Selected readings on American Exceptionalism

Updated: May 22, 2019


Liberalism: Illusions and Realities, by Reinhold Niebuhr, July 4, 1955

What Makes Us So Special?  Defining what makes American exceptionalism exceptional. Yuval Levin, John O’Sullivan, and Matthew Spalding, NRO, March 3, 2010

An Exceptional Debate The Obama administration’s assault on American identity by Rich Lowry & Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review, March 8, 2010

Less Exceptional Than You Think A response to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru by Conrad Black, NRO, March 11, 2010

American Exceptionalism, Continued A reply to Conrad Black by Rich Lowry, NRO, March 15, 2010

Conrad Black on the American Revolution by Jonah Goldberg

New standards in history class Texas board endorses conservative-backed curriculum By Gary Scharrer, Houston Chronicle, March 13, 2010

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change James C. Mckinley Jr., NYT, March 12, 2010

American Exceptionalism in AEI On the Issues By James Q. Wilson Sept 2006

World Affairs WINTER 2008 Without Exception: The Same Old Song by David Rieff

WORLD AFFAIRS JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010  Undying Creed: The Acceleration of Our Exceptionalism by Joel Kotkin

December 8, 2010  AMERICAN INTEREST ONLINE The Crisis of the American Intellectual by WALTER RUSSELL MEAD

HARVEY MANSFIELD “To the Heart of American Exceptionalism” Wall Street Journal February 5, 2011

Donald Kagan: Democracy Requires a Patriotic Education. The Athenians knew it. Jefferson knew it. Somehow we have forgotten: Civic devotion, instilled at school, is essential to a good society.

The Real Meaning of American Exceptionalism

New Book: Charles Murray on American Exceptionalism

Liberalism: Illusions and Realities, by Reinhold Niebuhr, July 4, 1955

The spate of books on conservatism and liberalism in America has resulted in debates about the respective merits of these allegedly opposing political creeds in which a great deal of semantic confusion is manifest.  Mr. Clinton Rossiter in his Conservatism in America has accurately defined the conservative mood in our nation as a combination of nationalistic preferences and a passion for the economics of lassez-faire, which is to say, that our conservatism in domestic politics is the old liberalism of the Manchester School.  Mr. Russell Kirk in his Conservative Mind seems to assume that there is some authentic conservatism in the mere desire to preserve the status quo of the American paradise; and he rather uncritically seeks to relate this American conservatism with a British conservatism which is rooted in the aristocratic tradition and has none of Kirk’s prejudice against the Welfare State, and with the rather pathetic aristocratic tradition of our own Southland, as expounded by Randolph and Calhoun.  This Southern tradition was pathetic because it was but a remnant of an old aristocratic society in a nation which had no conscious relations with the European feudal past, and because it was a form of aristocracy based upon chattel slavery and was naturally destroyed with the institution of slavery.

It is obviously necessary to make the most careful distinctions between the conservatism and liberalism which are merely moods or ideologies according to which one defends a status quo or seeks to leave it behind, and the conservatism and liberalism which are cogent political philosophies.  We can dismiss the sort of conservatism and liberalism which are dispositions toward some status quo very simply by giving a priori preference for liberalism over conservatism on the grounds that it is not reasonable to defend any status quo uncritically; and that it is certainly not reasonable to do so in the rapidly changing conditions of a technical society in which “new conditions teach new duties and time makes ancient truth uncouth.”  If being for or against change were the only issue involved, any critical person would be bound to be “liberal.”

If we study the various meanings of “liberalism” and “conservatism” in Western and particularly American social history, it soon becomes apparent that “liberalism” in the broadest sense is rightly identified with the rise of a modern technical society availing itself of democratic political forms and of capitalistic economic institutions.  This “liberal society” came to birth in Britain, France and America in opposition to the feudal aristocratic culture of the European past.  “Liberalism” in the broadest sense is therefore synonymous with “democracy.”  Its strategy is to free the individual from the traditional restraints of a society, to endow the “governed” with the power of the franchise, to establish the principle of the “consent of the governed” as the basis of political society; to challenge all hereditary privileges and traditional restraints upon human initiative, particularly in the economic sphere and to create the mobility and flexibility which are the virtues and achievements of every “liberal society” as distinguished from feudal ones.

But liberalism has more distinct connotations; and upon them hang all the issues of contemporary political controversy.  One of these connotations arises out of the history of technical societies; the other arises out of the peculiar philosophy of the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution.  In the first instance, the narrower connotation of liberalism is identified with the peculiar and unique ethos of middle-class life.  But since the middle classes soon found the laboring classes to the Left of them, liberalism soon ceased to be the exclusive philosophy of democracy.  Even without the rise of labor as a political power, modern democracies, as they developed from commercialism to industrialism, found that the freeing of economic initiative from political restraint was only one side of the problem of justice.  The other side was placing restraints upon initiative in the interest of security and justice.

Thus in every modern industrial nation the word “liberalism” achieved two contradictory definitions.  It was on the one hand the philosophy which insisted that economic life was to be free of any restraint.  In this form it was identical with the only conservatism which nations, such as our own, who had no feudal past, could understand.  It was the philosophy of the more successful middle classes who possessed enough personal skill, property or power to be able to prefer liberty to security.  On the other hand the word was also used to describe the political strategy of those classes which preferred security to absolute liberty and which sought to bring economic enterprise under political control for the sake of establishing minimal standards of security and welfare.  It has been rather confusing that both of these strategies go by the name of “liberalism.”

The new conservatism about which one hears so much these days may claim a right to the title of “liberalism” on the ground that its promise of gaining justice through economic liberty is actually closer to the old classical economic liberalism than the new liberalism is.  On the other hand if the concern for justice is the primary hallmark of liberalism, those who want to bring economic enterprise under at least minimal control have as much right to this title as those who want to preserve economic freedom.  For a technical society, moving from commercial to industrial activities, was bound to find the emancipation from traditional restraints inadequate in the long run as a program for justice.

Thus it was significant that John Stuart Mill, who gave the liberal creed the most classic expression in the 19thCentury, moved in the latter years of his life from pure libertarianism to a liberal socialism.  It is even more significant that the Liberal Party in Britain took this turn at the beginning of the century before the Labour Party became a power.  In Lloyd George’s radical budget the taxing power of the state was used to guarantee minimal security for the workers.  This development, in which incidentally Lloyd George was supported by Winston Churchill, Britain anticipated by a quarter of a century the transmutation of Jeffersonian liberalism into Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”  American conservatives have made much of this volte-face of the liberal tradition; and in their “liberty leagues” tried to fill the political niche of the seemingly abandoned Jeffersonianism.

In European democracies the desire to establish justice by bringing economic power under political control was advanced by the Socialist parties.  In Britain, the old Liberal Party slowly lost ground in the postwar years to labor and the new conservatism.  At this moment, the old debate between freedom and control of economic life has narrowed to a very small difference in emphasis between the Tories and the Labour Party, a difference which has become slight in all modern nations.  The debate between a responsible Right and a responsible Left is both inconclusive and insoluble because the degree of emphasis which must be put on planning or spontanaeity, on control or freedom, cannot be solved in terms of fixed principles.  The peculiar conditions of each nation and of each period within a nation must and will determine the degree of emphasis on the one side or the other of the equation.

In all stable modern nations the political situation reflects the insolubility of this problem.  Responsible parties, when not corrupted by demagogy and dishonesty, know that the economic and political life in a community cannot go too far in a collectivist direction without becoming prey to bureaucratic stagnation.  Nor can it go too far in the direction of an uncontrolled economy without aggravating the perils of insecurity and the evils of inequality arising from centralization of power.  Both evils are inherent in the economic process itself, particularly in our era of rapid growth of techniques.

The semantic difficulties arising from this shift in meaning of the word liberal as a technical civilization moves farther and farther from its original contest with an organic and aristocratic society, are, however, simple compared to the confusions of definition which arise from the fact that “liberalism” is both a political philosophy, identified with the rising technical civilization, and a total philosophy of life which was elaborated in the French Enlightenment.  This confusion becomes the greater because liberalism and a modern technical society had their simultaneous inception in three modern nations, Great Britain, France and America.  In one of these, France, the aristocratic past, based upon an organic society, was always in the background with its reactionary illusions which in turn incited the illusions of the Enlightenment.  In another, Great Britain, the old society was broken in the Cromwellian revolution.  Britain finally settled down at the end of the century with a constitutional monarchy of William and Mary which fused both liberal democracy and a more creative version of the old society.  This fusion has ever since characterized British life and made John Locke on the one hand, and Edmund Burke on the other, the exponents of the chief strains of British political philosophy.  In America the liberal society and the new nation had a simultaneous birth on a virgin continent with only a few vestigial remnants of the old society, and these were finally eliminated in our Civil War.  For these and other reasons, American liberalism drew its primary inspiration from the ideological presuppositions of the culture which gave rise to the French Revolution and excluded a part of the British inheritance.

The French Enlightenment was “liberal” in its social policy in the sense that it championed all the extensions of political power and freedom from political control of economic enterprise which characterized the whole middle-class movement in its struggle with the feudal past.  But it also had a total philosophy of life based on confidence in the perfectability of man and on the idea of historical progress.  These two ideas were basic to all the political miscalculations of the Enlightenment and were the source of its errors.  “Liberalism” acquired a special connotation as a philosophy of life which did not take the factors of interest and power seriously, which expected all parochial loyalties to be dissolved in more universal loyalties; and which was indifferent to organically or historically established loyalties and rights under the illusion that it would be simple for rational man to devise more ideal communities and rights.  The liberalism of the French Enlightenment was thus based upon illusions as to the nature of man and of history.  It was quasi-anarchistic and pacifistic in its attitude toward the coercions which are a necessary part of communal cohesion and toward the conflicts of interest which always take place between communities.  These were the illusions which Burke challenged in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment was not shared by such conservatives as John Adams or such Jeffersonians as James Madison.  Our Constitution was, in fact, informed by a realism which contradicted all the illusions of the Enlightenment.  Nevertheless it became the primary source of inspiration for the democratic movement in America.  When sectarian Christian perfectionism merged with the thought of the Enlightenment on our frontier, perfectionist illusions in regard to man became the stables of the American liberal movement.

It must be apparent to anyone that it adds to the semantic confusion if those who do not share the illusions of Diderot and Condorcet are termed “conservatives.”  Such persons would be more accurately defined as “realistics,” particularly since a realistic estimate of perennial factors in the historical and social situation may be put into the service of either a conservative or advancing social policy.  It would certainly be wrong to define a labor leader as “conservative” merely because he knew, as every good labor leader must know, that a collective bargaining agreement is not merely a rational or moral encounter, and that its success depends upon the strength and unity of the force at his disposal.  Incidentally, it must be observed that organized labor has always been “realistic” in this sense.  Its realism included preference for proximate goals of justice, while the more academic liberalism was frequently beguiled by the utopian illusions of the Enlightenment.

In terms of international policy, confusion would be avoided if the word “conservative” were confined to the pure nationalist.  It certainly does not fit the internationalist who knows about the perils and responsibilities of a nation in the potential global community, but who is not persuaded that “word government” is the answer.

There is, in short, no reason why the errors of the Enlightenment should continue to bedevil the “progressive” political movements, and why “liberalism” should be identified with illusions about human nature and history.  Sometimes the foes of liberalism insist that the illusions are inherent in the policy.  There are even some belated liberals who darkly insinuate that a realist who professes to be liberal in social policy must be a crypto-conservative who has yet to reveal his true colors.  These confusions could be eliminated if the clear evidences of history were presented to prove that the “liberal” illusions are not necessary for democracy, and might actually have a have a baneful influence upon its life.  The best evidence for this thesis is a comparison between the course of British and French democracy.  In France the enthusiasm for a liberal society soon degenerated into Jacobin fanaticism and Bonapartist absolutism.

In contrast, the curious blend of aristocracy and democracy in Britain slowly evolved into the world’s most stable democracy, in which “liberty broadened down from precedent to precedent.”  The only remnant of the old feudalism is still the prevalent class snobbishness of British life.  This superior achievement was due, partly to the superior wisdom of the Lockean type of liberalism and partly to the interplay between the Lockean liberalism and the Burkean type of conservatism.  The aristocratic tradition at its worst tried to maintain the traditional privileges of the feudal order.  At its best it appreciated the organic aspects of community better than urban-centered liberalism.  One must include under the “organic” aspect of community the force of mutually and historically acknowledged rights and responsibilities, in comparison with the “inalienable” rights which are worthless if no community acknowledges them.  One must also include standards of justice which have developed by slow and unconscious growth rather than by conscious political intervention.  Finally, to the organic aspects one must reckon the hierarchies of authority which develop in every political and economic realm, and without which the community could not be organized.

It is rather ironic that the rigorous equalitarian creed of Communism should in practice generate the monstrous inequalities of power and privilege which we see in the Russian scene.  The inequalities are more excessive than usual because there is nothing in the creed that would come to terms with functional hierarchies as such.  We have lesser ironic realities in so-called liberal communities, whether in labor unions or in churches.  In every case justified inequalities of authority develop, and usually some unjustified inequalities of privilege.

An academic liberalism with its abstract notions of liberty and equality has never been able to come to terms with these realities of the community.  There is, therefore, some truth in the aristocratic-conservative tradition which the most democratic society must rescue from the error of aristocratic pretentions and must incorporate into the wisdom by which the life of the community is regulated and integrated.  This truth may be imbedded in a conservative tradition.  But it must be freed from the errors which are also transmitted in the conservative tradition.  If that is done the result can only be a realistic liberalism.  It will be a liberalism because only that philosophy, stripped of its utopian errors, leaves the way to the future open.

There is, unfortunately, no social locus in America for a valid “conservative” philosophy.  The more parochial part of the business community is bound to develop a conservatism in which a decadent laissez-faire liberalism in domestic politics is compounded with nationalism.  It can be beguiled from these prejudices only by the prestige of an Eisenhower.  The realism embodied in a valid conservatism, therefore, becomes the property of all parties and tendencies which have enough pragmatic wisdom to discern the perennial factors in the shifting historical scene

What Makes Us So Special?  Defining what makes American exceptionalism exceptional. Yuval Levin, John O’Sullivan, and Matthew Spalding, NRO, March 3, 2010

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru started a discussion on American identity with their essay, “An Exceptional Debate.”  National Review Online asked a few of our friends and contributors to continue the conversation.

Yuval Levin

“In the beginning, all the world was America,” John Locke wrote in his Second Treatise of Government in 1689.  Well, times have certainly changed.

As Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru observe in their keen essay, these days America stands apart – culturally, politically, economically, and philosophically.  It is, on the one hand, the most advanced example of the kind of liberal society that John Locke sought to lay out in that very treatise, yet on the other hand it offers an example of why liberalism alone is not enough.

Advocates of American exceptionalism generally offer one of two arguments in its behalf: the case for our exceptional creed, and the case for our exceptional history.  But taken by itself, each of these arguments actually undermines our claim to uniqueness.

Our creed – that is, our belief in individual liberty and equality, and in the liberal society that protects them – is after all universal.  Can universalism really be the essence of our particularism?  And if we are defined by a universal creed, then wouldn’t we expect that over time, and given our successes, the world should become more like us, since the same ideals that move us are available to all?

If on the other hand our experience is what defines us – our roots in the English liberal tradition and European culture, the life-experience of our diverse constitutional republic – then we are unique only in the way that every nation is.  As President Obama put it, surely the Brits and the Greeks are unique in the same way: Each is a product of its unique culture.

But as Lowry and Ponnuru suggest, what makes America exceptional is its combination of these two.  We are at once a creedal nation and a product of our particular cultural origins.  The two act to balance one another and make for a truly extraordinary mix: at once liberal and religious, forward-looking and conservative, substantively idealistic yet temperamentally moderate.

Too many Americans ignore one or the other element of that mix.  Some on the left would like to ignore the ways that America’s roots in the level-headed and incrementalist British common-law tradition make it sensible about change and realistic about human nature – and the fact that we are a nation, not just an idea.  Some on the right would like to ignore the ways that America’s commitment to enlightenment liberalism makes it deeply idealistic about individual liberty and social equality – and the fact that we have always been a nation on a mission.  The combination of these facets of America, embodied in our Constitution, is a sober republicanism unlike anything the world has ever seen.

America is both a place and an idea; a culture and a philosophy.  And this unique amalgamation is what makes it not only exceptional but also the last best hope of both liberal idealism and conservative realism in a time when both are in peril.

John O’Sullivan

My occasional bouts of nervousness about the notion of American “exceptionalism” are rooted in the fear that it will encourage complacency about America’s problems.  Earlier patriots felt this nervousness when their nations were at the zenith – Kipling’s “Recessional” for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee is the classic expression of it – and they have all been proved correct.  Their nations declined; their empires no long rule.

But this warning scarcely seems necessary.  Complacency is in very short supply in today’s America.  Almost everyone on both right and left agrees that the country is going to the dogs.  All that remains to be determined is the identity of the dogs.  And among American institutions sinking into the Slough of Despond is the notion of exceptionalism itself.

President Obama suggested that since all nations feel themselves to be exceptional, it’s really no big deal.  Exceptionalism – it’s the rule.  That sounds reasonable, but I don’t believe it.  I live at present in Prague.  I like the Czechs enormously.  But they don’t seem to feel exceptional (except perhaps in their anti-heroism and geographical bad luck).  Likewise the Swiss.  What do the Swiss dream when they dream of vainglory?

Maybe every nation is exceptional in some respect.  But exceptionalism has to mean more than making a great cheese.  It involves putting your impress on the world – by military prowess initially perhaps, but more solidly by economic and technological advances, and ultimately by dazzling cultural achievements that lead to the sincerest form of flattery: the world wants to be like you.

Many nations have passed the first two tests – Portugal, Spain, China, and Holland among them.  Others such as India are now entering the field.  But the modern nations that have achieved all three number very few: France, Britain, and (of course) America.

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have given a very eloquent and persuasive account of what makes America exceptional – the country is freer, richer, more democratic, more religious, and more patriotic than other advanced nations.  They also trace these exceptional qualities to America’s birth as the rebellious child of Britain: The American Republic made the civilization of England and its traditional liberties available to all comers.  As well as enjoying and exploiting these freedoms, however, America felt obliged by its rebellion to make the case for them both to foreign nations and to foreign immigrants.  This makes America a special case of what the writer James C.  Bennett calls “Anglosphere exceptionalism.”  It is more self-conscious and even dogmatic in its love of liberty than its lazier and more confused cousins up North, across the Pond, or beyond the Pacific.  Even its exceptionalism is exceptional.

But one aspect of it, though mentioned, is somewhat underplayed by Lowry and Ponnuru, maybe because it is an aspect of Anglospheric rather than narrowly American exceptionalism.  The political and economic orthodoxy of the Anglosphere – sound finance, property rights, the rule of law, free trade and free capital movement – has been the dominant global orthodoxy for more than two hundred years.  Twenty years ago this orthodoxy looked likely to be dominant for another two centuries.  But it is now seriously challenged by a very different tradition associated with Colbertian France and Wilhelmine Germany: state direction, economic and trade regulation, capital controls, protectionism, industrial cartels, etc.  These ideas are highly appealing, for rather obvious reasons, both to undemocratic governments and to international organizations.  And their threat to the freedoms of the Anglo-American tradition will not stop at the water’s edge when national sovereignty is also under attack.

Other nations share in American exceptionalism and its benefits.  It would seem prudent to rally them to the defense of common traditions.  There’s such a thing as being too exceptional.

Matthew Spalding

If there is one thing that Americans still overwhelmingly believe, it is that their country, despite its flaws, is unique – and exceptional.  Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are absolutely correct in identifying America’s exceptionalism as the ultimate cultural issue.  But to sharpen the point, it is a debate over two views of that exceptionalism.

Modern liberalism is based on the view that America’s origins are fundamentally flawed, yet America is exceptional because of its ability to constantly reinvent itself – it is a nation always in the process of becoming.  Encapsulated today by the likes of Howard Zinn and Richard Rorty, the argument grows out of the progressive rejection not only of America’s past but also its principles – there are no self-evident truths, no permanent rights, and no limits on government.  The new exceptionalism is the possibility of progress through an ever-expanding nanny state.  We have gone far down this path, and Barack Obama seeks to close the deal.

Can we withstand the liberal assault?

There is a crucially important continuity between our British roots and the American Founding.  The Americans took British liberalism and ran with it, completing England’s Glorious Revolution.  They built on an inheritance of the rule-of-law tradition, going back to Magna Carta, which became under the Americans a written (and much more robust) constitutionalism.  They inherited the common law for daily governance.  But let us not miss the extent to which America is truly revolutionary and thus exceptional in a way that England (or any other country) is not.

Americans universalized, but also grounded, the principles underlying their inherited liberties.  Turning to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” they centered liberty not in British tradition but in human nature and equal rights – a universal and permanent standard that transcends history and the particulars of time.  Our religious heritage gave this American individualism a theological grounding, and so natural rights a deeper meaning consistent with revelation.  The other aspects of our exceptionalism – our democratic ethos, commitment to economic opportunity, insistence on limited government – come out of that.

In this political moment – this teaching moment – we must reclaim America’s exceptionalism as a nation based on an idea.  To do so we must reconnect the good sense of the American people to the principles of the American Founding.  Not as a matter of mere history, but as the source of permanent truths – truths that deny the progressive argument and challenge its project for our country.

An Exceptional Debate The Obama administration’s assault on American identity by Richard Lowry & Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review, March 8, 2010

It’s almost a commonplace on the left that conservatives are “nihilists” for their opposition to President Obama.  It’s opposition for opposition’s sake, an unprincipled exercise in partisan obstruction – mindless, toxic, destructive.  When directed at Obama, “no” is an indefensible word, devoid of philosophical content.

Another, different charge has traditionally been leveled at conservatives – that they are “radicals.”  This criticism was made of National Review right at the beginning.  Conserva­tives want to tear down the state, overturn precedent, reverse the direction of history.  They are imprudent and incautious in their pursuit of a blinkered ideological agenda, in other words fundamentally unconservative.

So conservatives get it coming and going.  Our opposition to the Left is deemed nihilistic and our affirmative agenda radical.  These dueling critiques point to a paradox at the heart of American conservatism.  We aren’t Tories, concerned with preserving the prerogatives of an aristocratic elite or defending tradition at all costs.  Instead, we’re advocates of the dynamism of an open society.  Through most of human history and still in many places in the world, that would make us the opposite of conservatives.  Not in America.

What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve?  The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism.  Our country has always been exceptional.  It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.  These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage.  They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.

The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program.  It is why that debate is so charged.  In his first year, Obama tried to avoid the cultural hot buttons that tripped up Bill Clinton and created the “gays, guns, and God” backlash of 1994.  But he has stoked a different type of cultural reaction.  The level of spending, the bailouts, and the extent of the intervention in the economy contemplated in health-care and cap-and-trade legislation have created the fear that something elemental is changing in the country.  At stake isn’t just a grab bag of fiscal issues, but the meaning of America and the character of its people: the ultimate cultural issue.


To find the roots of American exceptionalism, you have to start at the beginning – or even before the beginning. They go back to our mother country.  Historian Alan Macfarlane argues that England never had a peasantry in the way that other European countries did, or as extensive an established church, or as powerful a monarchy.  English society thus had a more individualistic cast than the rest of Europe, which was centralized, hierarchical, and feudal by comparison.

It was, to simplify, the most individualistic elements of En­glish society – basically, dissenting low-church Protestants – who came to the eastern seaboard of North America.  And the most liberal fringe of English political thought, the anti-court “country” Whigs and republican theorists such as James Harrington, came to predominate here.  All of this made Amer­ica an outlier compared with England, which was an outlier compared with Europe.  The U.S. was the spawn of English liberalism, fated to carry it out to its logical conclusion and become the most liberal polity ever known to man.

America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien régime.  Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity.  It almost entirely lacked the hallmarks of a traditional post-feudal agrarian society.  It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature.  It was ruled from England, but lightly; Edmund Burke famously described English rule here as “salutary neglect.”  Even before the Rev­olution, America was the freest country on earth.

These endowments made it possible for the Americans to have a revolution with an extraordinary element of continuity.  Tocqueville may have been exaggerating when he said that Americans were able to enjoy the benefits of a revolution without really having one, but he wasn’t far off the mark.  The remnants of old Europe that did exist here – state-supported churches, primogeniture, etc.  – were quickly wiped out.  Amer­icans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all.

Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough.  The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.  The creed combines with other aspects of the American character – especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force – to form the core of American exceptionalism.


Liberty is the most important element of the creed. To secure it, the Founders set about strictly limiting government within carefully specified  Im­mediately upon the collapse of British government in America, the states drew up written constitutions and neutered their executives.  They went as far as they could possibly go to tame the government – indeed, they went farther, and had to start over to get a functioning state.  But even this second try produced a Constitution that concentrated as much on what government could not do as on what it could.

The Founders knew what men were capable of, in the positive sense if their creative energies were unleashed and in the negative sense if they were given untrammeled power over others.  “It may be a reflection on human nature,” Madison wrote in a famous passage in Federalist No.  51 describing the checks in the Constitution, “that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

The Constitution’s negative character reflected its basic goal: to protect people in their liberty.  In stark contrast, European constitutions, even prior to World War II, established positive rights to government benefits.  As Mary Ann Glendon notes, these differences “are legal manifestations of divergent, and deeply rooted, cultural attitudes toward the state and its functions.”

This framework of freedom made possible the flourishing of the greatest commercial republic in history.  As historian Walter Russell Mead notes, over the last several centuries of the West, three great maritime powers have stood for a time at the pinnacle of the international order: the Dutch, then the English, and finally us.  All three had powerful navies and sophisticated financial systems, and were concerned primarily with increasing national wealth through commerce.

Consider the very beginning.  John Steele Gordon reminds us in his book An Empire of Wealth that the Virginia Company – a profit-seeking corporation – founded Jamestown.  In New En­gland, the Puritan merchants wrote at the top of their ledgers, “In the name of God and of profit.”  Even before the Revolution, we were the most prosperous country per capita in the world.

In a telling coincidence, the publication of Adam Smith’s world-changing free-market classic, The Wealth of Nations, coincided with the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Many of the Founders read the book.  Without the medieval encumbrances and the powerful, entrenched special interests that plagued other countries, the United States could make Smith’s ideas the basis of its economic dispensation.  Gordon writes, “The United States has consistently come closer to the Smithian ideal over a longer period of time than any other major nation.”

In the latitude provided by this relatively light-handed gov­ernment, a commerce-loving, striving, and endlessly inventive people hustled its way to become the greatest economic power the world has ever known.

In America, there really hasn’t been a disaffected proletariat – because the proletariat has gotten rich.  Friedrich Engels had it right when he carped that “America is so purely bourgeois, so entirely without a feudal past and therefore proud of its purely bourgeois organization.”

The traditional Marxist claim about the U.S. was that it was governed by the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.  This was not intended as a compliment, but it was largely true.  Look at the archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin, whose name comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property.  Napoleon dismissed the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”; we are a nation of Franklins.

Abraham Lincoln, a de facto Founding Father, is an exemplar of this aspect of America.  “I hold the value of life,” Lincoln said, “is to improve one’s condition.”  There are few things he hated more than economic stasis.  He couldn’t abide Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeoman farmers living on their land forevermore, blissfully untouched by the forces of modern economic life.  (Appropriately enough, Jefferson died broke.) Lincoln captured the genius of American life when he said, “The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him.”

That sentiment is at the heart of the American economic gospel.  American attitudes toward wealth and its creation stand out within the developed world.  Our income gap is greater than that in European countries, but not because our poor are worse off.  In fact, they are better off than, say, the bottom 10 percent of Britons.  It’s just that our rich are phenomenally wealthy.

This is a source of political tension, but not as much as foreign observers might expect, thanks partly to a typically American attitude.  A 2003 Gallup survey found that 31 percent of Amer­icans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 a year.  This isn’t just cockeyed optimism.  America remains a fluid society, with more than half of people in the bottom quintile pulling themselves out of it within a decade.

And so we arrived in the 21st century still a country apart.  Prior to its recent run-up, total government spending was still only about 36 percent of GDP in the U.S. In Europe, the figure was much higher – 44 percent in Britain, 53 percent in France, and 56 percent in Sweden.  (The difference is starker when only non-defense spending is compared.)

Politically, we have always been more democratic, more populist than other countries.  Edmund Burke said of the low-church Protestants who flocked here, “They represent the dissidents of dissent and the protest wing of the Protestant religion.”  The Scotch-Irish who settled the hinterlands were even more cussed.  It wasn’t very easy to tell any of these people what to do, as colonial governors learned to their regret.

Later, in the 19th century, the Federalists tried to create a kind of aristocracy.  They got rich and set themselves up as grandees.  Knowing that many members of this self-designated ruling class started life in the same state they had, their neighbors didn’t take kindly to these pretensions.  The Federalist party wasn’t long for this world – a lesson in how poorly elite condescension plays in America.

Today, we still have more elections for more offices more often than other countries.  Even many judges and law-enforcement officials are elected.  In the federal government, political appointees have greater sway over the civil service than is the case in other developed countries.  As Edward C.  Banfield and James Q.  Wilson have written, “There is virtually no sphere of ‘administration’ apart from politics.”

In Europe, the opposite is the case and has become more so with the rise of the European Union.  Brussels is arrogating more decision-making to itself, removed from the locus of democratic accountability in individual nations.  When important EU questions are put to the voters in referenda, there is only one correct answer, and when nations vote the “wrong” way, elections are held over and over again until they succumb.  This European-style politics of bureaucratic, elite high-handedness is dangerous in its undemocratic nature and anathema to the American char­acter.

We have managed to preserve a remarkable national spirit.  At over 70 percent, more Americans express pride in their country than Western Europeans do in theirs.  In terms of demography, we are the youngest advanced country in the world, and our population continues to grow as that of Western Europe is projected to decline.

Americans are more religious than Europeans.  In the 18th century, American religious dissenters supported overthrowing state-supported churches because it would allow them to compete on an even playing field with other denominations.  In that competition, America saw an explosion of religious feeling and became the most evangelical country in the world.

Religion gained authority and vitality from its separation from the state, and religion-inspired reform movements, from abolitionism to the civil-rights movement, have been a source of self-criticism and renewal.  Today, 73 percent of Americans believe in God, compared with 27 percent of Frenchmen and 35 percent of Britons, according to a 2006 Financial Times survey.

All of this means that America has the spirit of a youthful, hopeful, developing country, matched with the economic muscle of the world’s most advanced society and the stability of its oldest democratic institutions.

This national spirit is reflected in our ambitious and vigorous foreign policy.  We were basically still clinging to port cities on the eastern seaboard when we began thinking about settling the rest of the continent.  There never was a time when we were an idyllically isolationist country.  We wanted to make the continent ours partly as a matter of geopolitics: France, Spain, and Britain were wolves at the door.  But throughout our history, we have sought not just to secure our interests abroad, but to export our model of liberty.

This missionary impulse is another product of the American Revolution, which took English liberties and universalized them.  The Founders thought we would play an outsized role in the world from the very beginning.  We would be an “empire of liberty,” Jefferson said.  He believed that the flame of liberty, once lit on our shores, would inevitably consume the world.

This strain in American thought was expressed throughout the 20th century in the democratic idealism of Wilson, FDR, and Carter.  At its best, this tendency has been tempered by prudence and realism so as to avoid foolish adventurism.  Reagan exemplified the appropriate mix, as he avoided (with the painful exception of Lebanon) risky foreign interventions at the same time he ushered the Soviet Union to its grave through a shrewd combination of hard and soft power.

But make no mistake: America is still a martial nation with a no-nonsense, hit-back-harder Jacksonian temperament when challenged.  Historically, it has responded to attacks, whether at Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor, with overwhelming force and the maximum plausible effort to spread our democratic system.  In this sense, George W.  Bush’s response to 9/11 – two foreign wars, both justified partly as exercises in democratization – was typically American.

Our defense spending constituted half of the world’s defense spending in 2003.  With a few exceptions (the British, the Canadians), we are the only Western nation that is able and willing to conduct major combat operations overseas.  Even when Afghanistan was considered “the good war” by the rest of the world, we had to do most of the heavy lifting.

None of this is to say, of course, that America is perfect.  No nation can be.  But one can only regard with wonderment what America stands for and all that it has accomplished in its amazing, utterly distinct adventure in liberty.


There have always been those who take exception to American exceptionalism. Europeans developed a cottage industry in travel writing about America, most of it – although not all, with Tocqueville the most important ex­ception – scandalized by the riotous freedoms of these restless, stubborn, commerce-crazy, God-soaked barbarians.  The Amer­ica of these portraits was simultaneously primitive and decadent: “grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, roofless, uncultured,” as James Ceaser summarizes the critique in Reconstructing America.  Many of America’s European critics hoped that, over time, America would lose its distinctiveness.  It would become just another developed Western country: more centralized, more elitist, more secular, less warlike, and less free.  In short, a quieter, more civilized

The American Left has shared this maddened perplexity at its country’s character and this hope for its effacement.  Marxists at home and abroad were always mystified by the failure of socialism in the U.S. They thought that, as the most advanced capitalist society, we would have had the most restive proletariat.  Instead we have had a broad and largely satisfied middle class.  Even our unions, in their early history, were anti-statist, their radicalism anarchistic rather than socialist.  At the Progressive convention of 1912, Jane Addams saw “a worldwide movement toward juster social conditions” that “the United States, lagging behind other great nations, has been unaccountably slow to embody in political action.”

Hence the search for foreign models.  In the early 20th century, the Left was fascinated with all things German and brimmed with enthusiasm for Bismarck’s welfare state.  Woodrow Wilson, in a sentiment typical of progressive intellectuals, deemed Bismarck’s creation an “admirable system”; he was less admiring of the American Founding.  Herbert Croly, the founder of The New Republic and one of the most significant progressive intellectuals of the era, was another Bismarck admirer.  Croly advocated rule by “expert social engineers” to bring to these shores the best innovations of the modern dictatorial movements taking over in Europe.

New Deal intellectuals gushed over Bolshevism in the 1930s.  FDR Brain Truster Stuart Chase enthused, “Why should Rus­sians have all the fun of remaking a world?”       His statement captured the utopian underpinnings of the progressive project and the yearning for the kind of radical remaking of society that was readily attainable only in countries that gave themselves over entirely to the state.  The other model was Italian fascism, which New Dealers studied closely and in important respects aped.

The New Deal was a watershed, but America didn’t lurch all the way to socialism.  The power of the central government increased, a welfare state was born, and unionization advanced.  But even in the midst of the Great Depression, typically Amer­ican attitudes still prevailed.  In a 1935 Gallup survey, Americans by a wide margin thought the government was spending too much.

After World War II, a Left that had been gaining strength in Europe for decades finally realized its social-democratic ambitions.  The U.S. followed a different course.  In the academy, a perverse version of American exceptionalism took root: an exceptionalism of criminality, conquest, and oppression.  Amer­ica was special only in its misdeeds and failings; all cultures were to be celebrated except our own.  The exceptionalism of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, in milder form, occupied the commanding heights of our education system.  It has worked to trash our Founding, to wipe out our historical memory, and to create a guilty conscience among our ruling elite.

In politics, however, the country’s progress away from its character continued to be “unaccountably slow.”  American government continued to grow, particularly during the Johnson and Nixon years; the states became ever more one of the federal government’s key client groups rather than checks on its power.  But the individualistic American character began to reassert itself after its mid-century dormancy.  Americans saw the stagflation of the 1970s as an indictment of Big Government rather than a crisis of capitalism.  Ronald Reagan won the presidency of a nation that, by European standards, was still a freewheeling cowboy economy and democracy – and made it even freer.

Deregulation exposed unions to competitive pressures that they could not survive.  The U.S. quickly came out of its post-Vietnam defensive crouch.  And religion, rather than fading away, became more publicly assertive in response to perceived threats.  Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency did more to confirm than to alter these trends.

The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate.  Why couldn’t we be more like them – like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes?  Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?  You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.


President Obama’s first year in office should be seen in the context of contemporary liberalism’s discomfort with American exceptionalism.

The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism.  As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin.  As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country’s honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time.  And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation.  Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.”  (Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?)

In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals.  We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen.  But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it.  From Richard Rorty to Todd Gitlin, they have proclaimed their allegiance to a hypothetical, pure country that is coming into being rather than to the one they inhabit.

Given the liberal gestalt, it is perhaps unsurprising that every important aspect of American exceptionalism has been under threat from President Obama and his allies in Washington.  Obama has frankly and correctly described their project as to change the country fundamentally.

On those occasions when Obama places himself in the con­text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wilsonian tradition – with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design.  He seeks to accelerate it.

Already we are catching up to the European norm for government power.  In 2010, government spending in the U.S. will reach an estimated 44 percent of GDP.  With entitlements for the elderly on a path to explode with the retirement of the Baby Boomers, the trend is toward more convergence.  In a strange reversal, last year it was an American president urging continental Europeans to spend more to combat the recession.  Two of his highest priorities would drastically, and probably irreversibly, expand the government’s footprint.

American liberals have long been embarrassed about our country’s supposedly retrograde policies on health care and energy, especially compared with Europe’s nationalized health insurance and carbon rationing.  So they tried to use their un­precedented power after the 2008 elections to bring the U.S. into line.  They sought to limit carbon emissions.  That legislation would simultaneously represent a massive indirect tax increase, an extension of the tentacles of government regulation into every sector of the economy, and an empowerment of new bureaucratic instruments to control and direct economic development.

Obama’s health-care policy would change the relationship of people to government, probably forever, by further nationalizing our system.  It would have the federal government, for the first time, order all Americans to purchase a specified product.  And socialized health-care systems in other lands have become endless warrants for more taxing and spending, as both are justified as necessary to delivering adequate health care.  Once the public is hooked on government health care, its political attitudes shift leftward.  (The system’s flaws, such as rationing, tend to be attributed to underfunding, so that even discontent with it ends up entrenching it.)

Free labor markets have been an expression of American individualism and a contributor to American dynamism.  But President Obama has attempted to upend seven decades of American labor law in order to make it easier for unions to collect new members.  Democrats hope to reverse the unions’ decline.  Tellingly, after the United Auto Workers helped wreck GM and Chrysler, the Obama administration handed it a large share of control over the two companies.

Corporations, meanwhile, are also becoming more dependent on government handouts.  Rivalry between business and political elites has helped to safeguard American liberty.  What we are seeing now is the possible emergence of a new political economy in which Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government all have cozy relations of mutual dependence.  The effect would be to suppress both political choice and economic dynamism.

The retreat from American exceptionalism has a legal dimension as well.  Obama’s judicial nominees are likely to attempt to bring our Constitution into line with European norms.  Here, again, he is building on the work of prior liberals who used the federal courts as a weapon against aspects of American exceptionalism such as self-government and decentralization.  In­creasingly, judicial liberals look to putatively enlightened foreign, and particularly European, opinion as a source of law capable of displacing the law made under our Constitution.

Liberal regulators threaten both our dynamism and our self-government.  They are increasingly empowered to make far-reaching policy decisions on their own – for instance, the EPA has the power to decide, even in the absence of cap-and-trade legislation passed by Congress, how to regulate carbon emissions.  The agency thus has extraordinary sway over the economy, without any meaningful accountability to the electorate.  The Troubled Asset Relief Program has turned into a honeypot for the executive branch, which can dip into it for any purpose that suits it.  Government is increasingly escaping the control of the people from whom it is supposed to derive its powers.

Inevitably, the transformation of America at home is being accompanied by a shift in its policies toward the rest of the world.  Since the 1940s America has been the crucial undergirding of the international order.  Its power and sway are a stabilizing influence in every region of the world, and it provides international public goods, from the policing of sea lanes to humanitarian interventions.  It is also, in keeping with its missionary history, the chief exponent of liberty in the world.

Obama is turning his back both on the overarching vision of freedom and on the prudence, and mislabeling his approach “realism.”  He has been positively allergic to the word “demo­cracy.”  His administration has shown very little interest in defending human rights around the world, whether in China or in Cuba.  During the Iranian election crisis, he was even cooler to the protesters in the streets than the Europeans were.

His hesitance to advocate American ideals is not a return to the realpolitik of Nixon or the first Bush.  A deep naïveté informs his policy.  He believes that our enemies can be persuaded, merely through sweet talk and blandishments, to abandon their cold-blooded interests and their most deeply held ambitions.  This is impossible without developing the kind of leverage over them in which Obama seems to have little interest.  Yes, Reagan negoti­ated with the Soviets, but only when they had a leader who was a reformer and the arms build-up and the prospect of SDI had tilted the correlation of forces – to use the Marxist argot – in our direction.  Under the sway of Obama’s anti-idealism, the U.S. is less interested in serving as a champion of liberty; his policies will also reduce our power, and thus our effectiveness should we choose to wield it again.

In many of Obama’s performances overseas (the Nobel acceptance speech is an exception), there has been a dismaying defensiveness.  It’s almost as though he doesn’t think we deserve to stand up for our ideals or for our interests, and believes that our record of sins, hypocrisies, and affronts makes a posture of apologetic passivity the only appropriate one.  This posture raises a disturbing possibility: that the waning of America’s civilizational self-confidence is part and parcel of the change Obama is effecting.

In Europe, we see a civilization that is not willing to defend itself: nations that will surrender their sovereignty, cultures that will step aside to be supplanted by an alien creed, peoples that will no longer make the most meaningful investment in the future by reproducing.  There is a sense that history is over and Europeans are just waiting for someone to turn out the last light in the last gallery of the Louvre.

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night.  Other factors are of course in play – most important, the weak economy – but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.

Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America.  Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security – but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests.  Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

It is madness to consider President Obama a foreigner.  But it is blindness to ignore that American exceptionalism has homegrown enemies – people who misunderstand the sources of American greatness or think them outdated.  If they succeed, we will be less free, less innovative, less rich, less self-governing, and less secure.  We will be less.

As will the world.  The Europeans can afford a foreign policy devoted nearly exclusively to “soft power” because we are here to defend them and mount the forward defense of freedom.  Who is going to do that for us, when we are no longer doing it for ourselves?  Who will answer the call when America is no longer home?

If our politics seems heated right now, that is because the central question before us is whether to abandon our traditional sense of ourselves as an exceptional nation.  To be exceptional is of course not to be perfect.  The old anti-imperialist saying – “My country right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right” – has considerable wisdom.  But Americans are right not to want to become exceptional only in the 230-year path we took to reach the same lackluster destination as everyone else.

Less Exceptional Than You Think A response to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru by Conrad Black, NRO, March 11, 2010

It is with regret and trepidation that I take some issue with Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s stimulating essay on American exceptionalism in the March 8 issue of National Review.  I am afraid they exaggerate the pristine idealism of the founders of the United States, and the current state of the effervescence of its democracy.  They state that America has always had “a unique role and mission in the world; as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it.”

There is no doubt that this is the country’s longstanding self-image, and the American genius for the spectacle, for public relations and advertising, which is as old as the republic, gathered much credence for this version of events, through the polemical talents of Jefferson, Paine, Patrick Henry, and others.  In fact, though King George III and his prime minister, Lord North, handled it incompetently, they were really only trying to get the Americans to pay their fair share of the costs of throwing the French out of Canada and India in the Seven Years’ War.

Lowry and Ponnuru are correct that America was already the wealthiest place in the world per capita, and it had 40 percent of the population of Britain and was the chief beneficiary of the eviction of France from Canada.  The colonists should certainly have paid something for the British efforts on their behalf, and “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes.

In its early years, the U.S. had no more civil liberties than Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia.  About 15 percent of its population were slaves and, in the Electoral College, the slaveholding states were accorded bonus electoral votes representing 60 percent of the slaves, so the voters in free states were comparatively disadvantaged.  (If America had stayed in the British Empire for five years beyond the death of Jefferson and John Adams, the British would have abolished slavery for them and the country would have been spared the 700,000 dead of the Civil War.)

The authors write: “We are a nation of Franklins.” I don’t think so.  Franklin was the principal architect of one of the greatest triumphs of statesmanship in modern history: America’s enlistment of Britain to evict France from Canada and of France to eject Britain from America, without which the colonists would not have won the Revolutionary War.  America’s precocious manipulation of the world’s two greatest powers was brilliant, but not exactly heroic.

Nor was the United States much interested in exporting democracy.  One of its greatest secretaries of state, John Quincy Adams, spoke of being a brilliant light and example, but of avoiding attempts to influence other countries except by example.  After the country was established, there was almost no focus on foreign affairs generally until John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root, and then Woodrow Wilson (whom I do not accept to have been a non-believer in the goals of the Revolution, as the authors suggest).  Then there was another lapse until the late 1930s, when the objective emerged of getting rid of the Nazis and Japanese imperialists, and Stalin was eventually sustained in doing most of the heavy work with the Germans.  As late as 1944, the only democracies in the world were the U.S., the British Isles and Dominions, Switzerland, and the unoccupied parts of Scandinavia, though the French, Danes, Norwegians, and Benelux countries had legitimate hopes of democratic restorations.

The brilliant achievement of Roosevelt and Churchill in salvaging — from the disasters of 1939–41 — France, Germany, Italy, and Japan for the West, and of Roosevelt’s lieutenants (especially Truman, Marshall, MacArthur, and Eisenhower, with outstanding indigenous statesmen such as de Gaulle, Adenauer, and De Gasperi) in reconstituting those countries and their neighbors as democratic allies, took democracy decisively forward.  So did the success of a number of American protégé countries that were or became democracies, such as Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, and Spain.

The propagation of democracy emerged as a goal only in the Cold War, and exceptions were made for all manner of dictators, from Franco to the Shah, Sadat, and Chiang Kai-shek.  And the American-led victory in the Cold War brought the long-suffering Poles and Czechs, the Slovenians, Baltic countries, and others into the democratic column and crowned democracy with the laurel of a mighty and relatively bloodless geopolitical victory.

The wages of this victory have included the stale-dating of the authors’ claim that America “is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” It is more dynamic because of its size, the torpor of Europe and Japan, and the shambles of Russia.  But Americans do not do themselves a favor by not recognizing the terrible erosion of their country’s education, justice, and political systems, the shortcomings of U.S. health care, the collapse of its financial industry, the flight of most of its manufacturing, and the steep and generally unlamented decline of its prestige.

Unionized teachers have destroyed much of the state school system.  Rampaging and often lawless prosecutors win 95 percent of their cases (compared to 55 percent in Canada), by softening the pursuit of some in exchange for inculpatory perjury against others, in the plea-bargain system.  The U.S. has six to fourteen times as many imprisoned people as other advanced prosperous democracies, and they languish in a corrupt carceral system that retains as many people as possible for as long as possible.  There are an astounding 47 million Americans with a “record,” and the country glories with unseemly glee in the joys of the death penalty.  Due process and the other guarantees of individual rights of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments (such as the grand jury as any sort of assurance against capricious prosecution) scarcely exist in practice.

Most of the Congress is an infestation of paid-for legislators from rotten boroughs, representing the interests that finance their elections and exchanging earmarks with their colleagues like casbah hucksters.  Many other countries are better functioning democracies with better legal and education systems.  American doctors are very good, but annual medical care costs $3,000 per capita more than in other countries where standards of care are comparable and care is more widely accessible.

The fact that Western Europe is dyspeptic and is paying Danegeld in back-breaking amounts to industrial workers and small farmers does not mean that the U.S. has not already sloughed much of its exceptionalism.  Of course the authors are right that the Howard Zinn–Noam Chomsky view of U.S. history is an almost complete fraud, but it was made plausible only by the Washington’s-cherry-tree school of myth-making.

The United States is still much the world’s greatest power, and its military is very efficient.  The people are hard-working and productive; not demotivated and pretentiously world-weary like Europeans, nor encumbered by hundreds of millions of primitive peasants like the Chinese.  But half the horses of American exceptionalism have already fled.  Where I agree emphatically with Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru is that President Obama is aggravating the problem.  It is not nearly too late and can certainly wait for another president.  But the problem will not be improved by the time-worn mantra about American virtue and superiority, as if they were entirely intact, incanted as if by Victorian elocution-school students shouting “C-A-T spells cat.”

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M.  Nixon: A Life in Full.  He can be reached at

American Exceptionalism, Continued A reply to Conrad Black by Rich Lowry, NRO, March 15, 2010

I enjoyed Conrad’s critique of our piece – as muscular as all the stuff he has been writing for NRO.

Just a few points in reply.

A number of points he raises do not involve disagreements with our main argument.  Conrad calls the American Revolution a “grubby contest about taxes.”  That’s one view.  But we don’t get into the causes of the Revolution and for our purposes we don’t have to.  (It sounds like Conrad should appreciate our references to how “lightly” Britain governed us under the policy Burke dubbed “salutary neglect.”) The point is that there was a revolution that began to make the traditional liberties of Englishmen into a universal creed.

Of course, initially, American society didn’t live up to that creed.  Some of our critics, by the way, seem to think we do not understand or minimize that truth; but they have generally made their case by taking phrases out of context and then reading them as maliciously as possible.

Conrad says at the beginning the U.S. had no more civil liberties than Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia.  I’ll defer to him on the latter countries, but as a general matter we were more democratic and egalitarian than Britain (although our South was obviously an outlier).  Here‘s Seymour Martin Lipset making the broad point:

As a new society, the country lacked the emphasis on social hierarchy and status differences characteristic of postfeudal and monarchical cultures.  Postfeudal societies have resulted in systems in which awareness of class divisions and respect for the state have remained important, or at least much more important, than in the United States.  European countries, Canada, and Japan have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors.

Conrad says in no way are we a nation of Franklins because Americans lack his manipulative genius as a statesman.  I take a back seat to no one in my appreciation of Franklin’s cold-blooded subtlety as a diplomat (indeed, contrary to Conrad, I’d go so far as to call it heroic).  But this isn’t the point.  We were merely saying that America has been a middle-class society of widespread property ownership.  Not that we are a nation of successful publishers, fertile inventors, seductive charmers, or brilliant aphorists, to mention some of Franklin’s roles.

Conrad says that at the beginning the United States wasn’t “much interested in exporting democracy” and cites John Quincy Adams for the proposition that we’d be “a brilliant light and example.”  Again, this doesn’t contradict what we wrote.  We purposely didn’t get into the debate over the history of American foreign policy.  (Robert Kagan’s brilliant Dangerous Nation is perhaps the best long-form argument for an interpretation wholly different from Conrad’s, contending that the view of the U.S. as “isolationist and passive until provoked rests on a misunderstanding of America’s foreign policies in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries.”) It was to avoid getting into all of this that we wrote we’ve been a vindicator and exemplar of freedom.

Conrad dissents from our reference to Woodrow Wilson’s criticism of the Founders.  But what we said about Wilson seems pretty uncontestable.  Here are two recent longer discussions of Wilson.

Finally, Conrad notes how degraded American exceptionalism has become and calls for reform in the electoral, education, and criminal justice systems.  Once again, no argument here – we remark on the waves of progressivism throughout the 20th century that have eroded our exceptionalism.  And nothing in our piece said that conservatives should oppose policy changes.  We just want those changes to be with, rather than against, the grain of our finest traditions and best national qualities.

Conrad Black on the American Revolution by [Jonah Goldberg]

All in all, I think Rich does a fine job replying to Conrad Black.  But I think he really lets him off the hook in at least one regard.  Black writes:

Lowry and Ponnuru are correct that America was already the wealthiest place in the world per capita, and it had 40 percent of the population of Britain and was the chief beneficiary of the eviction of France from Canada.  The colonists should certainly have paid something for the British efforts on their behalf, and “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes.

Oh please.  I don’t think it’s wise or necessary for National Review to be seen as re-litigating the American Revolution.  Modern American conservatives are not those kind of conservatives.  But to argue that the American Revolution (that’s what I take “and so forth” to mean given the larger thrust of his piece) was just a masterful bit of spin designed to get out of paying our fair share really won’t do.

Consider two commentators whose authority on such matters I would expect Conrad Black to at least respect, if not bow to: Lord Acton and Edmund Burke.

Lord Acton marked the birthday of liberty as 1776 for a reason.  Acton believed that the American Revolution was the application of the best ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and of English philosophy and political custom.  He wrote liberty had been dying in Europe in 1773, but that it was riding to the rescue not from the forests of Germany but from the forests of Pennsylvania.  Acton was too contemptuous of the English Revolution of 1688, I think.  But he was right that the more important triumph of liberty came in 1776.

As for America being on the wrong side of a “grubby contest” about taxes, Edmund Burke – the founding father of modern conservatism, on both sides of the pond, and a contemporary observer – didn’t see it that way.  In his speech “On American Taxation“ Burke came out on America’s side.  While Burke had hoped for reconciliation with the British in America, he always recognized the decency and justice of the American cause – a marked contrast with Burke’s views on the evils of the French Revolution.  During the war, Burke was not only dismayed that his German-descended king was waging war against the “American English” with the “the hireling sword of German boors and vassals,” he grew convinced that American victory was the only way to ensure the survival of liberty in Britain.  If the British defeated the colonists, Burke feared, than Whiggish principles would be in mortal danger at home as well.

Black goes on to say that America at its founding didn’t much care to “export democracy.”  As Rich rightly notes, this is a misreading of his and Ramesh’s point, which I’ll state plainly: The American experiment – a republic if we can keep it – was rightly and nigh upon universally seen, by common men and courtiers alike, as the most significant and pioneering adventure in liberty anywhere in the world.  As such, the founders understood that their first obligation was to ensure its success.  After all, the school of mankind is example, quoth Burke, and it will learn at no other.

Black can assert that people were more free in the Netherlands or Scandinavia all he likes.  The simple fact is that lovers – and haters – of liberty all around the world were looking to America for inspiration.  Indeed, Belgium – formerly the Austrian Netherlands – explicitly followed America’s example, and our declaration of independence, in 1789.

In Denmark (which then held Norway as well) the American Revolution consumed the public’s attention.  The press was filled with stirring and profound arguments about more than “grubby contests about taxes.”  Here is what A.  P.  Bernstorff, the powerful, pro-British, Danish minister for foreign affairs, wrote to a friend on Oct.  22, 1776:

“The public here is extremely occupied with the rebels in America , not because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread imperceptibly from the works of the philosophes all the way out to the village schools.”

I could go on, because the history is quite settled that the world – including, later the French Revolutionaries – were mesmerized by the world-historic contest in North America and its profound significance for human liberty.  The founders knew this and had it on their minds, which is why it is so misleading to suggest they didn’t care about the cause of liberty elsewhere.

1776 is, was, and forever shall be the birthday of human liberty, not the merely the culmination of a grubby contest about taxes.

New standards in history class Texas board endorses conservative-backed curriculum By Gary Scharrer, Houston Chronicle, March 13, 2010

AUSTIN – The State Board of Education tentatively approved new standards for social studies Friday with members divided along party lines – some blasting them as a fraud and conservative whitewash, others praising them as a tribute to the Founding Fathers that rightly portrays America as an exceptional country.

The standards, which will influence history and government textbooks arriving in public schools in fall 2011, were adopted by 10 Republicans against five Democrats after weeks of debate and across a racial and ideological chasm that seemed to grow wider as the proposal was finalized Thursday.

The document faces a public hearing and a final board vote in May.

The often contentious process has been watched closely across the nation, particularly this week as the board gathered to debate and vote on the proposed standards.  Because of Texas’ size, decisions by the board on what should and should not be included can influence publishers whose textbooks may be adopted by other states.

Democrats on the board – all of them black or Hispanic – complained the new standards dilute minority contributions to Texas and U.S. history.

“We have been about conservative versus liberal.  We have manipulated the standards to insist on what we want to be in the document, regardless whether it’s appropriate,” said Mavis Knight, D-Dallas.  “We are perpetrating a fraud on the students of this state.”

But Terri Leo, R-Spring, called the proposal “a world class document” and told her Democratic colleagues the board has “included more minorities and historical events than ever before …  I am very disappointed at those allegations because they are simply not true.”

Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, said the proposed standards reflect the desires of his constituents to emphasize “personal responsibility and accountability” and “to honor our Founding Fathers, and our military.”

Mary Helen Berlanga, D-Corpus Christi, said the standards ignore the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, Texas Rangers “killing Mexican-Americans without justification” and the U.S. Army’s role in the attempted extermination of American Indians.

“Until we are ready to tell the truth about history, we don’t have a good history or a good social studies curriculum for Texas,” she said.

She had failed in an attempt earlier in the meeting to get the history standards to identify Tejanos who fell defending the Alamo.

The board majority’s conservative approach to “culture, government and the changing political landscape” was impossible 13 years ago when the social studies curriculum last was updated, said David Bradley, R-Beaumont.

“There’s been a cultural and political shift in Texas, at least in the policy-making level,” he said.  “We all represent a constituency.  Elections matter.”

In 1997, Bradley was on the losing end of an 11-4 vote.  Every conservative-pushed amendment got tabled then, he recalled.

Shifting demographics and political winds likely will produce yet another outcome when Texas tackles the standards again sometime after 2020, Bradley acknowledged.

“Mary Helen may have her wish, and it will be the Hispanic Education Agency,” he said.

At least until then, the proposed standards are aligned with the Republican Party platform’s traditional call for limited government, regulation and taxation.

Although the proposal is “fair, accurate and well-balanced,” it could stand improvement before final action, said Bob Craig, R-Lubbock.

Craig and Lawrence Allen Jr., D-Houston, said they were concerned about its length.  It has nearly 300 historical figures and prominent people for students to study.

Some board members failed Friday to restore “hip- hop” music to the draft proposal’s high school social studies standard on culture.

Experts had recommended students study the impact of cultural movements in art, music and literature, such as Tin Pan Alley, the Beat Generation, rock and roll, the Chicano Mural Movement, country-western music and hip-hop.  The board’s seven social conservatives, joined by Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, R-Dallas, considered some of the hip-hop lyrics offensive and voted to eliminate hip-hop as an option for students to consider.

Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, said it was a double standard to delete hip-hop, but retain the Beat Generation, a genre that rejected mainstream values and celebrated illegal drugs and alternative sex.  He pushed for it to be dropped from the standard, but was unsuccessful.

The board’s success in exposing students to more conservative government and cultural principles follows similar efforts in recent years to put a more conservative imprint on other public school subjects, including a back-to-basics English language arts and reading curriculum two years ago and adding caveats to the teaching of evolution when adopting new biology curriculum standards last year.

Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change James C. Mckinley Jr., NYT, March 12, 2010

AUSTIN, Tex.  – After three days of turbulent meetings, the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.

The vote was 10 to 5 along party lines, with all the Republicans on the board voting for it.

The board, whose members are elected, has influence beyond Texas because the state is one of the largest buyers of textbooks.  In the digital age, however, that influence has diminished as technological advances have made it possible for publishers to tailor books to individual states.

In recent years, board members have been locked in an ideological battle between a bloc of conservatives who question Darwin’s theory of evolution and believe the Founding Fathers were guided by Christian principles, and a handful of Democrats and moderate Republicans who have fought to preserve the teaching of Darwinism and the separation of church and state.

Since January, Republicans on the board have passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum standards affecting history, sociology and economics courses from elementary to high school.  The standards were proposed by a panel of teachers.

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote.  “History has already been skewed.  Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

Battles over what to put in science and history books have taken place for years in the 20 states where state boards must adopt textbooks, most notably in California and Texas.  But rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum.

Efforts by Hispanic board members to include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population were consistently defeated, prompting one member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out of a meeting late Thursday night, saying, “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist.”

“They are going overboard, they are not experts, they are not historians,” she said.  “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

The curriculum standards will now be published in a state register, opening them up for 30 days of public comment.  A final vote will be taken in May, but given the Republican dominance of the board, it is unlikely that many changes will be made.

The standards, reviewed every decade, serve as a template for textbook publishers, who must come before the board next year with drafts of their books.  The board’s makeup will have changed by then because Dr. McLeroy lost in a primary this month to a more moderate Republican, and two others – one Democrat and one conservative Republican – announced they were not seeking re-election.

There are seven members of the conservative bloc on the board, but they are often joined by one of the other three Republicans on crucial votes.  There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum.  To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

“I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state,” said David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate.  “I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution.”

They also included a plank to ensure that students learn about “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the