American unexceptionalism

What do you think of the notion that America has a world mission? Does it sound too religious, too much like the language of crusade? Mr. Romney, a former missionary, speaks of America’s world mission with an almost religious zeal. Here’s an account of one of Mr. Romney’s recent speeches:

Addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made it clear he is “an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country.”

“I am not ashamed of American power,” he said. “I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair.” . . .

Romney told the VFW he . . . would be “guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.”

Mr. Obama also speaks of America in superlative terms in almost every stump speech: we have the world’s best workers, entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, colleges, and universities. We still offer the American Dream to people willing to move here and to work hard, he says.

Is our world mission linked to our military power, as Mr. Romney suggests, or to our economic opportunity, as Mr. Obama suggests? Whether our mission is to spread liberty beyond our boarders or to offer economic opportunity to those willing to relocate inside them, the candidates agree that we have a mission. Do we?

Everyone back there seemed to think we did. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas disagreed on how America would achieve its mission, but according to Harry Jaffa, they “would have agreed that the American republic had a unique responsibility, that it held in trust the cause of republican freedom for all mankind.” 1

Lincoln believed that America’s example of asserting the natural-law right of revolution would aid in world liberation:

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right – a right which, we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. 2

Douglas would never have said that. Douglas didn’t think other nations were capable of setting up republican forms of government and liberal institutions without American intervention. Here’s Douglas in 1850:

The history of the world furnished few examples where any considerable portion of the human race have shown themselves sufficiently enlightened and civilized to exercise the rights and enjoy the blessings of freedom. In Asia and Africa we find nothing but ignorance, superstition, and despotism. Large portions of Europe and America can scarcely lay claim to civilization and Christianity; and a still smaller portion have demonstrated their capacity for self-government. 3

This view of the rest of humanity, as well as his fears of English foreign policy (including abolitionism), led Douglas to equate the spread of republican government with the spread of American territory. Douglas was the chief architect and promoter of Manifest Destiny, the precursor of today’s notion of American exceptionalism.

Douglas’s views on states’ rights were linked to the “great suppleness and flexibility” that American territorial expansion would involve. 4 Under his doctrine of popular sovereignty, enshrined in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, new territories applying for statehood became free to decide the question of slavery for themselves without interference from the federal government. Such local flexibility would be required to turn America into something like what Jaffa terms “a new kind of Rome”:

Unlike the British Empire, [Douglas’s idea of American union] would have been radically democratic, and yet it could not admit the peoples of all the lands it absorbed into full civic privileges. “If experience shall continue to prove, what the past may be considered to have demonstrated, that those little Central American powers can not maintain self-government, the interests of Christendom require that some power should preserve order for them.” 5

Was Douglas concerned that such local “flexibility” might make a mockery of the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of inalienable rights granted to all people by virtue of their existence? He was not. As Jaffa says, Douglas “was satisfied that American principles could and would accompany the flag, and he did not believe they would be extended any other way.” 4

While Douglas, somewhat like Romney this summer, linked America’s mission to its military power, Lincoln linked it instead to America’s moral example and to a more positive and metaphysical view of humanity. Lincoln believed that America had to at least restore slavery to what the Framers believed was the road to extinction before it could presume to teach the rest of the world about republican government and universal rights. Sadly, I believe Lincoln was the last person to prominently call for national repentance to be later elected president:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it . . . If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations. 7

In this 1854 speech in Peoria, Lincoln argued that the re-adoption of the Declaration of Independence’s self-evident truths would result in millions “the world over” rising up and calling us blessed, making us the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 and the world our children in freedom. Our return to the Declaration’s truths, then, would fulfill our world mission.

The Declaration of Independence, that great restatement of natural rights that Lincoln urged his Peoria audience to readopt, itself appeals to an international audience. It is expressly written to a “candid world.” In natural law terms, the Declaration’s appeal to mankind mirrors the revolution’s “appeal to heaven.” Under John Locke’s version of natural law, if a ruler denies his people’s inalienable rights and refuses his people’s appeals, the people may “appeal to heaven” — i.e., recognize the state of war that exists between the ruler and his people. The Declaration, then, appeals to both heaven and Earth.

Does our nation now stand only before God? Is not the world our witness, too? Today, many American politicians dismiss any appeal to the Declaration’s international audience as a sign of weakness. Mr. Romney and his allies are particularly critical of Mr. Obama for his efforts in demonstrating our willingness to speak and listen to, and to seek rapprochement with, other nations. Yet the strength of our inalienable rights lies in their universality – in their status as self-evident truths, in their appeal “to all men and all times.” Do we still see the world as “candid,” that is, as (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) “free from bias; fair, impartial, just”? Why don’t more of our leaders care what the world thinks anymore? What are they afraid of? Would the world deny the truths contained in the Declaration, or would it point out how we may have strayed from them?

The most famous statement by Lincoln on America’s world mission may lie not in his Peoria speech but in his Gettysburg Address. Quoting the Declaration’s equality clause, Lincoln’s address famously states that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” a proposition that Lincoln elsewhere called “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” 8 The Civil War is a test, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address states, of whether “that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

The Gettysburg Address, then, equates “this nation” with “any nation.” As far as our capacity to endure as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is concerned, Lincoln was saying, we are no better than any other nation. If we were, then the Declaration’s abstract truths as metaphysical truths would not be “applicable to all men at all times.” In the abstract – and the abstract was always aspirational to Lincoln and of foremost importance – we are no more or no less capable of self-government along the lines of equality than any other nation. In the midst of the Civil War, then, Lincoln reaffirmed that our mission to the world is our example and that all nations can follow it.

In the first Federalist essay, Alexander Hamilton described our mission in terms similar to Lincoln’s in the Gettysburg Address:

It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Our mission is to offer good government to the world by our “conduct and example,” Hamilton said. Our message is this: if we can do it, you can do it.

And that’s the logical flaw in American exceptionalism. We can’t be both an example and an exception. How can we say, with Hamilton and Lincoln, “You can be like us,” while we also say, “We are exceptional – we are an exception”? Do we believe with Stephen Douglas that certain nations or certain regions of the world need our political oversight and even the exercise of our military power to establish liberal institutions and republican government? Do we see some other nations as, in Hamilton’s words, “forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force” – destined to depend, perhaps, on our own force?

Have we ceased to believe in the power of our own example? Or, if we believe that example has been lost, have we ceased to believe in the possibility of its restoration?

  1. Jaffa, Harry. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1982. Print. Pages 83 – 84.
  2. Id. at 84.
  3. Id. at 101.
  4. Id. at 101.
  5. Id. at 100 – 101. Jaffa quotes Douglas from the same 1850 speech.
  6. Id. at 101.
  7. Cuomo, Mario and Harold Holzer, eds. Lincoln on Democracy. New York: Cornelia & Michael Bessie, 1990.
  8. Cuomo, supra, at 155.

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