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Rediscovering American Exceptionalism

Friday, July 12, 2013

In his latest book, Charles Murray says that today's America would be unrecognizable to our Founding Fathers.

If I could wish for just one thing this summer, it would be for 310 million Americans to spend an hour and a half reading American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History, by Charles Murray.

Dr. Murray’s fast-moving primer wastes not a single word as it moves crisply through the story of America’s early years, synthesizing what European visitors observed of our nation’s unusual DNA in the 18th and 19th centuries. His imaginative account lands on a pointed question about what course we will choose for our future. 

By any objective standard, we were exceptional in our beginnings. Murray describes our circumstances in 1789 at the moment of George Washington’s presidential inauguration as though we are firsthand observers:

Four million people, spread out over 13 colonies stretching from New England to Georgia, have separated themselves from the world’s greatest power and then invented a new nation from scratch. That all by itself makes the United States unique and it also makes it impossible to predict what might happen next.

In the pages that follow, he describes the Founders’ vision for the Great Seal that appears on today’s dollar bill: novus ordo seclorum, “a new order of the ages.” Our exceptionalism does not imply U.S. superiority, but rather our historic distinctiveness — and the qualities — observed throughout our first century as a new nation. 

In addition to an exceptional geographic setting — our being separated by oceans to the East and West, along with America’s longstanding frontier, which beckoned courageous and hardworking individuals — the ideology on which the United States was founded was exceptional. The Founders were at once deeply optimistic and pessimistic about the right to self-government as well as the ability of individuals to actually do so, yielding a new way for citizens to interact with those in authority over them — an idea that still resonates with most Americans.

Moreover, Alexis de Tocqueville perceived that self-interest rightly understood was “an idea that permeated the nation,” Murray says. This shared creed and unique cultural atmosphere helped foster distinct American qualities: industriousness, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life, to name four.

Alongside our deep-seated egalitarian impulse, an American abhorrence to class distinctions — and our revulsion at those who might look down on the poor — helped create a vibrant civic culture. As Max Weber described it, “a buzzing complex of strictly exclusive, yet voluntary associations” was uniquely American. Our Protestant work ethic, reinforced by three Great Awakenings, fused American religious life with an entrepreneurial, hard-working impulse, creating a civic culture unlike any the world had previously seen. 

                                               Murray Exceptionalism Insert 

Just as oceans self-selected for immigrants willing to work hard, our western frontier required good neighborliness, which was essential to surviving the dangers of uncharted territory. Henry Adams said that Thomas Jefferson’s America embodied an “instinct of activity” which, “once created, seemed heritable and permanent in the race”. 

And now to the trillion-dollar question: are we still exceptional today? Murray’s concise, seven-page chapter presents a mixed picture, and for all who care deeply about the future of our country, his words are both hopeful and sobering. America remains a land of opportunity, yet we have also become a people whose most worthy qualities have largely diminished. Today, we work less, spend more, and trust one another far less than we used to. These factors are reinforced by government-led income transfers and other initiatives that have increased federal spending as a share of GDP from 4 percent in 1930 to over 26 percent today.

In short, today’s America, Murray says, would be “unrecognizable” to America’s Founders:

American Exceptionalism says a great deal in very few words. The book effortlessly drops in rich pearls from our best historians and most notable leaders, including Abraham Lincoln’s haunting description of “the silent artillery of time”: that incessant, steady force that pounds relentlessly and quietly away at the walls of liberty, first built by America’s founders.

When Murray writes, it is as though Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Jackson Turner, Max Weber, Robert Fogel, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Robert Putnam are all in the room — and their voices enter the conversation at just the right time.

As I step back and reflect on this book, as well as his related writing, I believe Charles Murray is teaching us that the first iteration of America was our founding through the beginning of the 20th century. The second has lasted from 1930 to the present. But today we are quickly becoming more like Europe; and to borrow his recent phrase, our classes are coming apart.

Across the Atlantic, Europe is showing us the end-game, and anyone paying attention must know that an entitlement state that is addicted to unending income transfers and redistributive solutions cannot long survive.

We are quickly nearing the time, this little book intimates, when as Americans we must reinvent ourselves. And while many politicians today talk about “the Founders,” how many of us really remember our early story? This short book brings it to life — and suggests that the best way forward may be to rediscover our early beginnings.

Josh Good is the program manager for the Values & Capitalism initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Charles Murray writes “The New American Divide,” “A Case Study in Government as the Enemy,” and “Of Presidents and Duty.” Amy Kass and Leon Kass celebrate the Founders by looking at “America’s Birthday: The True Meaning of July 4.” Ralph Kinney Bennett considers “This Astounding Enterprise.” Andrew Biggs laments “Our State of Dysfunction” and Mark J. Perry argues that “The Founding Fathers Were Bloggers.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group; Photo by zimmytws

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