The nation was founded on natural law and natural right, not myth or tribal legend.
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo was on Freedoms Foundation’s campus July 21-26 leading the graduate teacher program Lincoln’s Constitution. On Sept. 1, the longtime Gettysburg College scholar assumes new academic positions as Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities and Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. His essay “What’s Exceptional About American Exceptionalism?” was published in the summer 2019 issue of City Journal.
By Allen C. Guelzo
Americans like to believe that they are an exceptional people. We speak of ourselves as a nation lifting our light beside the golden door, a people who “more than self their country loved and mercy more than life,” in the words of “America the Beautiful.”
The first person to apply the term “exceptional” to Americans was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his prophetic survey of American life in the 1830s, Democracy in America. But the germ of the idea had been around even longer, and it has never lost its grip on our imagination.
Rallying Americans to his program for a new “Morning in America,” Ronald Reagan described America in almost mystical terms as a “shining city on a hill.” The light it shone with was like none that lighted any other nation. “I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way,” Reagan said in 1983, “that there was some divine plan that placed the two great continents here between the oceans to be found by people from every corner of the Earth who had a deep love for freedom.”
In his 2012 presidential bid, Mitt Romney hailed America as “an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.” By contrast, the man who defeated Romney pointedly spoke of America in unexceptional terms, explaining to the Financial Times that if America was exceptional, it was only in the same sense that “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
American exceptionalism has almost become a modern political litmus test.
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