To the Members of the 112th Congress:
Is America exceptional? Is it unique among the nations? If so, what makes it so? And what are the implications of the fact? These are not policy questions, but questions about ideas and historical circumstances that are at the foundation of policies. They are the kinds of questions, it seems, that you and other elected and appointed public officials are often compelled for no particularly good reason to answer, as was the president a short time ago. Perhaps this may sometimes seem a tedious requirement of your job, especially when journalists asking the questions have no interest other than ginning up a headline. And so it is understandable if on occasion you reach for plausible sounding formulas in the hope that they will not cause a headline of an undesirable sort. But your answers can matter a great deal. They can be an opportunity to shape the public’s sentiments and opinions in a way that helps free government remain good government. Answering such questions—even when they haven’t been asked—has in the course of our history given an opportunity for America’s greatest statesmen in small or large ways to strengthen the capacity of their fellow citizens to govern themselves. On the other hand, there is hardly a greater mischief that can be done to the people than to give them bad answers to such questions.
In my last letter I took the liberty of questioning the notion, recently espoused by some leading public officials, that America is exceptional because its principles give it a special right and responsibility to lead. This is a confusion, I argued, if an understandable confusion, of a genuine American exceptionalism that is older than America itself—namely, the idea of America as an example to the world—“a city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop said to the future Massachusetts Bay colonists. By 1776, when the thirteen colonies assumed their separate and equal station among the powers of the earth as the United States of America, they did so proclaiming principles that made America truly exceptional. “We hold these truths to be self evident,” they declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No people on earth had ever based the authority of their laws on such an assertion. So the historic effort to establish government upon this principle was in truth an unprecedented and exceptional—a then unique—experiment in self government.
As Thomas Jefferson put it in his last surviving letter, written just before he died fifty years to the day after July 4, 1776, the American idea of equality meant “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” America was exceptional in founding our politics on what is least exceptional about us, on what we share with all other human beings at all times and in all places, rather than on any accidents of birth or circumstance that separate us. For this reason, Jefferson thought that the principles proclaimed in the Declaration not only gave hope to all Americans but were “grounds of hope for others,” everywhere and always.
The experiment of living up to these principles is the American experiment—the effort generation after generation to rise to equality, as Lincoln put it. So long as America remains America, it will be the country first dedicated to this proposition that all men are created equal, and ever aspiring to rise to its demands. Lincoln, echoing Jefferson, called the American idea the “principle of ‘Liberty to all’—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.”
The American experiment claimed to be an exceptional experiment not only because of its principles, but because conditions here in America were more favorable to the experiment in self-government than anywhere else in the world. The Founders’ America really was a land of opportunity as had never been known in the world before. The United States, as the saying then had it, became “the best poor man’s country on earth.” Ordinary people, secure in their equal liberty and therefore full of hope and enterprise, could farm their own land and enjoy in peace the bread of their labor; and for the first time in human history, they or their children could aspire without limit to great things—even to the Presidency of the United States. If the experiment in self government fails here, our Founders thought, that failure might be taken as a strong proof that, contrary to American assertions, human beings are not made to govern themselves.
Just as Jefferson and Lincoln hoped, the example of America has helped spread the blessings of liberty to other peoples. Many countries now claim equality as the principle of their politics. May they live up to those principles, as we hope to do ourselves!
Here in America, when we succeed in living up to our principles, we do something more important than establishing our right to lead. We establish our worthiness to lead, whenever our interest guided by our justice should require. To rise to these principles, we must understand them. And since we are not born understanding them, we arrange as best we can to learn them from one another—sometimes by listening to our politicians talk about our country—and to hand them down to our children. Can there be a more propitious occasion to refresh our understanding than the annual approach of the Fourth of July? Let us return to these themes next week.