The Real Meaning of American Exceptionalism
In recent years, the term “American exceptionalism” has sometimes been an empty applause line, a fancy way of shouting “USA! USA!” Vladimir Putin recently went so far as to proclaim that “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” without bothering to investigate what American exceptionalism might entail.
As it happens, the term has become familiar only in the last three decades, with explosive growth since 1985. But we can find a version of the concept as early as 1787, and in a prominent place: the very first paragraph of “The Federalist,” in which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay tried to persuade the nation to ratify the new Constitution.
At the outset of “The Federalist” No. 1, Hamilton wrote, “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
The stark opposition between “reflection and choice” on the one hand and “accident and force” on the other has defined the American character from its inception. The opposition suggests the U.S.’s distinctive optimism, captured in the repudiation of any kind of fatalism in political life.
It is true that the idea of self-government had been elaborated by countless others, including the French political theorist Montesquieu, a revered source for members of the founding generation. But the U.S. Constitution broke dramatically from Montesquieu, and the break casts a bright light on the nature of American exceptionalism.
Montesquieu insisted that republican self-government is possible only in a small, homogeneous nation. “It is natural to a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist,” he said. In a large republic, “the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views,” whereas in a small one, “the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.”
The anti-federalists, opponents of the proposed constitution, complained that the document’s framers had betrayed Montesquieu by trying to create a large, diverse republic overseen by a powerful central government.
Brutus, an especially articulate anti-federalist, urged: “In a republic, the manners, sentiments and interests of the people should be similar. If this be not the case, there will be constant clashing of opinions; and the representatives of one part will be continually striving against those of the other.”
In their most original argument, the framers responded that Montesquieu and Brutus had it backward. In the framers’ view, a large republic, with many points of view, would improve deliberation and better safeguard liberty.
Hamilton spoke most clearly on the point, urging that the “differences of opinion, and the jarring of parties” in the national legislature “often promote deliberation and circumspection, and serve to check the excesses of the majority.”
The depth of this commitment -- to a process of deliberation among people with different points of view -- emerges from an illuminating debate in America’s early years, raising the question of whether the Bill of Rights should include the “right to instruct” representatives. Many people claimed that citizens of a particular state should have the authority to bind their representatives on how to vote.
But this view has a big problem, which is that it would eliminate deliberation. Roger Sherman made the decisive objection:
“The words are calculated to mislead the people, by conveying an idea that they have a right to control the debates of the Legislature. This cannot be admitted to be just, because it would destroy the object of their meeting. I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.”
To be sure, American exceptionalism can be understood in many ways. The insistence on “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force” is reflected in a national commitment to equality of opportunity, originally signaled by the Constitution’s rejection of monarchy, its prohibition on “titles of nobility,” and its insistence that sovereignty lies in We the People. It is also reflected in a cultural commitment to freedom, individual rights and self-help.
We betray our heritage when we treat American exceptionalism as an occasion for chest-thumping, for deepening political divisions, for disparaging other nations, or for asserting what Hamilton denounced as “an obstinate adherence to party.” But whatever today’s controversies, American exceptionalism is real. It began in 1787, with the Constitution’s effort to establish a large, self-governing republic, in which diverse views serve as both a safeguard and a creative force.
(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Simpler: The Future of Government.”)
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