American Exceptionalism*

American Exceptionalism

What is American Exceptionalism? What is it that makes a country, any country, exceptional?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “exceptional” as “rare,” “superior.” The United States is indeed a rare and superior country, rare in its economic and political success, and superior in the level of that success. However, that’s not what Americans mean when they tout American Exceptionalism. They’re emphasizing something innate in America, a fundamental attribute of Americanism that causes America to stand out. What is that feature that has made, and will continue to make, America rare and superior? What is that fundamental moral, ethical, attitudinal something?

Wikipedia attributes American Exceptionalism to two components: The first is America’s history. The American Revolution established the United States as the first nation to base its existence on liberty, equality, individualism, democracy and laissez-faire capitalism. The second is that the United States has been on a mission to transform the world in its image – what might be referred to as American democratic and capitalist evangelism. The combination of the two – history and mission – are what define American Exceptionalism … at least for Wikipedia. Wikipedia credits Alexis de Tocqueville for originating the phrase, and Ronald Reagan for fashioning it into a philosophy – America as a shining “city upon a hill,” a role model for the rest of the world.

But history and mission don’t truly tell the story. They’re not aspirational, and America can’t be superior without aspirations. What so differentiates America and Americans that makes the United States an ongoing role model? Why should America be viewed by one and all as that “shining city upon a hill”?

America’s exceptionalism begins with its Founders, the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Hamiltons, Madisons, and Adams. They were not born “Americans.” They were British emigrants, the children of those who had immigrated to North America, or the children of children of those immigrants …, or immigrants themselves. They and their families attained power and wealth through personal efforts. Together, they found common cause and, despite their disparate backgrounds and philosophies and very different personalities and animosities, found the strength of character to bury their differences, found a new country, and write America’s Constitution. A grounding principal of the Founders was to establish America as a safe haven for generations of similarly-minded freedom-seekers. George Washington wrote that “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” Thomas Paine called America “an asylum for mankind.” Thomas Jefferson wrote: “This refuge, once known, will produce reaction on the happiness even of those who remain there, by warning their taskmasters that when the evils of Egyptian oppression become heavier than those of the abandonment of country, another Canaan is open where their subjects will be received as brothers, and secured against like oppressions by a participation in the right of self-government.”

Of course, the Founders realized that “undesirables” – which many at the time viewed as including Catholics, Italians, Irishmen and Jews (and Asians) – should not be welcomed into the new country. The Founders naturally also wished to maintain the aristocratic integrity of their American ideals. Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.” James Madison agreed: “It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours, [but not] merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community, are not the people we are in want of.”

What that meant, of course, was that control of the government and of its policies would be reserved to landowners. Only they would be entitled to vote. Oh, and the vote, of course, was reserved only for men …, er, white men. And slavery was allowed to continue because those African-American “undesirables” economically benefited American industry which, of course, all immigrants ultimately do.

But America, because of the principles established by the Founders, attracted undesirables … virtually all of whom became American citizens … and eventually attained the right to vote. The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed any free white person of “good character” to become a citizen and didn’t prevent Catholics and Irishmen and Italians and Germans and Jews (though not Asians) from entering America. Because of lousy conditions in their countries, immigrants poured into the United States during the early 19th Century. It was Reagan’s “shining city.” The backlash by job-threatened workers naturally led to creation of anti-immigration parties …, and politicians took note. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, immigrants into America faced higher and higher bars, including those based solely on ethnicity. Although the Chinese were the first ethnic immigrant group to be denied entry, they were not the last. Quotas were imposed to limit immigration from Eastern and Southern European countries (too many “undesirables”) and from Japan, and to completely exclude Filipinos. That marked the beginnings of a new industry: organized illegal immigration. American policy shifted after WWII to selective immigration, allowing immigrants from war-torn European countries, as well as from Cuba, Asia, Hungary, Vietnam and Cambodia – all of whom were absorbed into America’s growing economy. Quotas nevertheless continued to limit immigration from out-of-favor countries, including Mexico, where manual laborers nevertheless poured into the U.S. to fill the needs of farmers and construction companies. The number of illegals in the U.S. prompted Ronald Reagan in 1986 to wipe the slate clean by granting amnesty to more than 3 million illegal immigrants.

The pace of immigration and of the Americanization of immigrants has walked a familiar path. Spatially, gateway cities and states first have created national, religious, and similar highly-concentrated ethnic communities (such as Chinatowns, Little Italys, and Little Havanas) that over a generation or two have led to linguistic, cultural and economic assimilation of immigrants and their children and grandchildren. With those successes, racial and ethnic diversity has spread across the country, leading to national assimilation and acceptance of new ethnic groups, foods and culture. America was first referred to as a “melting pot” in the 1780s as a metaphor for the fusion of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. More recent proponents of America’s multicultural society have used terms such as mosaic, salad bowl and kaleidoscope to describe 21st Century assimilation where different cultures and ethnicities mix but remain distinct in certain respects. No one questions, however, America’s unique status as a Nation of Immigrants …, which happens to be the title of a 1958 book by one John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator. No other nation on Earth ever has held that mantel.

To varying degrees and at different times, immigration has been unpopular with sectors of the American populace. Newer immigrant groups challenge and replace more established ones and take their jobs. Immigrant groups naturally begin on the lowest economic rung, initially taking the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs, importing their home-grown diseases, and living in squalid, detestable conditions – displaying all the elements to be labeled the “undesirables” that the Founders wanted to exclude. But wave after wave of different immigrant groups weren’t excluded … and generation after generation of new “undesirables” entered the U.S., both legally and illegally, were assimilated in due course, and became hard-working, successful Americans. Those reprehensible Irish Catholics of the early 19th Century became the backbone of American law enforcement. Those feuding Italians and Puerto Ricans in West Side Story became builders, businessmen and sports heroes. And the formerly interned Japanese, excluded Chinese and heavily quota-ed Indians are now almost 3.5{29ea29b64b10057f61377b2c087cd5b7537a0cd24da4295a308b0bf589469f35} of the American population … and, despite their relatively small numbers, are envied for their work ethic and success.

Other countries don’t readily accept immigrants. Their histories instead reflect routine rejection … or worse. No country other than America has a mechanism for cultural or ethnic or religious integration. Western European countries are now giving all three a shot – simultaneously –, with Germany the notable and historically questionable leader of the EU’s recently-created immigration policy. Germany (as well as Sweden, Belgium, and France) has made a highly controversial and thus far unsuccessful attempt at opening its borders to admit immigrants from Syria, Turkey and North Africa. Perhaps because of its historical emphasis on racial purity, the attempt has ignited a populist revolt and, as reported in the Washington Post, “the German government has almost collapsed over the question of immigration.” Because Germany exterminated the last religiously-different group that challenged its racial purity, it should come as no surprise that so many Germans are resistant to this latest attempt.

No country in history other than America has admitted, integrated and assimilated wave after wave of culturally, religiously, and ethnically alien immigrants into its culture, identity and economy. China remains Chinese. Japan Japanese. Africa tribal. Russia is vocally for the Russians. And the list goes on.

Which brings us back to what makes America exceptional. America is the “shining city on the hill,” a beacon appealing to those who want to be free to experience American-style liberty, equality, individualism, democracy and laissez-faire capitalism … and who believe that the Statue of Liberty means that they will be welcomed in America, be accepted in America, and be assimilated in America. That is what makes America exceptional … because it can’t happen anywhere else in the world.

Finally (from a good friend)

Quote of the Day: “You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views, which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” – Doctor Who

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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