Wednesday, June 26, 2019

American Exceptionalism

Most nations have been historically based on a common ethnicity, language, religion, or history. The recent Constitution of the Maldives, for example, grants citizenship only to Muslims. In contrast to this, Seymour Martin Lipset, in the summary chapter of his book American Exceptionalism (1996), quoted from my own work, Moral and Political Philosophy, noting that in the United States: “The free and equal individual with moral responsibility is the basis of communal solidarity.”

In April, 2009, Barack Obama missed the historical point of American Exceptionalism when he stated:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln, and the great reformers such as the women suffragettes and the Rev, Martin Luther King, Jr. all considered equality to be the primary moral concept of our government. Our democracy incorporates a quantitative concept of equality with ‘“one person — one vote.” It is the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, however, that incorporates qualitative and substantive concepts of freedom and equality that protect the individual from the possible abuses of majority rule. Even the Constitution, however, can be amended by a super-majority of two-thirds of the Congress and three-fourths of the states. Concerning this ability of a super-majority to change the Constitution and the the Bill of Rights, James Madison thus wrote that he hoped the Bill of Rights “might acquire by degree the character of fundamental maxims of free government, and as they become incorporated into the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.”

It would help us to both understand and convey our values if our government officials, the media, and academics began to refer to our moral concepts as including both equality and freedom, our government as a constitutional democracy, and American exceptionalism as being based at least historically on the free and equal individual with moral responsibility as the basis of our communal solidarity. This was unique or "exceptional" at the time of our founding.

James H. Rutherford, M.D.