To recognize America’s greatness is to understand that the United States occupies a special role among the nations of the world in terms of its national ethos, political, economic, cultural, scientific and religious institutions, and because it was built by settlers who thought deliberately about what America was to be. It is about what we have achieved as a nation, are achieving, and hope to achieve. American greatness is, therefore, past, present, and future.
The roots date back to 1630 with John Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill,” although some scholars also attribute it to a passage from Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that the United States held a special place among nations, because it was the first working representative democracy.
Belief in American greatness has long been characteristic of conservatives. The Marxist historian Howard Zinn said that it is based on a myth, and that “there is a growing refusal to accept” the idea of American exceptionalism both nationally and internationally. But he was, of course, dead wrong. So are today’s Democrats. The new trend among that party of democratic socialists is to hate America and apologize for its greatness.
David Letterman once said, “There’s no business like show business, but there are several businesses like accounting.” I’d paraphrase him and say there’s no nation-state like the United States, but there are several nations like Tajikistan.
The question is not whether the United States is great and unique among nations. That much is abundantly clear. The real question is whether or not the world needs something exceptional that only the United States can offer, and if so, whether we are wise enough to see that need and fill it with something truly exceptional.
American greatness does not imply inflated superiority—nor is it an assertion of “American bigotry,” as some have claimed. It is something simpler and humbler: it is the recognition that America is, as James Madison said, the “hope of liberty throughout the world,” and that America is different from other nations in ways that are consequential for the world.
In essence, the exceptionality of America, politically, economically, militarily, and culturally is based on these factors:
- The religious belief that American progress would lead to the Millennium.
- Linking our history to the development of liberty in Anglo-Saxon England, even back to the traditions of the Teutonic tribes that conquered the Roman Empire.
- Looking to the “newness” of America, seeing the mass of “virgin land” that promised an escape from the decay that befell earlier republics and European monarchies.
Because America lacks a feudal tradition of landed estates with inherited nobility, it is unique among nations. The Puritan Calvinists who first came to Massachusetts had a strong belief in predestination and a theology of Divine Providence that still has effects down to this day. Since God made a covenant with his “chosen people,” Americans are seen as of a different type. This “City on a Hill” mentality is still evidenced in American folklore, song, and customs. Listen to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as you read it.
With its particular attention to legal immigration, America has, generation after generation, been a beacon to the world. The Statue of Liberty is an embodiment of that ethos. America was also created on a vast frontier where rugged and untamed conditions gave birth to the American national identity and the narrative of a continent of exceptional people—pioneers, explorers, and adventurers.
The economics of the American founding was very much a Lockean affair: the protection of property rights in what was “the largest contiguous area of free trade in the world.” But you recall there were two competing views of America’s economy: a Southern Agrarian view, championed by Jefferson, and a Northern industrial or commercial view, championed by Hamilton. It is this same difference in visions that was at the economic root of the American Civil War, a war that saw the ultimate industrial and commercial view victorious.
Hamilton, as George Washington’s treasury secretary, prevailed. He established the credit of the United States by consolidating state and national debt and paying the interest upon it, and transforming it into capital by issuing certificates on it; established a national banking system; and thereby encouraged what he called “the spirit of enterprise.” Hamilton used the freedoms of the Constitution and its protections to foster a capitalistic, free-market economy and ensured that the United States would, as he said, “become the richest, most powerful, and freest country the world has ever known.”
The limited role of the government in such an economy has been well described by James Madison in Federalist 10:
A republic . . . promises the cure for which we are seeking . . . the same advantage, which a republic has over a democracy in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic.
In order to be a fit participant in a modern American republic and a market society, it is necessary to be a certain kind of person in a certain kind of culture. This kind of person is one with internalized values which make them work: a person of virtuous character. It is no accident that the great German sociologist, Max Weber, identified none other than Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the greatest American, as the epitome of that work ethic. Nor is it an accident that America remains the most philanthropic country in the world (12 times more than France, for instance, in the latest survey).
As the Trinidadian-Indian Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul has said about America,
[this] idea of the pursuit of happiness . . . is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, and choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist in America; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.
One does not impose personal autonomy, and that, in the end, is the secret of America’s real and lasting power: freedom.
American greatness is the very embodiment and the exemplar of the logic of modernity.
You see it in Lincoln’s famous phrase, repeated by Daniel Day-Lewis in Stephen Spielberg’s epic film, “America is the last, best hope of mankind.” And, to the extent that the logic of modernity is rooted in Judeo-Christian understanding, America is unique in preserving that connection. Americans continue to identify themselves overwhelmingly with this heritage; long after it has disappeared as the cultural foundation of Western Europe. That is why most Americans subscribe to the Lockean liberty narrative, and not the social democratic equality narrative that now dominates Europe; it is why America can combine a secular civil association with a religious culture instead of belief in a theocracy; it is why America celebrates autonomy instead of the Chinese belief in social conformity.
Early American settlers gave voice to a specific identity. As the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington has argued, American identity has had two primary components: culture and creed. The creed is a set of universal principles articulated in our Founding documents: liberty, equality, democracy, constitutionalism, limited government, and private property. Our culture is Anglo-Protestant, specifically dissenting Protestantism. Moreover, the creed is itself the product of “English traditions, dissenting Protestantism, and Enlightenment ideas of the eighteenth-century settlers.”
One way of characterizing the early United States is to say that it inherited the logic of enlightenment and all of its institutions—the technological project (from Francis Bacon), economic freedom (from Adam Smith), political freedom (from John Locke), and legal freedom (British common law). What distinguished the United States from England were three crucial things: the lack of a feudal class structure that dominated Great Britain into the 21st century (yes, we all loved “Downton Abbey” but . . . ); an extensive virgin territory for applying it (The Louisiana Purchase); most especially, the opportunity for a multitude of dissenting Protestant sects, Catholics, and Jews to engage the new world with a fervor largely absent from the feudalistic state churches of Europe.
America exemplifies the logic of modernity par excellence. That is why there is such a thing as the American Dream—which continues to draw people to our exceptional shores from the world over.
One of the extensions of the belief in American exceptionalism is the notion that, because of its status, the United States has an obligation to be the leading nation in world affairs. Americans generally endorse this position, and say the United States has “a special responsibility to be the leading nation in world affairs.” There has been rare bipartisan agreement on this down the ages until recently, as the Left takes issue with our history, power, and prowess. Today, they disavow American greatness.
For Americans along the conservative spectrum, we need to fully embrace American greatness. It is who we have been. It is who we are now. And it is who we should be long into the future.
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a speech delivered on January 12 to the Palm Beach Republican Club.