This essay is adapted from “American Amnesia: How We Lost Our National Memory—and How to Recover It,” by Helen E. Krieble (Encounter, 168 pages, $27.99)

The Things We Believe In

Rosa Parks was one of America’s indispensable civil rights icons, Rita Hayworth one of its great actresses, Ronald Reagan one of its most consequential presidents, and Norman Rockwell one of its most beloved artists. They all had something else in common, along with 700,000 Americans who die with Alzheimer’s disease every year. All four of them suffered memory losses so thorough and tragic that they eventually had no knowledge of who they were, how important they had been, and why their lives had mattered to millions.

These and many other sufferers were fortunate enough to have family members and other caregivers to help when they lost their character. Will the United States be as fortunate? American society is losing its character because of its acute memory loss, too, with millions of citizens no longer aware of America’s history, and what it has meant to generations of people around the world. This nation needs more than caregivers to supply day-to-day needs, though. Americans need to be reminded of who they are, and why their character matters. 

What exactly is America’s national “character”? There are almost as many descriptions as there are Americans, and today’s opinion leaders disagree on what it means to be an American. Politicians routinely criticize each other with the easy throw-away line, “That’s just not who we are.” The very fact that there is a national debate about it underscores the problem: Americans as a whole do not understand what is so special about their unique place in the world, and in the history of freedom. So, who are we? 

From the very first European settlements in America, both at Plymouth and at Jamestown, colonists almost immediately developed a different character than their ancestors in the old world. A rugged individualism began to develop very early, largely because of the circumstances of the land itself—a new world where everyone had to work if they wanted to eat. The land itself served to unite rich and poor alike under the banner of equality. Among the first settlers at Jamestown, and on the Mayflower a few years later, there were people of wealth and upbringing, often from some of the most prominent families in Europe. They sailed on the same boats with farmers, merchants, tradesmen, and people so poor they sold themselves into indentured servitude in order to pay their passage to America—people with whom the noble families would never have mingled back home. Yet even many of the wealthy settlers faced the same oppressive lack of opportunity in Europe as the poor, because they were not the firstborn sons. 

Primogeniture, the system under which lands, positions, and titles were inherited by the firstborn sons, had been in place in Europe for centuries, and it left generations of people with at least modest wealth and first-class educations, but no prospects for a better future. They often had as much reason to come to a new land of opportunity as their poor shipmates. Many of the early settlers were the second or third sons of English aristocracy; others were aristocrats’ daughters, some of whom were granted land in the new colonies—something they could never have achieved in England. In fact, King James II was said to have derisively referred to America as “the second sons’ colonies,” a nickname that stuck for many years. 

In the South, those wealthier settlers became the planter class, and in New England the merchant class. In Pennsylvania, William Penn dreamed of turning his own land grant into a colony for “common people,” providing opportunity for the poor to prosper alongside the second sons of England. At Jamestown, Captain John Smith had turned the reality of “everyone works if they want to eat” into law. While the colonies in different regions evolved differently, they all shared that common theme of equality.

Equality as a principle may have developed as the culture of the American colonies out of necessity at first, since it certainly did not come naturally to Europeans. But it nonetheless became deeply embedded in the psyche of the colonists. By the time of the American Revolution, the idea that all are equal in the eyes of the law had been part of the American culture for generations. Moreover, the concept that ordinary people could govern themselves was far more than an abstract notion of philosophers. By that time, it was the proven experience of Americans, whose isolation from the “civilized world” of Europe left them no choice but to govern themselves. That made them unique among the world’s varied cultures, and has made their exceptional system the envy of millions ever since. 

At the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, he touched off a firestorm of criticism about “American exceptionalism” and what it meant. He, and others, questioned if it even existed. By the end of his tenure, supporters were openly praising him for “redefining” the concept. The Washington Post called him “a tinkerer and a poet in whose hands the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’ is being reshaped for the twenty-first century and weaponized against Trumpism.” That misunderstanding is not only sad, it is dangerous for the future of America. It is now being transmitted to younger Americans through our schools, churches, TV programming, and social media outlets. 

We now have a president in Joe Biden, who has echoed the cries of those on the extreme Left, who say that America is “systemically racist.”

The notion that there is an Obama version, or a Trump version, or a Biden version of American exceptionalism belittles and misses the truth: that there are principles and characteristics of America far greater than Obama, Trump, Biden, or any other leader. 

The concept of American exceptionalism was first identified, and discussed at length, by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, when he published two large volumes attempting to explain the uniqueness of America to his fellow Frenchmen. Unlike European societies dominated by aristocrats, he characterized the United States as a society where hard work and personal improvement were the central theme, and where the common man enjoyed an equal level of dignity. In his observation, it was unprecedented that commoners never “deferred” to elites, as was expected in Europe. He described a crass individualism and free-market ethic that had taken root among Americans. 

Tocqueville’s description of the American work ethic defined the “American dream,” as it is often called now. “Among a democratic people, where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works to earn a living,” he wrote. “Labor is held in honor.” In old European societies, laborers were looked down upon, so the contrast was palpable. That led to his observation that a rapidly democratizing society had a citizenry devoted to achieving fortunes through hard work. It explained a crucial difference between the United States and Europe, where Tocqueville said nobody cared about making money. The lower classes had no hope of gaining wealth, and the upper classes thought it vulgar to discuss their birthright. Yet by contrast, far from being envious or jealous, Tocqueville said that when American workers saw people fashionably dressed and well-heeled, they simply announced that through hard work they would soon have such things, too. 

Americans have come a long way from that rich history. Today, they are frequently told that their strength as a society lies in ethnic diversity, not in unity of purpose. The uniqueness of America is more often misunderstood than well-articulated. It is often expressed as a superficial superiority, that the United States is the richest and most powerful country on Earth. 

In his now-famous 2009 press conference, Obama was asked to explain his “enthusiasm for multilateral frameworks,” and his view of American exceptionalism. He replied, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” He further explained, 

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise, and that includes us. 

For the rest of his tenure in office, he never escaped the accusation by some that he didn’t love America enough. He made a point of using the word “exceptional” afterwards, but many critics just didn’t believe him. Perhaps that was because he had such difficulty articulating precisely what was so exceptional, or special, about America. He often spoke about America’s role in defending and rebuilding Europe during and after World War II as a source of great pride. He mentioned the United States having the world’s largest economy and an unmatched military capability. He told the Business Roundtable in 2014, 

When you ask people now, what is the number one place to invest, it’s the United States of America. […] A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve got the best workers in the world, we’ve got the best university system, and research and development and innovation in the world, and we’ve got the best businesses in the world.

He told the National Institutes of Health that same month that, “Part of American leadership in the world—one of the things that has always marked us as exceptional—is our leadership in science and our leadership in research.” In a speech praising health care workers who went to West Africa to combat Ebola, he said, 

A lot of people talk about American exceptionalism. I’m a firm believer in American exceptionalism. You know why I am? It’s because of folks like this. It’s because we don’t run and hide when there’s a problem. […] It is people who are willing to go there at significant sacrifice to make a difference. That’s American exceptionalism. That’s what we should be proud of. That’s who we are.

Americans can take pride in having the world’s strongest economy, unmatched military, best workers, top universities, and leadership in research, development, and health care, among many others. They can also be proud of the generosity of Americans who travel the world helping those less fortunate. They are a brave, independent, entrepreneurial, virtuous, and generous people. But other cultures can also be charitable; there are several other very strong economies, and numerous military powerhouses. Many other nations also invest heavily in healthcare, education, and technological research. These are important, but they are not what makes America unique. They are a result of national exceptionalism, not the source of it. 

For years Americans have been bombarded by political and cultural leaders lecturing about the importance of diversity. President Clinton said, “My fellow Americans, we must never believe that our diversity is a weakness. It is our greatest strength.” President Obama went further, “The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity.” Strength from diversity has been a common theme of the last 50 years, readily found in speeches by leaders of the U.N., the USSR, India, New York City, London, France, Uganda, and many others. “Diversity, our strength” is the official motto of Toronto, Canada, but not of the United States of America. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the American motto e pluribus unum which stresses unity, not diversity. Yet the joke nowadays, that is too close to the truth, is that many of our citizens believe the American motto of e pluribus unum means “out of one, many.” 

All of this preoccupation with race as a dividing line in America may seem ironic, given that the United States has a more diverse population than any other nation. There is no question that diversity adds to society’s rich character, and contributes to many of its traditions. But America’s strength, and especially its endurance, do not spring from its diversity. They come from its unity. 

Americans of all backgrounds are united behind a set of governing principles. That is the source of American exceptionalism. It is a unity that transcends party politics, race, color, religion, national origin, gender, or any other human trait. In America, it does not matter where your family came from, what language your parents spoke, or who you are related to. 

Americans are united by a belief in the essential principle that ordinary people can govern themselves, and that the primary role of government is to protect their right to do so. 

That principle is what defines Americans. In fact, among such a vastly diverse population that includes elements of every other culture in the world, it is the only truly unifying theme. That is what has held this diverse country together for nearly 250 years.

Xinhua/Wu Xiaoling via Getty Images

How the Mighty Have Fallen

The same Alexis de Tocqueville, whose seminal work on American democracy in the 1830s extolled the virtues of a free society, also foresaw some of its greatest challenges. In fact, his warnings were mostly ignored, and have largely come true. 

He warned especially about the omnipotence and all-powerful character of the majority in a democratic system. He knew that unchecked political power inevitably leads to tyranny, and warned that such power is just as dangerous in the hands of an unchecked majority of citizens as in the hands of a king or dictator. Thus, the greatest danger Americans faced, what he called the “tyranny of the majority,” could already be seen in their mistreatment of minorities. 

The Bill of Rights was adopted specifically to guard Americans’ individual rights, especially against abuses of power, but they were mainly worded as restrictions against the government, not against the people themselves. For instance, the First Amendment guaranteed that “Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech” but that does not guard against angry mobs shouting down speakers on college campuses. In fact, one of Tocqueville’s most shocking claims, from today’s perspective, is that there was less freedom of discussion and “independence of mind” in America than in Europe in his time, such was the power of peer pressure, the human tendency to follow the crowd, and the fear of angry mobs. Today, many students are taught and believe that people don’t have the right to say things that might “offend” others. 

Several observers over the past two centuries have worried that Americans might discover the ability to vote themselves benefits from the public treasury, or to make other policy mistakes that endanger their own future as a republic. Tocqueville put it elegantly, “It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. […] They neglect their chief business, which is to remain their own masters.” 

That prediction has come true, and today Americans face an uncertain future because their national character is no longer rooted in fierce individualism and personal responsibility. Instead, they have opted for massive public benefits at the expense of future generations, completely ignoring the economic disaster this will eventually cause (not to mention the immorality of leaving such debt behind). Some observers now think that unfathomable public debt is the only thing that still unites a politically and socially divided American people. 

Perhaps worse, citizens have demanded, and Congress has delivered, ever-increasing levels of government regulation over virtually every aspect of modern life—almost none of which was envisioned by the Constitution. Today’s mass of government agencies, laws, rules, permits, and enforcement is the furthest thing imaginable from citizens “remaining their own masters.” 

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The Steady Erosion of Freedom

America’s founders envisioned a system of “checks and balances,” to insure against a powerful government usurping or abusing the sovereign power that belongs to the people. So, they wrote the Constitution to embody a system of carefully divided responsibilities, where each branch of government has a distinct responsibility in preserving the people’s rights: Congress legislates, the president administers, and the courts provide independent judgment in contested cases. But the federal system no longer works that way. Today, the executive branch not only administers, but also makes laws, and sits in judgment. The courts, now, not only sit in judgment, but also make laws, and enforce their judgments. Meanwhile, Congress has delegated most of its legislative authority to executive branch agencies. The constitutional lines separating the branches are now almost nonexistent.

A group called the New Civil Liberties Alliance has tracked and reported on the massive growth of “administrative law:” rules and regulations enacted by executive branch agencies, not by Congress, and enforced by executive branch agencies, not by courts. Its conclusions are frightening. “Americans accused of violations are now ten times more likely to be tried by an unelected bureaucrat than by a federal judge.” For example, the IRS has evolved into a tax collection agency that operates on the principle that you are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.

Pointing out that Congress now enacts fewer than 100 laws per year (many of them on superficial subjects such as naming buildings), the group points out that Congress is “handing over the task of legislating to federal administrative agencies. This Administrative State now enforces and adjudicates hundreds of thousands of regulations governing daily activities in our lives.”

Keeping in mind the founding declaration that government only “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed,” this administrative usurpation could only happen with the consent of the people themselves. It is by inaction that Americans have consented to the steady chipping away of their principles, and their freedom. 

The individual rights guaranteed to all Americans have been chipped away, little by little, without anyone ever having decided on such a plan. It has happened slowly and incrementally, but in response to demands by the citizens themselves. That’s because Americans have an insatiable need to fix every single problem, or at least try to do so. Unfortunately, they have been told that almost always requires government action, regardless of the obvious reality that many problems in life cannot be solved by government. 

It is a virtual cliché that when Americans sense something is wrong, they respond with: “There ought to be a law.” The result is an unseemly and un-American expectation of government programs that care for us from cradle to grave. That has led to a “nanny state” view that government should decide everything and pay for everything, and an intrusiveness on the part of citizens, who no longer think of anything as “none of your business.” There is virtually nothing left which is universally considered none of the government’s business.

Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty Images

What Have We Become?

Modern liberals like to call themselves “progressives.” The word implies progress, but it is a difficult concept to justify when they call for restrictions on free speech and other essential rights while building up a government that surpasses any other in history in terms of its size, power, and cost. Such views actually harken back to earlier times, not a better future. Thus, liberals should more accurately be called “regressives.” 

Sadly, few seem to know the difference, at least partly because these concepts were never taught in their schools. Several states have passed laws requiring graduating high school students to pass the same citizenship test required of new, naturalized immigrants. Yet numerous studies show that most Americans today could not pass that test, even though it has been simplified several times.

King George III would be so proud. He and his aristocratic friends were amused by America’s quaint “experiment” with self-government. To them, it was unthinkable that common people were enlightened enough to rule themselves. That experiment is now the hope and dream of people throughout the world, but what about here in the United States?

Hillsdale College’s Matthew Spalding wrote a persuasive and best-selling book called We Still Hold These Truths. He made the case that despite shockingly poor educational outcomes, at heart, Americans still believed in the founding principles. Indeed, most people still tell pollsters they strongly believe in freedom, limited government, and personal responsibility. But do they?

Astonishingly, many Americans expect government to care for their every need, the way commoners once expected a benevolent king to care for his subjects. They treat people as members of groups rather than as individuals, which insidiously devolves into a “class” system that was the very concept against which the founders rebelled. 

Today’s “classes” are not based on relative wealth like those of the 18th century, but modern law nevertheless singles out “protected classes” based on qualities like race, color, gender, religion, national origin, sexual preference, age, disabilities, and military service. The result is unequal treatment under the law, entirely contrary to the principles of natural law expressed by the Declaration of Independence. Americans are voluntarily surrendering the very freedoms that millions have fought and died to establish and protect. 

Many of the “long train of abuses” that led to America’s rebellion from the British Crown are eerily similar to the excesses of America’s own government today. The Declaration of Independence listed grievances against King George III that are all too familiar. The authors accused him of refusing “his assent to laws […] necessary for the public good,” of forbidding locals to pass laws “of immediate and pressing importance,” even of dissolving local representative bodies. 

How different is that from a Congress that cannot pass the most essential bills for annual appropriations and budgets? How different is it from today’s “supreme” federal system that routinely overrides local and state laws, especially by federal court orders and “constitutional” rulings based on premises that are not in the Constitution? 

The Crown had “obstructed the administration of justice” by controlling judges’ tenure and salaries. Today’s government does so by empowering judges to usurp legislative powers by making up new laws rather than interpreting laws passed by the people’s representatives. It is a more modern technique, but with the same anti-democratic result. 

King George III had “erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.” By 2020, the federal government had more than four million employees, at a cost approaching $5 trillion a year. The King “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution,” much as our modern leaders compromise America’s sovereignty to institutions like the U.N., international courts, the World Health Organization, and foreign trade commissions.

The founders said government should protect private property, but today’s Supreme Court lets government take private property and sell it to developers, destroy the value of land by denying the right to use it, and forces landowners to give up their land for endangered species habitat, parks, trails, and “open space.” The first “inalienable right” in the Declaration was the right to life, but today’s courts prohibit states from protecting it. If Americans still believe “all men are created equal,” how can they justify racial preferences in school admissions, government contracts, or congressional reapportionment? Freedom of speech is central to the Bill of Rights, but it is under attack by politically correct thought police all across America, especially at government-financed educational institutions. 

“The policy of the federal government,” wrote President Jefferson, “is to leave her citizens free, neither aiding nor restraining them in their pursuits.” Today, Americans face restrictions on how to plan their own retirements, design their own health insurance, or even devise their own children’s education. The endless intrusion reaches into every facet of their lives, from where they can hike in the woods to how their hamburgers must be cooked. Both parties instinctively look to government as the first answer to all problems. Even many Republicans propose solving issues like illegal immigration by hiring thousands more federal employees.

There is one crucial difference: Unlike their colonial ancestors, contemporary Americans voluntarily agreed to all these usurpations with their votes. Voters have been warned frequently to be alert to threats against their freedom, but have often shirked that most essential duty of citizenship. 

Americans have two clear choices: Do they really want to declare the America of their founders dead, and accept the mediocre socialism it has devolved into? Or, will they withdraw the “consent of the governed” and revive the American experiment that made them the freest people on earth and the envy of the world?

Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Our New National Character?

Today, millions of Americans watch from the sidelines as uninvolved spectators, while government leaders routinely ignore the most basic principles. The federal government has nationalized private industries from healthcare, child care, and electric power, to passenger rail service and airport security. Federally owned businesses compete against private enterprise in telecommunications, utilities, transportation, insurance, consumer loans, and dozens of other areas. Government dictates the terms of business in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, fishing, pharmaceuticals, broadcasting, education, and nearly every other industry. The New York Times recently published a front-page story with the headline that Joe Biden’s budget plan would provide “cradle-to-grave government” assistance to Americans. 

Leaders engage in fierce debates almost every year about the simplest of constitutional rights, such as the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and increasingly, the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. Political correctness is effectively silencing all speech with which academic dictators disagree, on college campuses, radio and television, and in everyday workplaces. People accused of various offenses are automatically deemed guilty until proven otherwise, their careers and reputations destroyed without due process of law. 

America’s national identity is in danger of being erased. Many millions of Americans, like me, fear that our nation is being replaced by a borderless socialist regime that has lost its moral compass. A free people would never tolerate such abuses if they remembered their principles; if they retained the character that comes from their history. When America stops teaching that history, it risks losing that character, the rugged individualism that makes America special, unique, different, and exceptional. 

The first attempts by government to expand its power were not “nipped in the bud,” and today’s power grew incrementally and no doubt began as soon as the ink was dry on the Constitution. That is why its authors said only a vigilant public could prevent tyranny, and why they thought educating the people was so important. It is why they called it the first duty of citizenship to pass along these principles to future generations. This is why we have public education in America, and yet the government schools are failing that sacred mission. 

But there is a problem here. This tradition of passing down the principles of American greatness has become dislodged. 

People cannot pass along memories they don’t have, and neither can a nation. The failure to educate future generations guarantees a loss of national memory and, thus, national character. Sadly, this is happening—on purpose—as people increasingly look to government for solutions to every problem, and decline to teach history, values, principles, and civics to their children. Is the entire American system of self-government slowly and painfully committing suicide?

Angry protests and demonstrations are more common than ever in America’s cities, but they lack the unifying theme that characterized such protests in the 1960s. In that era, protesters articulated a deep fear and anger about the Vietnam War, and about civil rights abuses. More recently, from Occupy Wall Street in 2011 to the 2017 Women’s March, the 2020 takeover of neighborhoods in Seattle and Minneapolis, and countless others, demonstrators have had difficulty explaining exactly what they were marching for. All seemed angry, but with dozens of different causes, and with many protestors remarkably unable to tell interviewers why they were there. Some complained about “unfair” wages, others about “unequal” treatment, still others about the presence of police (who were there to protect the demonstrators’ safety), and most recently, nearly every incident involving police shootings. Today, demonstrators take to the streets to protest against political views with which they disagree, seeking to shout down their adversaries, tear down statues regardless of their symbolism, and vandalize the private property of innocent people. 

Numerous participants in demonstrations and riots have confirmed that they were paid to be there, but rarely does anyone seem to know where the money came from, or what the organizers hoped to accomplish. That does not mean there are no problems worthy of such activism. Rather, it is a symptom of the void left by an insufficient education in civics. Vast numbers of people simply do not understand how their government works, what it is (and is not) in charge of, and what avenues they have for redress of grievances. They have little idea of the power of engaged citizens. That lack of understanding is easily replaced with emotion, as the all-too-regular newscasts show. 

On March 7, 2015, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Selma-to-Montgomery march, President Obama finally expressed how the civil rights movement actually fulfilled the founders’ dream. “What Selma does better than perhaps any other moment in our history is to vindicate the faith of our founders; to vindicate the idea that ordinary folks—not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege or certain religious belief—are able to shape the destiny of their nation,” Obama said. “This is the most American of ideas.” He was right. 

That lofty rhetoric is exactly on point, yet Americans sometimes seem convinced that their history is more about slavery and other evils than it is about Dr. King and other triumphs. It is a society that loves self-criticism, to a fault. Slavery did not make America unique. Every society had slavery for thousands of years, and many still do. There is no need to sugarcoat the areas where Americans have fallen short of their own ideals. History happened and it cannot be altered. 

What makes America unique in the world, however, is not these failures (those are not unique at all), but the fact that they were overcome, and that Americans never give up, but continuously strive. 

American history is a spellbinding tale of how ordinary people from all their diverse backgrounds have worked and fought together to throw off the chains of the past, and to forge a better and freer future. It is about how they continually come together, as the Constitution says, “to form a more perfect union.” But that spirit, which made America a beacon of freedom and prosperity, is in sharp decline. And that puts America’s future in jeopardy.

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About Helen E. Krieble

Helen E. Krieble (1943-2021) was educated at Harvard-Radcliffe and the University of Pennsylvania, was an assistant professor at Hartford College for Women, and a regent at the University of Hartford. She served on numerous boards and commissions, including the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation, which she founded.

Photo: Barbara Watson