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The Idea of American Exceptionalism

Has the United States lost the set of civic values that made it exceptional among nations?

July 4, 2012

Has the United States lost the set of civic values that made it exceptional among nations?

In the beginning, American exceptionalism was a simple idea: Citizens are sovereign. “We the People of the United States” are the most electrifying words of the Constitution.

“We the people” were captains of our fate and masters of our souls. We governed ourselves. We weren’t governed by the military, special interests or political parties. We weren’t governed by the left or the right. We were governed by the Constitution. The Constitution created a republic to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans held this truth above all to be self-evident.

The federal government had limited power over citizens in the American Republic. The Founders rejected democracy because it didn’t go far enough in protecting the individual from the tyranny of the majority. And they rejected a strong executive because it would give one citizen too much power over all other citizens.

American exceptionalism — a government tailored for the rights of the individual — was threatening to governments based on monarchy, ruling classes, tribes and colonial occupations. Europeans regarded America as a dangerous nation.

Oliver Wendell Holmes called self-government the American experiment. The Founders knew the republic was the most vulnerable form of government.

Benjamin Franklin expressed this succinctly when he was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government the Founders had just established. “A republic,” Franklin said, “if you can keep it.”

The Founders were ambitious and set a high a bar for themselves and subsequent generations. While providing individuals more legal protections than a democracy, a republic demands greater citizen involvement.

As citizens, we have a sacred duty to conserve government by the active — not passive — consent of the governed. A people of sheep will beget a government of wolves.


Americans can only be exceptional as individuals. Apathy, ignorance and risk aversion are the death sentence of the American experiment.

More than half of the Constitutional Convention was spent debating the proper role of the three branches in war.