Tag: founding fathers

Book Forum Thursday: Debating American Exceptionalisms with Richard Gamble

Thursday at 10 AM Cato hosts Richard Gamble to discuss his book: In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. Historians Walter McDougall and Derek Leebaert will provide commentary. 

Gamble’s book traces the “city on a hill” metaphor as American self-description. We follow it from John Winthrop, who may have used the term, following the gospels, to remind the other Puritans onboard the Mayflower of their faith’s requirements, to modern conservatives like Sarah Palin, who use it in a story about the inherent virtue of the United States—the version of American exceptionalism that sees U.S. foreign policy as the engine of liberalism’s global progress. 

The forum should help us make sense of recent debates—or rhetorical posturing—about American exceptionalism. Its loudest advocates today claim that their opponents, starting with President Obama, deny that the country is exceptional. What they ignore, as Gamble shows, is that their exceptionalism reverses the old kind. What made the United States exceptional upon independence was its liberal government. Most early American leaders thought that form of government would suffer from participation in European power politics. They worried that entanglement in foreign troubles would produce domestic conditions corrosive to liberty— a large military establishment and consolidated executive power. So the liberalism that made the nation exceptional meant avoiding the crusading foreign policies that modern proponents of American exceptionalism say it requires. 

Here’s how Gamble put it in the American Conservative last September: 

The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world. 

McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 concerned this revolution of exceptionalism’s meaning, so his comments should be telling. Leebaert’s recent book, Magic and Mayhem: the Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, is also quite relevant. As moderator, I will push the speakers to answer two questions. First, aren’t we discussing competing ideas of American nationalism? Second, are the ideas we generally see as drivers of foreign policies really just their PR and power the cause of both? 

Register here or watch live online.

Constitution Day

On September 17, 1787, the Framers of the Constitution of the United States of America, having completed their work over that long hot summer, sent the document out to the states with the hope that conventions in the states, pursuant to Article VII, would see fit to ratify it. Nine months later, on June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to do so, making the Constitution effective between those states. Shortly thereafter, three more states ratified the document; and Rhode Island, the last, did so on May 29, 1790.

The Constitution was not perfect – what human creation is? – not least in its oblique recognition of slavery, believed necessary to ensure union. But it provided for amendment, as with the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and the Civil War Amendments several decades later, which ended slavery and brought the Bill of Rights to bear upon the states. All things considered, especially when we look at the rest of the world, the Constitution has served us well, enabling us to prosper in greater freedom than most have ever enjoyed.

Over the past century, however, we’ve allowed governments at all levels to grow far more than the Framers ever would have imagined the Constitution allowed, until today the modern redistributive and regulatory state is everywhere upon us. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 45 that the powers of the new government would be “few and defined,” leaving us largely free to plan and live our own lives. If we’re to restore that Constitution of limited government, it will take more than courts and “politics as usual” to do so. We’ve got to take the Constitution seriously not just on Constitution Day but on every day. Fortunately, there are stirrings in the nation today that suggest that ever more Americans are doing so. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”