Is America more exceptional today than in 1776?

Unlike today's leaders, the authors of the Declaration understood that "American exceptionalism" had to be earned

Topics: American History, Founding Fathers, Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July,

Is America more exceptional today than in 1776?A detail from John Trumball's "Declaration of Independence"

We Americans misconstrue a lot in presuming that we know what 18th-century men thought about when they invented a nation that was joined to the transcendent value of human liberty. The founders’ vocabulary was different from ours. They invoked a word we don’t use much anymore – magnanimity – when they spoke of the generous concern meant to underlie the relationship between individuals, or between the government and its citizens. The new republic was to advance social harmony, which unequal governments (monarchy, aristocracy) did not.

It is noteworthy that in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson emphasized this point in his criticism of the British: “We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations.” He justified separation from Britain as much on the basis of its moral abandonment of the colonies as of an unjustifiable use of power. When a people were treated thoughtlessly and callously, when their rulers failed to show genuine concern for their happiness, subjecting them to “injuries and usurpations,” they, as an abused people, had every right to protest loudly and even rebel, so as to obtain “new guards for their future security.”

It almost sounds as though, in affirming Americans’ rights to happiness and security, Jefferson was promoting universal healthcare for citizens. Fairness, the voice of justice, magnanimity – it sounds like the progressive script in 2012. The moral impetus is inherent in the language of the Declaration, but government has to balance the practical against the good. As in 1776, Americans today are still asking: What should government do in order to provide comfort to those it governs? What should it not do? When does magnanimity become too much government?

The problem facing the two parties in this election year is that these questions are not being asked and answered honestly. We can hardly begin to discern the right course to take until we liberate our minds long enough to agree on what words mean. Let’s start with the one we avow every Fourth of July. “Freedom.” How is freedom measured?



Are we freer, or more liberty-loving, than the British today? Or the French or the Swedes or the Germans, all of whom magnanimously provide free healthcare to all within their borders? Those in this country who decry the Affordable Care Act, which they sneeringly call “Obamacare,” bring up plenty of bile in accusing an overreaching federal government of wanting to deprive individuals of their liberty. By the standards of 1776, their ideology is un-American. The oppressive and arbitrary power of private insurance companies, whose distinct lack of magnanimity toward ailing citizens is legend, pales in comparison to the damage a caring, if overly bureaucratized, Washington can do.

Knee-jerk reactions are dangerous. Buzzwords such as “big government” or “the Hollywood elite” are designed to make progressives appear as outsiders. The litmus test of “Do you believe in American exceptionalism or don’t you?” is perhaps the worst, because it wraps our well-enshrined national principle of magnanimity in hubris. A few years back, writing for the Financial Times Deutchland, Thomas Klau put it correctly: “In America, the collective image of foreign countries is a mythical one, preserved as if in formaldehyde, handed down from the time of the founding fathers.” The U.S., he said, “persists in describing itself as the freest country on earth, although by nearly every objective criterion, most European nations are more liberal and free than the United States.”

We are exceptional because we are the freest people on earth. That’s how the bombastic claim goes that nowadays causes America’s European allies to roll their eyes. As we wrote in Salon in April 2011, the trope of American exceptionalism is an artificial and superficial claim to infallibility. It grew over the decades as America grew in land and population. It was fed by aggressive westward expansion in the mid-19th-century (privileging white American freedom over Indians’ freedom); it hardened after the drama of World War II and the ensuing Cold War when we were anointed the leader of the Free World. The luster of exceptionalism should have dimmed when the Bush-Cheney crowd squandered the goodwill of the world after 9/11 by invading Iraq under false pretenses. But it hasn’t. Today, the question of exceptionalism is embedded in the useless, incendiary: “What is a real American?” The implied answer is: someone who uncritically embraces American exceptionalism.

For Thomas Jefferson, America did not become exceptional on July 4, 1776.  He and the other founders attached themselves merely to the promise of what America could become as a nation distinct from others. Exceptionalism was certainly not automatic, which is what today’s Republicans overlook when they attack President Obama (as Romney is wont to do) for not believing ardently enough in exceptionalism. It has become like a religious test – which, incidentally, Romney should be sensitive to, given that the Mormons of the late 19th century, prosecuted for the practice of polygamy, invoked the name of Thomas Jefferson in praying for inclusion in the American community.

The founders were not bewigged prophets. They did not grant posterity something called American exceptionalism on July 4, 1776. They were fighting a war, and they needed to define their purposes convincingly – in part to attract political recognition from the greater nations of Europe. Forget, for a moment, George Washington’s immovable gaze, Thomas Jefferson’s statuesque pose. Substitute for these images the complex machinations of self-interested men attaching themselves to competitive, land-hungry, occasionally hostile states. In the dark days of the Revolutionary War, after Gen. Cornwallis sent the traitor Benedict Arnold ashore in Virginia and the poorly defended countryside fell to his forces, prominent Virginians felt certain that the Pennsylvanians would not come to their aid. No one was feeling secure, exceptional or especially free.

The founders were not saints. They were politicians who had their good and bad days, who lived, as we do, with seemingly irremovable conflict, who misjudged and often overreacted. They well knew that the persistence of slavery threatened their moral standing in the world. Jefferson inserted a long paragraph in the Declaration, removed by Congress to assuage other Southerners, in which he unconvincingly blamed King George for preventing colonial assemblies from finding a way out of slavery. Before July 4, 1776, Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, launched a preemptive strike against the rebels, waging war against the planter class by declaring to poor whites and enslaved blacks that their interests lay with the British side and not their American oppressors, and freedom could be had by abandoning the Revolutionaries.

A week after the Declaration unanimously passed the Continental Congress, Virginia planter Robert Carter, who possessed 70,000 acres and owned more than 500 slaves, gathered his human property and read the document aloud to them. He offered them a choice. They could join Dunmore, and enlist in “the King’s service,” or they could remain in bondage. Without apparent guile, he asked whether they disliked their “present condition of life.” They proffered their allegiance to Carter, vowing “to use our whole might & force to execute your commands” – or so his diary reads.

Thus, the birth of the United States of America was messier than our textbooks over the years have painted it. As we noted in Salon last weekend, the political world inhabited by the Revolutionary generation cannot really be compared to ours – no one wanted to unleash the force of democracy or give the vote to ill-informed citizens. As early as Washington’s first term as president, one side (Hamiltonians) aimed to protect the interests of the wealthy, while the other side (led by Madison and Jefferson) feared that the wealthy would return the nation to government by an entrenched aristocracy. Political partisanship was as bitter at the beginning as it is now.

On this Fourth of July, we can be realistic about what America was and what America is, without sounding unpatriotic. Magnanimity is a good word, and America is still a good place if you want to try to better yourself while extending compassion and generosity to others.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>