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America's birthday and special purpose

American flag flying high and people
American flag flying high and people
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

America celebrates its birthday on this Fourth of July. But this day is not just for Americans, but for all peoples of the world, for all can take pride and joy in what happened nearly 240 years ago on the east coast of North America among thirteen tiny colonies declaring their independence from a despotic monarchy. It is, after all, a bold statement to proclaim that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with inalienable rights, that there is a “social compact” between rulers and ruled, that men are not to be subject to, nor servants of, authority without “rights”. This is what America stands for, and what needs to be revisited by every generation or else its poetry and profundity are diminished.

What this translates into is the doctrine of American Exceptionalism: the belief that America is special. In the double sense that it is superior, on the one hand, and that it is different, on the other. Not only in degree, but in kind. This has been and still is a powerful force in the country’s sense of itself. This is idealism of a high order that infuses policy with a conscious messianic mission which has not been without its problems. America’s origins go back to the Anglo-Protestant beginnings of the colonies. As early as 1630, when Americans-in-the-making numbered only a few thousand, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop, borrowing from the Gospel according to Matthew, famously said, “Consider that we shall be as a Citty [sic] upon a Hill, the eies [sic] of all people are upon us.”

Thus, from the beginning of its founding there was a deep-seated, central belief in America that she is the embodiment of a two-part idea -- the idea of liberty being an embodiment of God’s will. The later part, however, is rarely articulated and has become somewhat antiquated in this post-modern age. Nevertheless, this embodiment has ramifications when it comes to defining the relationship between America and the rest of the world.

This image of America as an embodiment of a “city upon a hill” was to have great durability. Three and a half centuries later this phrase was an essential part of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric. It was used repeatedly by him to denote the special and unique nature of this country and its people, and to restore their belief in themselves after the setbacks of the 1960’s and 1970s. From the belief in American Exceptionalism, it followed -- psychologically and somewhat logically -- that the United States had a mission, a manifest destiny, whether by policy or example, to empower, even change the world in its image. This conviction echoes down through American history. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again”, wrote Tom Paine in his pro-independence pamphlet, Common Sense (1776). Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, put it more providentially, “God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race . . . We are pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path.” Also, President Woodrow Wilson going into World War I said, “I believe that God planted in us the vision of liberty . . . I cannot be deprived of the hope that we are chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Even foreigners got into the act. Notable non-Americans who recognized that America is something special. Georg W. F. Hegel, a preeminent German philosopher wrote in 1831, “America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World's History shall reveal itself.”

Pretty heady stuff. The pressure was on, even at that early stage, that America was to prove that it was something quite different. This idea is not a reaction to the pervasive, progressive critiques of American policies and culture that has been sweeping the country for the last few decades. It is inherent. Therefore, from the beginning there was a current in America that saw itself as special and different, but not without justification.

America’s ascendancy in world history is not completely by accident or unintentional, but a consequence of many propitious events infused with an underlying sense of itself as fulfilling a natural human aspiration and, among many, a celestial promise. Today, a greater percentage of the world’s people are living in freedom, than at any other time in world history. Dare America lay claim for this auspicious turn of events? Notwithstanding the rather imperfect unfolding of our nation’s history, the argument could be made that she can. Therefore, it is not altogether inappropriate for the world to also share in celebration and gratitude for America’s birthday.