America used to be truly exceptional. In some respects it still is. But whereas
today’s America may be exceptional in terms of material wealth and human capital,
the exceptionalism of past was in thought. It was in the way people felt about
themselves, their neighbors, the state, and how they were all related. In many
ways the exceptional material aspects of today’s America are leftovers from
the exceptional thought of its earlier inhabitants.
Now, I know that today it’s not exactly politically correct to speak about
America as exceptional or as having had an exceptional history. But like all
PC vendettas, this is just silly. The concept of American Exceptionalism originally
(and still today by most historians or social scientists) did not imply any
sense of superiority or positivity. It was simply a term used to describe the
different path and development that America underwent due to being disjointed
from the aristocracy and political/sociological/economic systems of Europe.
But I, however, am using the term to imply something positive.
What was truly exceptional about American culture was the idea of the individual
being sovereign and superior to the state. The founders were far from perfect
and the Constitution did indeed do much to destroy the revolutionary individualistic
nature of both the Declaration of Independence and the rebellion alike (for
more information see this),
but the overall guiding principle began conceptually with the individual and
went from there.
And aside from politics, the individualistic culture of Americans persisted
strongly up until the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early
20th century. This revolutionary idea that you were the supreme
judge in the conduct of your own affairs and the government was there for a
specific job – security and arbitration – and if they left those boundaries you
would feel justified in defending yourself and acting outside the rules of the
We see the individualistic and rebellious nature reflected in Shay’s Rebellion,
The Whiskey Rebellion, the refusal of state militias to take part in the invasion
of Canada in The War of 1812*, the refusal of funds to finance
The War of 1812 by Northeastern Banks**, the Nullification
Crisis in South Carolina, stiff resistance to a central bank, the Texas Revolution,
abolitionist activity in defiance of State and Federal laws, the secession of
the Southern States, The 1863 New York City Draft Riots, homesteading, and countless
other examples. These instances – all of which the US (Federal, State, and local)
government attempted to crush – are indicative of the exceptional way of thinking
that many Americans of that time held. Individuals were supreme in their judgment
and decisions and were willing to fight to maintain that supremacy.
And this brings us to the…