American exceptionalism is an ambiguous term. Though proclaimed by many to extol the nation, it is also referenced mockingly by others to denigrate American patriotism. At The IALS, we recognize the value of American Exceptionalism, and why it is crucial to promote and defend it. It is important that Americans understand what it means, how it is measured, and why some support it, while others oppose. American Exceptionalism is a foundational truth, that motivates the heart and mind, to embrace the constitutional principles that enable the nation’s prosperity, generosity, and preeminence.
Before we talk about what American exceptionalism is, let’s talk about what it is not. The United States of America is the wealthiest nation that has ever existed. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an estimated sum of the entire market value of a country’s goods and services, is commonly used as the measure for a nation’s overall wealth. As of 2019, the U.S. had the highest nominal GDP in the world at $24.43 trillion. Most would probably guess that second place belonged to China, but what many might not know, is that China’s nominal GDP was only $14.34 trillion. That’s more than a third less than the United States. Furthermore, Japan retained the third highest GDP with only $5.08 trillion. The U.S. economy is unrivaled by the rest of the world.
The U.S. also has the world’s most powerful military. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, last year the United States spent $778 billion for the Department of Defense, while China and Russia tallied $252 billion and $61.7 billion, respectively. While military technology remains somewhat comparable between the three super powers, U.S. military superiority is mostly credited to its unrivaled training and operational experience. There is a reason the U.S. military budget is so high. No other nation trains as hard, or as often, as the United States, and unfortunately, no other nation deploys as often, for conflicts and other world-wide contingency operations. Clearly, the United States is the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world, but this is not what makes America exceptional; this is a by-product of American Exceptionalism.
A review of American history is a prerequisite to understanding American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism began when the first settlers arrived in the “new world.” The original colonies were composed of a wide range of people speaking different languages and practicing differing faiths, but all committed to the the same central idea of liberty. With the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, John Winthrop summarized the thoughts of many when he proclaimed, “…we must consider that we will be a city upon a hill…the eyes of all people are upon us.”
The initial inhabitants of America came from many different cultures and faiths, but all believed in the same basic religious values. Most of them had endured similar tyrannical rule from various European monarchs, and the American frontier offered them the opportunity to own property, to worship God in peace, and to strive to improve their lot in life through blood, sweat, and toil. This was their first taste of individual liberty and self-determination. These were the ingredients and conditions that made America unique, and that gradually moved the country toward a more perfect union; a constitutional republic unlike anything in the history of mankind. For the first time in history, people of differing faiths were able to work together and prosper based on their mutual belief in God-given natural rights, or “natural law.” These virtues were embodied in the Declaration of Independence which affirmed that all men are created equal and are, “…endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The belief in the fundamental rights of property ownership and the pursuit of happiness, have been instrumental to the economic prosperity that the nation has enjoyed. The U.S. constitution was the first of its kind. It necessitated individual freedom, limited the arm of government, and ensured that its power derived from the people. America’s freedom and economic prosperity, have been the catalysts that have propelled the nation to its ascendency, as leader of the free world. The reason the early colonists sought to be a “city on a hill,” was because they believed that if they let their light shine before the world, then others would attribute their blessings and prosperity to God.
American Exceptionalism is the idea that America is the greatest nation in the history of the world. That it is fundamentally different from all others, not because of its many notable accomplishments, but because of the unique opportunities afforded to the American people. These opportunities are not born from wealth, but from a constitution, crafted in accordance with natural law, bestowing all its citizens with liberty and security. America is truly exceptional.