Has the United States lost the set of civic values that made it exceptional among nations?
Today is the 236th anniversary of America's declaration of independence from the British monarchy. Parades, celebrations and fireworks will mark the occasion in cities and towns throughout the United States. The Globalist marks the occasion with a new "Thomas Paine" series on the meaning, evolution and demise of American exceptionalism.
In the beginning, American exceptionalism was a simple idea: Citizens are sovereign. "We the People of the United States" are the most electrifying words of the Constitution.
"We the people" were captains of our fate and masters of our souls. We governed ourselves. We weren't governed by the military, special interests or political parties. We weren't governed by the left or the right. We were governed by the Constitution. The Constitution created a republic to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Americans held this truth above all to be self-evident.
The federal government had limited power over citizens in the American Republic. The Founders rejected democracy because it didn't go far enough in protecting the individual from the tyranny of the majority. And they rejected a strong executive because it would give one citizen too much power over all other citizens.
American exceptionalism — a government tailored for the rights of the individual — was threatening to governments based on monarchy, ruling classes, tribes and colonial occupations. Europeans regarded America as a dangerous nation.
Oliver Wendell Holmes called self-government the American experiment. The Founders knew the republic was the most vulnerable form of government.
Benjamin Franklin expressed this succinctly when he was asked at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government the Founders had just established. "A republic," Franklin said, "if you can keep it."
The Founders were ambitious and set a high a bar for themselves and subsequent generations. While providing individuals more legal protections than a democracy, a republic demands greater citizen involvement.
As citizens, we have a sacred duty to conserve government by the active — not passive — consent of the governed. A people of sheep will beget a government of wolves.¹ The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is a brave heart.² There's no free lunch in a republic.
Americans aren't exceptional because we were born in or immigrated to America. Americans aren't exceptional as a nation-state. Americans can only be exceptional as individuals. And Americans can only be exceptional if we are well informed and willing to make hard choices and take risks. Apathy, ignorance and risk aversion are the death sentence of the American experiment.
Democracy can exist by electing strong executives and rubber-stamping their decisions. A republic can't. A republic tries the soul of every citizen. A republic can't tolerate summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who shrink from the hard work of self-government.
That is why the idea of American exceptionalism begins and ends with the individual citizen. The price of the Republic is the acceptance of risk and tolerance of failure by citizens.
An antidote to militarism
History taught America's Founders that war is the surest path to a strong executive. That is why the Founders went to great lengths to make it so difficult for the nation to go to war. More than half of the Constitutional Convention was spent debating the proper role of the three branches in war. Because war increases its power, the executive could not be trusted to keep the nation out of war.
The Founders gave Congress the power to declare war, fund war and impeach the president. The Founders gave the judiciary the power to protect individual rights during war and see that the executive lived within the limits of the Constitution.
George Washington warned against "permanent alliances" and "passionate attachments" to foreign countries because they increased the likelihood of war and the size of government. Thomas Paine mused that "taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes."
The Founders didn't create a standing army out of fear it would become a constituency for war. Large banks were also viewed as a special interest that would undermine the republic. But no threat outside the republic would ever rival the existential threat of ignorance and apathy among it citizens.