John Locke said it well: “in the beginning, all the world was America.”
Since its inception, America has been different and special. Never ordinary. No class systems or caste systems. No monarchs, royals, lords, and ladies and addressing a mortal human being as “your majesty.” Indeed, George Washington eschewed the title of “His Highness, the President of the United States.”
When Washington decided to return to his farm after America won the Revolutionary War and give up his military position, King George III of Great Britain said that this made Washington “the greatest man in the world.”
Washington made a further world impact when he stepped down voluntarily after two terms as President. No one forced Washington to do this.
Our American ideal is to fight over our principles but to defend the right to have that debate about those issues. Americans may disagree vehemently over what the Constitution means, but the opportunity to engage in that debate is sacrosanct.
Testimonial to Limited Government
Our Constitution is a testimonial to limited government. Alexander Hamilton said it best:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. (Federalist Papers No. 51)
It is not enough to provide government with enough power to govern, but (more importantly), checks and balances must be put in place to make sure that government does not spin out of control. As Lord Action famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Dictators make sure that they have complete power and no controls at all.
America’s government is a lesson plan in limited government. The concept of limited government set this nation apart from the beginning. The military does not run the country; the president is the commander-in-chief.
We have had some recent experience with dictators. Vladimir Putin launched an aggressive war against Ukraine on his own, and Xi Jinping is the unchecked leader for life of China. Facial recognition and surveillance are ubiquitous in China. Human rights are suppressed. Is it even believable that in the 21st century, a group of speech therapists in Hong Kong were recently convicted of sedition for publishing children’s books about sheep warriors battling evil wolves? The regime thought there was a hidden message about rebellion. Throughout the world, we see the suppression of freedom of speech and expression. Not in America, however.
The people of the world have been inspired throughout history by Jefferson’s majestic words in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” This statement was meant not just for Americans but for the entire world, and for posterity. Indeed, the Declaration makes clear that the Founding Fathers wanted to explain to the world what they were doing and that they understood that they were creating something unique in world history. Says the Declaration, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation” from Great Britain.
The founding fathers wanted to describe how and why America could achieve what had never been done before – seceding from an empire (where the sun never set, no less!)
A City on the Hill
The Puritans came to the Massachusetts Bay to flee religious persecution. For the Puritans, said John Winthrop, their settlement would be like “a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” President Ronald Reagan was inspired by this idea and applied it to America as a shining city on a hill to the world. In his farewell speech to the nation in 1989, Reagan said “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life… in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…”
Since its inception, America has been a haven for those seeking freedom of expression and freedom of opportunity, the chance to pursue a better life and breathe the fresh air of freedom.
There is something different about America, which has attracted millions over these centuries. America has been there to help the oppressed and to spread freedom in the world. Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus”, says it poignantly: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” America has beckoned to millions of immigrants throughout our history. One cannot forget the impression of America by a penniless immigrant from Europe on arriving in the New York harbor in The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan:
When the discoverers of America saw land at last they fell on their knees and a hymn of thanksgiving burst from their souls. The scene, which is one of the most thrilling in history, repeats itself in the heart of every immigrant as he comes in sight of the American shores…The immigrant’s arrival in his new home is like a second birth to him. Imagine a new-born babe in possession of a fully developed intellect. Would it ever forget its entry into the world? Neither does the immigrant ever forget his entry into a country which is, to him, a new world in the profoundest sense of the term and in which he expects to pass the rest of his life. I conjure up the spectacle as it appeared to me on that clear gorgeousness of that clear June morning: the magnificent verdure of Staten Island, the tender blue of sea and sky, the dignified bustle of passing craft… It was all so utterly unlike anything I had ever seen or dreamed of before. It unfolded itself like a divine revelation. I was in a trance or in something closely resembling one. “This, then, is America!”
America has been there throughout our history sacrificing our national treasure, our young people, so that people everywhere can live freely and without religious or political persecution.
Our Consitution and Theirs
Madison worried that the founding documents would be mere “parchment barriers,” but our Constitution and Declaration of Independence have remained strong and influential throughout our history. Indeed, and ironically, many nations have had “constitutions,” but these are truly not worth the paper they are printed on.
The constitution of the Soviet Union guaranteed freedom of religion, freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience, but in point of fact, none of these freedoms were actually available to the people of the USSR, because of the primacy of the Communist Party and Soviet law which provided that the censorship bodies had the power to exercise “ideological leadership.”
As Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated in his concurring opinion in a recent case, “In our system of government, as this Court has often stated, no one is above the law.”
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he observed the uniqueness of America and the fact that America was a democracy. He noted that:
If there is a single country in the world where one can hope to appreciate the dogma of the sovereignty of the people at its just value, to study it in its application to the affairs of society, and to judge its advantages and its dangers, that country is surely America.
America has been a beacon to the world, a light in the darkness.
The Rule of Law
America is committed to the rule of law, not only domestically, but also throughout the world. When American naval vessels ships traverse the South China Sea, they are not doing so just for America’s safety and freedom. They are there promoting freedom of navigation so that the entire world can have that freedom, and China cannot claim territory belonging to other nations.
Our foreign policy has always been oriented to supporting international law and international comity, often to the detriment of American national interests. America has the pre-eminent military in the world which has saved the world on many occasions from utter catastrophe in order to achieve peace and stability. In foreign policy, America has functioned as the main balancer of world stability.
It would have been very easy for America to succumb to its isolationists and sit out World War I, World War II and the Korean War, and many other world conflicts, but America was there on the march for freedom. Who else would have done this? Only America, the extraordinary and exceptional country, has been a bastion of freedom in a world in chaos.
In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island on September 9, 1790, George Washington observed that
[T]he citizens of the United States of America have the right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy worthy of imitation.
Americans, indeed, should be proud of what we have accomplished and our contributions to the world. These actions have made America stand out as a unique and extraordinary force for good in the world. America is truly the exceptional nation and is not in any way (nor has it ever been) ordinary.
Mark Meirowitz, Ph.D., is professor, State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College.