Both America and the rest of the world are coming to terms with the idea of America as a hyperpower. There is no longer a question of whether America is merely the strongest of a number of advanced industrial countries; even among them, people are starting to divide the developed world into America and the rest.
This exceptional position for America has a number of implications, and in future columns I intend to discuss some practical consequences of these developments. However, to talk intelligently about America's exceptional position, it's worth considering this question: Has America come to this position because it is an exceptional nation, or is this American exceptionalism really just a particular instance of a wider phenomenon of which America is only the most visible part?
This may seem like an excruciatingly academic and theoretical question, but it is one with real, deep and immediate consequences. If America is unique, then it is likely that either any nation can become like America, or none can.
If, on the other hand, America is what it is because it is part of some wider phenomenon, then we can use that as a guide as to which countries are most likely to be our most useful allies and partners.
There is a longstanding school of American exceptionalism. It holds that America was born as a unique phenomenon in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence articulated a previously unheard philosophy of democratic republicanism. This touched off a spontaneous generation of a new nation among the peoples of the earth, culminating in the pristine creation of the American constitution as a new and unprecedented phenomenon.
This is an extraordinary and inspiring narrative. However, it is neither true nor useful. Ironically an older narrative, one most of the Revolutionaries of 1776 themselves held, is in fact more true and more useful. By clinging to the creationist narrative that holds that America formed itself from scratch out of a group of disparate British colonies in 1776, Americans cut themselves off from the greater part of their history, and the part that is in many ways the most instructive.
To understand the world view of the revolutionaries of 1776, it's worth undertaking a thought experiment. Imagine that for some reason in the near future a group of states of the United States were to secede from the Union. However such an event would start or develop, can there be any doubt that all discussion of the events would be conducted in the shadow of the memory of the American Civil War and Reconstruction?
Now consider that those events, whose repercussions are with America still every day, lay a 100 to 150 years in our past. Then consider that England's civil war and the Revolution of 1688 lay about the same length of time in the past of the revolutionaries and loyalists of 1776.
To read the actual writings of the participants of the revolution, both the Congressional and Crown sides (as they called themselves), is to see them trying on the roles of Royalists and Roundheads, as any participants in a secession crisis today would automatically tend to see themselves in the Lincoln or Lee roles.
The actual revolutionaries of 1776 saw themselves as English, fighting against a backsliding of established English rights. Whatever Paul Revere said on his famous ride, it was almost certainly not "The British are coming," given that the militiamen of New England were describing themselves as fighting "in defense of English rights." Actual correspondence describes Revere as warning of the approach of the ministerial troops, that is, of Prime Minister Lord North.
As Gary Wills pointed out in his study of the Declaration of Independence, the principles of its preamble -- which the exceptionalist narrative sees as revolutionary and shocking -- drew almost no comment in the storm of Loyalist pamphlets seeking to refute the Declaration. It was accepted as routine British constitutional theory, merely restating the principles of 1688. They concentrated their fire on the list of grievances, trying to demonstrate that although the colonies might have a right to rebel in theory, the actual grievances did not justify such a rebellion.
The American Revolution did not shock Europe nearly as much as the English Revolution, for while the Americans defied a king, the English had decapitated one. Likewise, the constitution of 1789 was not the beginning of America's constitutional tradition, but its continuation. This tradition was deeply steeped in the English Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, and the long history of charters, both the colonial charters and their predecessors in England.
The writing of the revolutionaries in the years before 1776 frequently uses the terms "Constitution" and "constitutional," for the Revolutionaries particularly saw Lord North's actions as deeply violating the English Constitution. When studied up close, there is little in America that does not have an English precedent -- even democratic republicanism.
Why is all this ancient history important? One reason is that the exceptionalist narrative cuts Americans off from their own history. Our rights were not invented by abstract thinkers in a room in Philadelphia one summer. Each of those rights was won by hard struggle over a period of centuries, and each was a lesson learned the hard way.
If we cut ourselves off from the wider historical experience of the English-speaking peoples, we cut ourselves off from the struggle and the lessons. These lessons were constantly on the minds of the revolutionaries of 1776 and the constitutional founders of 1789. We can't really understand our own society unless we know them as well.
We value trial by jury partly because we, the English-speaking peoples, experienced the arbitrary judgement of Star Chamber. We value freedom of religion because we saw how people suffered in the state's pursuit of the "One Perfect Church," whether Catholic, Puritan, or Anglican. We value freedom of speech because we suffered the censors of Charles and Cromwell. We value civilian control of the military because we experienced the New Model Army dispersing Parliament at gunpoint. We value elected representatives' control of taxation because we experienced King John's men extracting taxes at swordpoint.
The other peoples who shared these historical experiences have many of the same values because they shared many of the same lessons. This does not mean that the Americans, the English, the Australians and all the rest are not separate and distinct nations. Time and tides have pushed us apart in some ways and back together again in others.
Recent events have shown these shared values continue to make a difference. In Afghanistan, as in East Timor, the first forces committed to the fight were those of the English-speaking nations. This was not a coincidence; it is the result of shared values.
America is what it is today, for better or for worse, because it grew not from the abstract theorizing of a few people, but from a long tradition, older than America itself, that included individualism, enterprise, progress, real and enforceable rights, and above all freedom. Wherever our particular genetic ancestors came from, we are the cultural heirs of this tradition, and it has provided the firm foundation for what we have achieved.
To contact James Bennett, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
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