Before sunrise on the morning of March 4, 1801, President John Adams left the White House and boarded a stage coach to return to his home and retirement in Massachusetts following his defeat in the election of 1800. Six hours later, Thomas Jefferson would take the oath as the third president of the United States.
Today, that seems a very ordinary political event. After all, defeated politicians leave office all the time. It has happened nine other times in the American presidency and hundreds of times in other countries around the world.
But it was anything but ordinary at the dawn of the 19th century. This was, in fact, the first time in all of human history that a head of state, defeated in a popular election, had peacefully ceded power to his opponent according to the dictates of a constitution.
It was an exceptional moment in world history, let alone American history.
The idea that the United States is an “exceptional country,” one that is fundamentally different from all others, has been widespread, especially since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. He often quoted the Puritan leader John Winthrop’s description of America as a shining “city on a hill,” an example for other countries to follow.
The Scottish political scientist Richard Rose wrote, shortly after the Reagan presidency, that “America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.”
In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville used the word exceptional only once but pointed out the many ways that the United States was very different from European countries and predicted, correctly, that still largely autocratic and aristocratic Europe would evolve toward America’s democratic system, not the other way around.
In the 1920s, American Communists noted that this country was simply not like other countries and therefore was an exception to Marx’s theories. Joseph Stalin then chastised them about this “American exceptionalism,” apparently the first use of the exact phrase.
Others, notably President Barack Obama, have scoffed at the idea. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama said in 2009. In a very narrow sense, those words were accurate. Portugal is exceptional because it is the only country in the world that makes Madeira wine. But as Richard Rose pointed out, the United States is so different, in so many ways, from all other countries, while sharing certain individual traits with others, especially the other children of England such as Canada and Australia, that it is in a whole different class.
Let’s look at some of the ways that this country is truly exceptional.
The United States Has Been Exceptionally Lucky
The United States is a child of England, a country that for much of its history had a small national government and a high degree of localized political control. And England, during most of the colonial era, treated its American colonies with benign neglect, allowing them to develop their own legislatures and so learn the arts of politics first hand. Thus, when independence came, the United States knew how to govern itself. Compare that with the Spanish colonies to the south. Spain’s colonial governments were strictly top-down, controlled by governors sent out from Madrid, and the locals had no say. When they achieved independence a generation after the United States, the new leaders in Latin America had to start at square one to learn how to govern. That took decades, even centuries, as the countries fell into tyranny and kleptocracy over and over.
The United States is also exceptionally lucky in its geography. While it is the third- (or fourth-, depending on definitions) largest country on earth, it is by far the most geographically diverse. It is the only country whose territory encompasses areas in the arctic, temperate, and tropical climate zones, with most of its territory in the most productive zone, the temperate. Its natural resources are both abundant and exceptionally diverse. There are only a handful of strategic minerals that the United States is forced to get from foreign countries—and many of those, such as industrial diamonds and nickel, are found in neighboring friendly Canada.
More, although the United States has the vast national territory and resources of a continental power, such as Russia and China, it borders on only two other countries, neither of which is any military threat. Thus, it long enjoyed the military security of an island power, such as Britain and Japan.
This fact, that the United States was virtually unattackable until missile technology developed in the mid-20th century, allowed it to maintain very small military forces as it developed. This allowed in turn the very low taxes that powerfully spur economic growth.
The American people made the most of it. Within a century of its founding, the United States had grown from an undeveloped country dependent on the export of raw materials to the largest and most dynamic economy in the world. This was an exceptional, not to say astonishing, achievement.
And this achievement was partially due to exceptionally lucky timing. At the time of independence, the United States had not yet developed an entrenched and politically powerful commercial sector. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, just in time to influence the development of the American economy with its advocacy of free markets and competition.
And because of its abundance, land was very cheap, both in the American colonies and after independence. But labor was always expensive compared with that in Europe. This shortage of labor led directly to “Yankee ingenuity,” for labor-saving devices were greatly valued in an economy where labor was costly. The first patent awarded to a colonial was in 1646, only a quarter century after New England was founded.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a cornucopia of American invention, unmatched by any other nation, transformed (or created) industry after industry, from McCormack’s reaper to Edison’s electric light to the Wright brothers’ airplane to Henry Ford’s affordable automobile to General Electric’s transistor to Steve Jobs’s iPhone. And while the United States has only 4.2 percent of the world’s population, it has won 42 percent of all Nobel prizes.
The geopolitical position of the United States on the globe has also proved extraordinarily fortuitous. It is the only great power that fronts on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and has unimpeded access to both. In an era of ever-increasing global trade, that puts the United States at, quite literally, the center of the world.
The United States Is Exceptional in Being Sui Generis
Before the United States, nations began as a people who, united by blood, language, and custom, came to regard themselves as a polity and to establish a territory within which they exercised sovereignty.
The Dutch did this in the late 16th century when they threw off Spanish rule, a legacy of the feudal era. Often, of course, these polities would later be conquered and disappear. The Etruscans, for instance, were absorbed into the expanding Roman state in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., and their language and culture vanished (although much of it, such as gladiatorial contests, had been adopted by the Romans). Sometimes, although conquered, a people would maintain their sense of nationhood and eventually reestablish their independence, as Poland did in 1918, after more than a century. Even more remarkable, Israel was reestablished in 1948 after two millennia.
The United States, however, invented itself not out of a common heritage but, uniquely, out of a common allegiance to a set of political principles. The people of the American colonies were, with some profound and horrible exceptions, similarly united by blood, language, and custom. But the blood and custom were British and the language English. The colonists of the mid-18th century regarded themselves as being an integral part of a much larger polity, the rapidly expanding British Empire.
But after the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, the colonists felt that the government in London was violating their ancient rights as Englishmen by trying to tax them. They rebelled because they wanted to continue to enjoy those rights. It was only at this moment, in the decade before the American Revolution, that the word American came into use to describe the inhabitants of British North America.
What were those ancient rights?
Much of Western political thought has always emphasized the importance of the individual, each created in the image of God. In medieval England, safe from foreign invasion behind its watery walls, the emphasis on the importance of the individual resulted in the flowering of the concept of liberty, both political and economic. Individuals, the English came to believe, were born with rights that no one, not even kings, could take away—for the king, like his subjects, was bound by the law. This idea—that the majesty of the law was separate and distinct from the king’s own majesty—is today encapsulated in the phrase “the rule of law.”
Founded in a war fought to protect those rights, the United States has ever since emphasized the rights of individuals more than any other country has, including its parent state. In the English Bill of Rights, for instance, enacted in December 1689, all but one of the provisions limit the powers of the king or establish the powers of Parliament. All but one of the provisions of the American Bill of Rights protect the rights of individuals and limit the powers of the state.
In addition, the American colonies were (with the key exceptions of slaves and transported prisoners) populated by individuals who had chosen to come to what in the beginning was, in the words of one Puritan immigrant, “a howling wilderness.” This took a great deal of courage, self-confidence, and ambition. It seeded the future population with the idea that risk-taking was a noble pursuit.
Even today, when immigrants can come by jet, it still takes guts to leave all you have ever known and loved and come to a strange country, often needing to learn a strange language, in hopes of making a better life for yourself and your posterity. And while this has now been duplicated in many other countries of the New World and Oceania, it began with what became the United States, which continues to be an exceptional magnet for the ambitious and the daring. If we Americans are exceptional for our get-up-and-go—and we are—it is because we all have ancestors who got up and came. That is why other countries regard Americans the way Americans regard Texans: brash, self-assertive, and confident.
Indeed, the United States is the only country in the world with a huge national monument—the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor—memorializing the diverse immigrant origins of the American people who came in search of an abstraction called liberty. And today the United States is, by far, the most multiethnic and multiracial society on earth.
Because it was based on a set of political principles, not a common history, the United States is also exceptional in that it became an independent state long before it became a nation. For while the American union was created in the Revolution and its immediate aftermath, that union was a very fragile one. The American nation, one and indivisible, was forged only on the awful anvil of the Civil War, nearly a century later.
The United States Constitution Is Exceptional
Before the United States, countries were governed by ancient custom more than anything else. Not a single country in the 18th century had a written constitution. But with independence, the United States found itself with neither law nor government. The individual states and the confederation government quickly adopted the English common law, but the king and Parliament were gone. The new country needed to build a new form of government. American government could not develop organically as other governments of the time had. Instead it was created by amateur political scientists over the course of a hot Philadelphia summer in 1787, out of whole cloth, a very exceptional event indeed.
Fortunately these men were deeply learned in the political theories of the Enlightenment. But, crucially, they were also deeply aware of the realities of human nature. They knew that men are not angels. They understood that self-interest is a powerful and ineluctable force in human affairs that must always be taken into account in order to develop enduring institutions and successful policies. Brilliantly, they consciously used the force of self-interest as a means of preventing tyranny.
They sought a government that would be both powerful enough to carry out its duties, but not so powerful that it could trample on the rights of individuals or evolve into a tyranny. To do this, they designed a government of three coequal branches, each with specified powers. They were confident that the members of each branch would be zealous in safeguarding that branch’s given powers, thus preventing any one branch from becoming over powerful.
By making states sovereign within their own spheres, they guaranteed another countervailing force to an overweening central government.
Out of the constitutional convention came not only the world’s first constitution but what is today the oldest constitution of a sovereign government. (The constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is even older, however, established in 1780.)
As to how exceptional the U.S. Constitution is, consider this. The government it established came into being 11 weeks before the French Revolution began in 1789. Since then, France has seen three kingdoms, two empires, and five republics. The United States—now vastly larger, vastly richer, and vastly more complex economically, technologically, and demographically than it was at its birth—is still governed by that same constitution hammered out in 1787.
Indeed, it has been amended only 27 times. Of those 27, 10 were the Bill of Rights that had been promised in order to get the Constitution ratified, and these had no effect on the structure of the government. Of the 15 remaining, 11 are essentially tweaks, such as the 20th, which moved Inauguration Day from March 4 to January 20. Only the 13th, which ended slavery; the 14th, which guaranteed birthright citizenship and dealt with the consequences of the Civil War; the 15th, which guaranteed the right to vote to all citizens; the 17th, which provided for the popular election of senators; and the 19th, which gave the vote to women, were substantive.
To put it simply, the creation of the United States Constitution was the most successful act of statecraft in human history.
The fidelity of the United States to its fundamental law is also exceptional. In 1864, the United States became the first nation ever to hold a national election in the middle of a great war, because that was what the Constitution called for. One hundred and fifty-four years later, it remains the only nation to have done so.
In 1937, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt, who had been overwhelmingly reelected the previous year, tried to change the way Supreme Court justices were appointed in order to develop a court more friendly to his policies. The Constitution allows this to be done by statute. But despite the fact that the Democrats utterly dominated both the Senate (by 76 to 20) and the House (by 334 to 101), public opposition was so intense that the attempt failed. It was Roosevelt’s first major political defeat.
The United States Is Exceptional in Its Expansionism
In 1783, with independence from Britain estab-lished, American territory consisted of the original 13 states and a vast unorganized and largely unoccupied territory to the west, stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. It was, in effect, an American empire. But unlike earlier empires, which were governed and exploited for the benefit of the sovereign power, it did not remain one. Instead, according to the dictates of the Constitution, this territory was developed into states that, once admitted to the Union, became the equals in sovereignty and representation of the original 13.
As the country expanded westward, this process continued until there were a total of 50 states stretching from the Atlantic to halfway across the Pacific Ocean. Rather than lording it over these lands, America became one with them.
To be sure, the United States in its early history engaged from time to time in imperialism. But that word, coined only in 1851, did not acquire pejorative connotations until the very end of the 19th century. Until then, it was one of the settled tenets of foreign policy for all nations, from the dawn of civilization to modern times, that if a neighboring country was weak, that fact should be exploited to acquire additional territory. If a country had the power to aggrandize against a neighbor, it almost invariably did so.
And in its early days, so did the United States. It sought to conquer Canada in the War of 1812, a spectacular failure. It conquered what had been an almost entirely unoccupied Mexican empire in the 1840s and within half a century had turned it into several self-governing American states.
The country’s largest foreign possession, the Philippines, had been militarily subjected to American control in the Philippine Insurrection, which lasted from 1899 to 1902. But independence for the Philippines was a domestic American issue from the first, as by that time many felt that imperialism was simply un-American. As early as 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote of the Philippine people, “We hope to do for them what has never been done for any people of the tropics—to make them fit for self-government after the fashion of really free nations.” By 1916, the Philippines was fully internally self-governing, and it was a sovereign nation by 1946.
And although the United States was, by far, the biggest winner in geopolitical terms in both World War I and World War II, it was the only great power in those conflicts that did not seek or acquire any additional territory as a result of them. I can think of no comparable behavior by other nations in all of world history.
Indeed, with victory in each of those wars, rather than exploit its overwhelming military power for its own benefit at the expense of other countries, the United States immediately and radically reduced the size of its armed forces. If it has served as the world’s policeman since, it has done so only because no other nation has been capable of fulfilling that duty, and no country has ever fulfilled that duty so selflessly.
The United States Has Always Been Exceptionally Rich, and That Wealth Has Been Exceptionally Widely Distributed
Toward the end of the colonial era, British North America had the highest per capita income in the world. The soldiers of the Continental Army were, on average, two inches taller than their counterparts—and often close cousins—in the British army they were fighting. That could be only because Americans were much better fed as children.
American wealth creation continued at a breathtaking pace, and many great fortunes were established. John Jacob Astor was worth at least $20 million when he died in 1848, a year when federal revenues were only $36 million. Each generation has seen new and greater fortunes. In 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt was worth $105 million. In 1916, John D. Rockefeller was worth $2 billion. Today, Jeff Bezos is worth $160 billion.
But this fortune-making did not result in the development of an aristocracy. The idea of primogeniture, wherein the eldest son inherits the bulk of the family’s fortune, never caught on in this country, and perpetual trusts are illegal. Fortunes split ever more widely among heirs soon ceased to be extraordinary. None of the names of the legendary fortunes of the Gilded Age—Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller, Morgan, Harriman, for instance—are to be found on today’s Forbes 400 List. And two-thirds of the fortunes on the Forbes List today were essentially self-made, not inherited.
And beneath these glittering fortunes, the average American family has had a higher standard of living than those of any other country since colonial times.
The United States Is Exceptionally Philanthropic
Europe has no tradition of major philanthropy by its wealthiest citizens. The United States does. Beginning with the banker George Peabody and the industrialist Peter Cooper in the mid-19th century, men of great fortunes began to use major parts of those fortunes to establish eleemosynary institutions on a grand scale. Today American museums, libraries, universities, opera houses, hospitals, foundations, and scientific institutes by the thousands were established by and are maintained by private money. Even parks such as Jackson Hole and the Virgin Islands National Park are the result of private money. No other nation has anything remotely comparable.
New York City was only very briefly a national capital. So while the cultural glories of London and Paris are largely the expression of the power and majesty of great states, those of New York, every bit the equal of Paris and London—the Metropolitan Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Public library (the largest library in the world not owned by a sovereign state)—are the creations of its own citizens’ generosity.
Even on a smaller scale, Americans on average give far more money to worthy causes than do the citizens of other countries. In 2009, individual Americans gave $227 billion ($737 per capita) to charity. Bequests and corporate and foundation giving that year amounted to another $78 billion.
To be sure, poverty has not been eradicated in the United States. But poverty is a relative term. No one today lives at a poverty level remotely like that of New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century or the sharecroppers of the 1930s South, so hauntingly depicted in the photographs of Walker Evans. Today’s American poor have cellphones, television, decent clothing, ample food, and medical care. The windows of public-housing projects, whose inhabitants are, by definition, poor, bristle with air-conditioners.
The United States Is Exceptionally Religious
Perhaps because so many of the early immigrants to the American colonies—the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, the Huguenots of many colonies—came here in order to worship God in their own ways, this country has always been exceptionally religious.
Religious fervor has swept over the American population on several occasions, such as the Great Awakening in the middle of the 18th century and the Second Great Awakening a century later. Several major religions, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), Seventh-day Adventist, and Christian Science, are wholly of American origin.
It remains so to this day, with far higher Sabbath attendance at services than in other Western countries. About 31 percent of Americans go to religious services at least once a week. Only 18 percent of Americans never go to church, synagogue, or mosque.
The United States Is Exceptional in Its History of Race Relations
Slavery and its aftermath have been one of the main drivers of American history.
While slavery today is universally regarded as a moral abomination, that attitude is a relatively recent one in human history; it became widespread only in the middle of the 18th century. But once it did, it spread with remarkable speed through the body politic. Only a quarter century later, in 1780, Pennsylvania passed an act providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves, the first emancipation act in world history.
Other northern states soon followed. Even in the South, where the slave population was concentrated, slavery seemed to be on the way out. Many slave holders, such as George Washington, freed their slaves on their own death. The moral evil that was slavery was withering.
But then Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which separated cotton from seeds and made it the world’s most important product. Cotton cultivation, hugely profitable, spread rapidly through the American South. Since cotton is a labor-intensive crop, slavery began to grow again. The North, where slavery had almost entirely disappeared by 1830, became ever more anti-slavery, while the South, much of its capital tied up in slaves, stubbornly defended its “peculiar institution.”
The result was the greatest war in American history. But while the Civil War ended slavery and, at least in theory, the political inferiority of blacks, a virulent racism continued and flourished. Legal segregation in both schools and public facilities was the norm in many states and social segregation the norm in almost all of American society. The American armed forces were segregated. Over 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
Theodore Roosevelt was greatly criticized for inviting the distinguished black academic Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, and it would be 30 years before another African American was invited there. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, nominated for best supporting actress for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind had to sit at a table alone with her husband at the preceding dinner (she won the award, however).
And then, astonishingly, over the course of only about 20 years, this deep and pernicious system was extirpated from American society. The armed forces (and Major League Baseball) were integrated in 1947. Legal segregation in education ended in 1954. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effected a revolution as the legal instruments of black suppression were voided. By the 1980s, the racism that had been so much an open and accepted part of American life for centuries had almost entirely vanished. In 2008, an African American was elected president, something that had been inconceivable only a half century earlier.
All this was not done easily and resistance at first had been intense. But it was done with a remarkable lack of bloodshed when compared with profound social revolutions in other countries. If this country’s former racism is a deep stain on its honor, and it is, the speed and thoroughness with which it was banished from the law and from the public space through democratic and almost entirely peaceful means are nothing less than astounding.
Indeed it is beyond exceptional. It is utterly unprecedented in the world’s long history of intranational racial, religious, and social animosities. And the United States has fewer political fault lines between its many ethnic and racial groups than any other multiethnic and multiracial country. We are, indeed and at last, e pluribus unum.
The United States Is Exceptional in the Wealth, Depth, and Spread of Its Culture
In the 19th century, talented Americans had to go to Europe to learn their art, and American culture, except for its literature, was no more than a minor backwater. That changed in the 20th century—the American Century, in the phrase of publisher Henry Luce. American cultural creativity exploded in that century and spread worldwide.
American music (gospel, country and western, rock and roll, Broadway, jazz, bluegrass, ragtime, and many others), American food (fast food especially), American clothing from blue jeans to haute couture (New York, not Paris, is now the center of the fashion world), American movies, and even the word OK have been adopted by most other countries.
This was not accomplished by force of arms, which is what spread Roman culture (although almost every country where the United States military has had an extended presence has adopted baseball as a popular sport). American culture has spread far and wide because it resonates powerfully with what makes us all human.
None of this is to say that the United States is perfect. Americans, like everyone else on earth, are individually miserable sinners. We can, and do, let self-interest guide our actions to the detriment of the country as a whole, much as Southern planters did before the Civil War.
The country’s lawyer-riddled legal system and its special-interest-dominated tax system are each a national disgrace. So is a nearly wholly dysfunctional Congress, which hasn’t passed a budget—its fundamental duty—on time (or, in some years, at all) in more than 20 years.
But the United States, as it proved in the civil-rights movement, is capable of reform at a very deep level. America has always been exceptionally willing to change its way when needed. So in this regard, as in so many others, Joseph Stalin and Barack Obama are wrong. Alexis de Tocqueville and Ronald Reagan are right. America is indeed a most exceptional country.