America is not exceptional because it is better than any other country; it is exceptional because it is different from any other country. Exceptional means different, not better. While most nations find purpose around a common ethnicity, culture, religion, or history, America is different because it was founded on the principles of liberty and self-governance.
Liberty is the essential idea of America. The Declaration of Independence is famous for proclaiming the rational for America’s independence from England, but it also declares the principles of Liberty and constitutional government upon which America is conceived: that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The ideas were not new. The American founders combined principles from the Judeo-Christian culture of the Colonies with the best of contemporary political philosophers (John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, David Hume, and others) to form a government based on the sovereignty of the people. The whole organization of the government was based on the right, and the capacity, of the people to govern themselves! This new form of government had, according to James Madison, “no model on the face of the earth.” It is this idea — that men can and should govern themselves — that makes America different from all other nations. It is what makes America exceptional.
“It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history.”
– Calvin Coolidge, on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence
Many of the founders were uncertain, if not skeptical, that the grand experiment of self-government could endure. Following the deliberations of the of the Constitutional Convention one day, a woman reportedly asked Benjamin Franklin whether we would have a republic or a monarchy. Franklin famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
If You Can Keep It
Franklin’s concern, it turns out, was well-founded. The way our government operates today is a significant departure from the founding principles of Liberty and self-government. Rather than the government serving the people, the people increasingly serve the government. If we are to restore America’s founding principles–if we are to keep it–we must commit to reading and studying our founding documents as the founders intended them to be understood.
We recently celebrated Independence Day. Now that the picnics and fireworks are over, and vacations are in the rear-view mirror, I encourage you to spend a few minutes reading and reflecting on the Declaration of Independence. I hope the principles proclaimed in this document will inspire you in the same way that they inspired the founders to “bring forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty…”