Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and others have suggested recently that President Obama and his fellow Democrats have abandoned faith in American exceptionalism.
Liberals who criticize America’s shortcomings or seek to cooperate with other nations in the conduct of foreign affairs, the right-wingers allege, somehow betray our noble character and destiny.
This is an old canard, employed by conservatives seeking to pose as the true guardians and interpreters of the miracle wrought by Washington, Jefferson, and the other members of the founding generation.
It is a libel that needs refuting from time to time, and, since today’s liberals appear to have inherited the Left’s endless capacity for cannibalism (as opposed to the Right’s ever-disciplined and united political front), I have gone back to an earlier generation and an essay “The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny?” written by the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for ammunition.
The Founding Fathers did indeed believe that America was an exceptional place. How could they not? They lived on the edge of a wild paradise, rich in resources, unspoiled by feudalism, religious warfare, royalty, or corruption.
Here was a chance to make the world over, to start anew, and to put into practice the ideals of the Enlightenment. Here these brave Englishmen, an ocean away from King George and his besotted court, had an unmatched opportunity to fulfill the promise of individual liberty that had been created, in ink and blood, by generations of European radicals and theorists.
But the Founders were pragmatists. They had no illusions. They revered their exceptional opportunity to build a “city upon a hill,” but never deluded themselves about the inevitability of the outcome. “I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just,” said Thomas Jefferson, as he considered the evils of slavery.
America was an exceptional test, but a test just the same—a “full and fair experiment,” said George Washington. And even great peoples fail tests.
Rome was their great model. The Founders created a Republic with a Senate and portrayed their civic heroes in togas. And they knew full well why Rome had fallen, and how man’s innate wickedness had undermined the rights of Englishmen in their own time. They had a Calvinistic belief in man’s frailty and loaded our governing documents with checks and balances to combat the inevitable, sinful behavior of greedy, ambitious, deluded, and fanatic men.
“The Founding Fathers saw the American republic not as a divine consecration but as the test against history of a hypothesis,” wrote Schlesinger. “They were brave and imperturbable realists committed, in defiance of history and theology, to a monumental gamble.”
The greatest Americans, in succeeding generations, recognized the fragility as well as the exceptional nature of the American experiment. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln described the Civil War as a test of whether a nation dedicated to liberty and equality “can long endure.”
In the dark days of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded Americans of George Washington’s words that “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government” were “staked on the experiment” by the American people.
The great Cold War presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, called their generation to its duty and urged Americans to draw faith from the example set by their ancestors, but always warned that the test was far from settled.
Dwight Eisenhower spoke of “the American experiment.” Kennedy said, “Let us begin.”
“History is a ribbon, always unfurling,” Reagan said. “History is a journey.”
In our own day, beset by troubles and divided by those who profit from the sunder, it is folly to presume that we share in the glory of our forebears without matching their sacrifice and courage.
The brilliance of the Founders can offer us inspiration, but is no guarantee that we will be wise.
The victories of our ancestors can instruct, but do not ensure that we too will be brave.
The exceptional nature of the American experiment can move us to do great things, but this is a test that must be passed, anew, by each generation.
Palin and Gingrich and the rest are off base with their messianism. We are exceptional not by being an American—only by acting like one.