It’s the Lockean idea of original appropriation—that if something is in the state of nature, i.e. unowned, then you gain ownership by mixing your labor with it and making active use of it.
The United States had a succession of “Homestead Acts” from the 1860s to the 1890s which opened up the West to settlement. Thousands of people left their neighbors, their security, their government—essentially their “nation”—in order to live free lives as they saw fit. The idea of having some mystic, nationalist connection to other Americans seemed to be thrown by the wayside if it indeed even existed.
The emigration to Texas and subsequent revolution are other great examples of Americans’ tepid connection to any sort of nation or country. Throughout the 1820s and early 1830s thousands of Americans poured into northern Mexico. Why did they go? Because of their love of Mexico and dislike of America? Not so much. They left because there was opportunity—land, timber, game, fresh starts, and huge fortunes to be made.
They were tied to the geographical spot named America only so long as it allowed them to pursue their goals most successfully. If another spot on the Earth allowed them to do so better then they had few qualms about leaving America behind. When their liberty was impinged upon by the Mexican government they revolted, and when it looked as though the American government could best protect their liberty and interests, they joined the Union.
This is what made America exceptional—that rugged individualist nature that the culture and people brimmed with. Divorced from the mysticism of Europe, individuals set out to confidently build their life as they envisioned it. Though people used terms like “nation” and “country” they bore little semblance to the terms as they were used in Europe or how they are used in America today. Earlier they were just convenient language mechanisms when talking about people as a group, while today they embody the very mysticism that people used to come to America to escape.
Changes beginning at the end of the 19th century, persisting through the early 20th, and culminating in the Post War Era all but killed our earlier mentality. Today most of us view the US as a nation in the European sense of the term. As being part of a mystical group and having a duty to serve it just by virtue of sharing a language or geographic location. As a collective or entity that can act in its own right as deemed necessary by the government. As something to be proud of not for the values and what those values allow you to accomplish for yourself, but for some unexplainable, unconditional feeling of pride that we experience when we hear the word “America”.
We’ve strayed from our path. What we call America is no longer viewed simply as a geographical spot on the map where individuals could be free, but as an entity that can act independent of individuals and in which some are controlled and dictated by others. The newness of the New World collapsed and assimilated to the old. We are still able to live off the fruits of our ever dimming exceptional aspects—but not for long.
We need to return to viewing ourselves individually as paramount, to dealing with others on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit, and viewing America less as an entity than as a place on the Earth where people can live out their lives as they want—free to succeed or fail. Productivity, creativity, responsibility, respect, liberty, and the supremacy of the individual. These are the values we need to once again embody. These are what will make America truly exceptional once again.
Side Note: Slavery was not mentioned in this article because it’s often a red herring used by many to discount or discredit the vast contributions to liberty that the founders and America were able to accomplish. Slavery was a fact of human existence since time immemorial and the mass abolitionist movement was in its very early stages in Britain at the time of the founding and throughout the country’s early history. Engaging in slavery is one way America was definitely not exceptional. Everyone knows it is deplorable but the founders were products of their time.
*Militias traditionally were not obligated to operate on foreign soil. Officers tried to have them take part in the invasion of Upper Canada but they refused.
**Northeastern bankers and merchants had close ties to Britain and depended on the British for their livelihoods. They were very reluctant to go to war and avoided contributing to the war effort any way they could.