It’s Thomas Jefferson’s birthday as I write this. My wife and I just returned from a wonderful long weekend in Charlottesville, VA, the site of Jefferson’s home Monticello which we enjoyed visiting. The occasion for the trip was not Jefferson’s birthday but rather my cousin’s wedding.
The weather was wonderful and the wedding celebration even more so. As is often the case, I managed to find my way into an intellectual discussion in the midst of all this celebration. I enjoy a debate that is respectful and where I have the opportunity to learn something new as was the case on this occasion. Standing a few feet from the Italian buffet, I was discussing American Exceptionalism with a well-traveled and obviously well read woman.
She decries the use of the term. Having lived overseas at various times in her life, she connects it to the boorish Ugly American who embarrasses us all. She is undoubtedly correct in making that connection. Many conservative politicians have used the term to advance the idea that Americans are superior. I agree with her in that I find Americans to be no more exceptional than citizens of other countries.
The term American Exceptionalism can be traced to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and refers to the notion that the United States was born of new ideas -- liberty, equal opportunity and laissez-faire economics. In that sense, America was and remains exceptional.
Our economic progress has been the result of ideas embraced by both major political parties. Public investment in infrastructure, private investment in free enterprise and openness to immigration have created an economy that generates nearly a quarter of the world’s GDP despite having only 5% of its population.
So, despite the xenophobia of established citizens and political efforts to slow the influx of immigrants, they keep coming. The promise of an American way of life is as attractive today as it was in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Our continued prosperity is derived from principles of Economic Freedom – free market capitalism, private property rights, the rule of law and predictable policy. It’s no surprise that Jefferson’ study has a portrait of John Locke hanging on the wall to this day. Locke was preeminent in the British Enlightenment of the 1690s. He promoted then radical ideas that all citizens should be free to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, that innovators should enjoy the profits resulting from their inventions and that capitalism is the prime mover for prosperity.
And so, even today, America can claim to be exceptional for its adherence to the founders’ principles and for its diversity of thought and culture.
My cousin and his bride are both Italian Americans raised as Roman Catholics. Our celebration lasted for three days. On the last evening, the couple asked for the blessings of their friends and family. Standing in a loose circle, we were all given the opportunity to offer our words of love to the newlyweds. The blessings were officiated by a couple that ministers to a Unity Church. He was raised in a Jewish household and she as a Roman Catholic. The offerings included special remembrances (some offered in Italian) as well as a Baha’i prayer recited by an Iranian American and a Jewish recitation that preceded the groom breaking a glass followed by a shout of “Mazeltov!” by the assembled congregation.
How’s that for exceptional?
Somewhere Thomas Jefferson was smiling.
WHO WILL LEAD?