American Exceptionalism

George Seaver


In his ongoing series of essays William Young shows effectively the widespread, nearly exclusive, teaching of an ideologically skewed “social justice” in U.S. colleges and universities. The opposite of social justice is American Exceptionalism, a result coming out of the constitutional republic the Founders created. This was the "pre-modern" focus in the teaching of American history. 

The Founders were practical men; they were not philosophers or inventors of new concepts. Their genius came in first understanding and then correcting the weaknesses of previous republics, notably those of classical Rome and Athens, and then, most importantly, implementing 18th century civil, religious and economic concepts in republican form, thus making possible the U.S. Constitution. This is what was to become the exceptionalism of the United States. The revolutionary accomplishment, what Montesquieu and the Anti-federalists said was impossible,1 was the forming of a consensus, what Cincinnatus through Cicero called public virtue, across an entire continent and over a large number of economic, ethnic, religious and racial groups, then called factions. This had never been done before or since; most countries that attempt reform fail for this reason, as recently demonstrated by, for example, the Soviet Union, the Balkans, Egypt and Libya. In the United States after 1970 public virtue has been greatly weakened by its opposite, "social justice", where groups not individuals, and privilege not equal opportunity form the ideology. This is what Madison termed "adverse to..the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."2 So, it is important to teach again the substance of American Exceptionalism.

Three Components of Exceptionalism

In order to teach American Exceptionalism, its origins and characteristics must first be understood: specifically, its dependence on civil, religious and economic rights. To understand how this exceptionalism came about we look at, not only what the Founders wrote of these concepts, but also their 18th century origins, and then how over time they came to reinforce each other. First we look at how the security for civil rights was conceived. 

Civil Rights

Most 18th century observers concluded that a republic had to be limited to a small population, geographic area and number of factions, such as the city-states of Athens and the early Roman republic. Montesquieu in 1748 stated the case: 

It is in the nature of a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it can scarcely continue to exist...In a large republic the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations.1

Madison in Federalist 10 described the challenges faced by a large republic: first, that 

The latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man" and secondly, that "The violence of faction.[are].the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.2

By 1734 the Enlightenment poet, Alexander Pope, began to describe a way out for a large republic. Pope's writings inspired the colonialists seeking political reform in the 1750's and, for example, were in the homes of Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams as they grew up in the 1750's and '60's.3

On their own axis as the planets run,

Yet make at once their circle round the sun,

So two consistent motions act the soul;

And one regards itself and one the whole.

Thus God and Nature link'd the gen'ral frame,

And bade self-love and social be the same.4   

This is the poet's Imperium in Imperio, later enacted in American federalism.5

In 1742 David Hume, England's foremost enlightenment philosopher, followed in his "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth"; he rejected the 

falsehood of the common opinion, that no state, such as France or Great Britain, could ever be modeled into a commonwealth, but that such a form of government can only take place in a city or small territory. The contrary seems probable. Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than a city; there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform, without tumult and faction...the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measure against the public interest.6

Finally, James Madison in 1787 summarized these trends in his Federalist 51:

The society itself will be broken into so many parts, interest, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.7

Madison generalized this competition: "This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interest, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public."7 This also presumed a level of public virtue, of motivation to the "permanent and aggregate interest of the community."2 The alternative of government intervention in civil rights was seen to be dangerous to a republic, to "turn against both parties".7

Religious Rights

The importance of religion to a republic was codified in the constitution of the colony and then the state of Massachusetts, begun in 1765 and completed in 1780. This was largely written by John Adams, became the template for the constitutions of many other states and reflected the general opinion of the Founders of the absolute necessity of religion in a republic. Massachusetts had a multitude of energetic sects and ensured their liberty and competition in its constitution, but still retained the potential for establishing a religion, which would not be removed until 1820. The Massachusetts Constitution was approved at the polls in June 1780 and its Chapter 1, Article II provided: 

"It is the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the SUPREME BEING, the great creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping GOD in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or, for his religious profession or sentiments, provided he does not disturb the public peace or obstruct others in their religious worship."8

With regard to the competition of religious sects, Voltaire, in 1734, noted in his "Letter on the Presbyterians" of England:  "If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace."9

Hume followed in 1754 in his Essays Moral, Political and Literary, where he learned that the "sect of Christians, who all have a strong tincture of enthusiasm, have always, without exception, concurred with that party [Whigs] in deference of civil liberty."10 Then in his 1778 History of England, he further described the evolution of the "sectaries" (and his own thinking on them): 

The political system of the Independents [Congregationalists] kept pace with their religions. Not content to confining, to very narrow limits, the power of the crown, and reducing the king to rank of first magistrate, which was the project of the Presbyterians; this sect, more ardent in the pursuit of liberty, aspired to a total abolition of the monarchy, and even of the aristocracy; and projected an entire equality of rank and order, in a republic, quite free and independent.11

This is what Madison relied on in his Federalist 51 "multiplicity of sects" and "degree of security on the number of sects" solution to civil and religious rights. 

Economic Rights

The concept of economic competition was first formalized by Adam Smith's 1776 Wealth of Nations, describing self-interested competition in a free (but restricted to national) market. He stated that when the individual 

intends only his own gain, and he is in this..led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intentions..By pursuing his own interests he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.12

He had used the "invisible hand" expression twice before with other meanings (morality, cosmic forces), as had Shakespeare in his plays; thus later observers had read much more into it than he was aware of at the time. This is similar to Madison's "competition of factions" clause; he also was not aware that this would lead to such a general success. In addition to the competition of economic factions, the state competition based upon the interstate movement of capital and labor soon became part of the economic component of American Exceptionalism. 

In Federalist 11, Alexander Hamilton looked at both the benefits of economic/commercial competition, as well as the necessity of constitutional regulation for it. This is the origin of Article IV, section 2 of the Constitution, the inter-state "Privileges and Immunities" of citizens: 

An unrestrained intercourse between the states themselves will advance the trade of each by an interchange of their respective productions...Commercial enterprise will have much greater scope from the diversity in production of the different states...Particular articles may be in great demand at certain periods and unsaleable at others; but if there be a variety of articles, it can scarcely happen that they should all be at one time in the latter predicament, and on this account the operations of the merchant would be less liable to any considerable obstruction or stagnation."13

However, Hamilton recognized that the highly valued "unbridled spirit of enterprise," without constitutional regulation, could cause "outrages," "reprises" and even "wars." In Federalist 7 he observed that: 

The habits of intercourse, on the basis of equal privileges, to which we have been accustomed since the earliest settlement of the country would give a keener edge to those causes of discontent... The spirit of enterprise, which characterizes the commercial part of America, has left no occasion of displaying itself unimproved. It is not at all improbable that this unbridled spirit would pay much respect to those regulations of trade by which particular states might endeavor to secure exclusive benefits to their own citizens...would naturally lead to outrages, and these to reprisals and wars.14

Many years later F. A. Hayek in his 1944 Road to Serfdom termed the resultant economic competition as the "free exercise of human ingenuity," and emphasized its dependence upon individual liberty: 

The...elaboration of a consistent argument in favor of economic freedom..had been the undesigned and unforeseen by-product of political freedom.

The result of this growth surpassed all expectations. Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed, man became rapidly able to satisfy ever widening ranges of desire...there was probably no class that did not substantially benefit from the general advance.15

Subsequent Synergistic Results

Forty years after the adoption of the Constitution an assessment was made as to the success of this competitive approach to civil, religious and economic rights. In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a 26-year old French aristocrat, spent 9 months during 1831 and 1832 traversing America. In 1835, he published these observations in his classic Democracy in America; it was so perceptive that it has become a classic in describing the essence of the American republic. In a letter to a friend in France on June 9, 1831 he revealed his amazement at what he found while visiting America: 

Imagine, my dear friend if you can, a society formed of all the nations of the world…people having different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character, yet a hundred times happier than our own."16

In 1942 Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish social scientist and Professor of International Economics at the University of Stockholm published his voluminous work, An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Professor Myrdal began with a paradox that America confronted him with: 

“dis-similarity throughout and chaotic unrest" on the one hand, yet "Americans of all national origins, classes, regions, creeds, and colors have..a social ethos, a political creed". When the reason for this is understood, he found, "the cacophony becomes a melody.17

 His research reveals, through polling and interviews, the remarkable coherence of the population: 

The unanimity around, and the explicitness of, this Creed is the great wonder of America. The "Old Americans", all those who have thoroughly come to identify themselves with the nation -which are many more than the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution - adhere to the Creed as the faith of their ancestors. The others - the Negroes, the new immigrants, the Jews, and other disadvantaged and unpopular groups - could not possibly have invented a system of political ideals which better corresponds to their interests. So, by the logic of the unique American history, it has developed that the rich and secure, out of pride and conservatism, and the poor and insecure, out of dire need, have come to feel that this spiritual convergence, more than America's strategic position behind the oceans and its immense material resources, is what makes the nation great and what promises it a still greater future.18

He also found that, regarding the "principles of social ethics": 

The schools teach them, the churches preach them. The courts pronounce their judicial decisions in their terms. They permeate editorials with a pattern of idealism so ingrained that the writers could scarcely free themselves from it even if they tried..The Negro people in America are no exception to the national pattern...They, like the whites, are under the spell of the great national suggestion."19

Also in 1944 Ralph Bunche, a collaborator of Gunnar Myrdal, a political scientist, diplomat, Nobel Peace Prizewinner, and a leader in the 1960's civil rights movement, spoke on American public virtue: 

Every man in the street, white, black, red or yellow, knows that this is "the land of the free", the "land of opportunity", the "cradle of liberty," the "home of democracy," that the American flag symbolizes the "equality of all men" and guarantees to us all "the protection of life, liberty and property," freedom of speech, freedom of religion and racial tolerance.20

Corrupted by Social Justice

Thus, the beginning of U.S. exceptionalism can be seen in Madison's 1787 Federalist Paper 51. But this was only to avoid a classic evil, the violence of faction. The evolved effect, leading to "exceptionalism", is that the synergistic results of the three individual rights far exceeded the Constitutionally intended "control of faction". Conversely, the consequences of reversing these principles in the late 20th century through the teaching and legislative imposition of social justice is beginning to be seen. For example, government preferences imposing "a power independent of society..[that] may turn against both parties,"7 and lead to "the poisoning of faction..that mortal disease under which popular government have everywhere perished," as Madison framed it, are now beginning to have observable effects. The recent factional violence within the Los Angeles Police Department is a clear demonstration of this.21,22,23

As William Young points out, contemporary university education asserts that the original constitutional concepts have to evolve, that a “living constitution” is required. At about the time that the Founders were writing the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, Beethoven and Mozart were composing their many symphonies. Modern interpretations of their works have been choreographed, but were notable failures, and so the U.S. Constitution and its Exceptionalism is greater then the sum of its many themes. We find that, just as a  "living" Beethoven is a failure, so to is a "living" Constitution. As in Beethoven and Mozart, the U.S. Constitution transcended its era. "If you can keep it" is how Benjamin Franklin conveyed this new constitution to the electorate. We can now do the same, and that begins with education.  


1.      Montesquieu, 1748: The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge University Press. pgs.  Book 8, Chapter 16.

2.      Madison, J., 1787: The Federalist Papers. Federalist No. 10. Ed. Isaac Kramnick,pgs. 124, 122. Penguin Books, NY.

3.      Withey, L., 1981: Dearest Friend. Simon and Schuster, NY. pg. 8.

4.      Pope, A., 1734: An Essay on Man: Epistle III.<>

5.      Bailyn, B., 1992: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. HUP, Cambridge, MA. pgs. 223-229, 337, 358.

6.      Hume, D. 1742: Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth. Part II, essay XVI,

7.      Madison, J,, ibid, Federalist  #51, pp. 321, 320, 321.

       8.      Adams, J., 1780: The Constitution of Massachusetts. In The Political Writings of John Adams. American Heritage Series by Bobbs-Merrill Co., NY. pg. 94.

9.      Voltaire, 1778: Letters on the English. Letter VI: "On the Presbyterians".

10.  Hume, D. 1754: Essays Moral, Political and Literary: Superstition and Enthusiasm.Essay X., pgs. 2, 3.

11.  Hume, D., 1776: The History of England. LVII, vol. 5 (1944).<>. pgs. 13, 14.

12.  Smith, Adam, 1776: Wealth of Nations. Vol. 2a, pg. 456.

       13.  Hamilton, A. 1787: Federalist Papers, Number 11, pg. 132. Penguin Books.

14.  Ibid., Number 7, pg. 111.

15.  Hayek, F., 1944: Road to Serfdom. Pg. 19, 20. University of Chicago Press.                     

16.  De Tocqueville, Alexis, 1831: Letter to Earnest  D. Chabral. June 9, 1831. Inin Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr., 1992: The Dis-uniting of America. W.W Norton, NY., Pg. 25.

17.  Myrdal, Gunnar, 1944: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Random House, NY. Pg. 3.

       18.  Ibid., Pg. 13.

       19.  Ibid., pg. 4.

      20. Ibid., pg. 4 and Bunche, R. 1940: "Conceptions and Ideologies of the Negro Problem". Unpublished  manuscript, Schomburg Collection, NY Public Library.

      21 USDJ, 2000, 2007: Law Enforcement Management and Administration Statistics, 2000. March 2004, NCJ 203350. Pgs 279. More recent reports here.

     22.   Dorner, C., 2013: Manifesto: To America. <>.                                             

     23.   Seaver, G., 2013: Comment, "Social Justice and Fairness". William Young, Feb. 14, 2014, NAS online articles.

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