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American Exceptionalism Challenged

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Russian President Vladimir Putin provoked widespread scorn among America's chattering class for employing The New York Times' editorial pages as a megaphone to scold the United States for hubris, i.e., a belief in its saintliness and destiny to lead the planet, a.k.a. American Exceptionalism. The pretentious pundits rebuked the messenger as ill-suited to deliver the message. True enough. President Putin's Russia exhibits more warts than the United States.

But Putin's detractors have been unable to answer his message. It echoed the admonition against British messianism voiced more than two centuries ago by Edmund Burke, British statesman and champion of the American Revolution in a futile attempt to forestall the self- ruination of the British Empire:

"I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread our being too much dreaded. It is ridiculous to say we are not men, and that, as men, we shall never wish to aggrandize ourselves."

President Putin's message would have been superfluous to the Founding Fathers. They knew that they and their fellow Americans sported the same DNA as other humans. The Minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord, the soldiers who sacrificed at Valley Forge, the statesmen who signed the Declaration of Independence and the solons who crafted the Constitution believed in Original Sin. They knew that Americans would be tempted by the same vices and be corrupted by the same ambitions that had beset the species from time immemorial. Americans in all walks of life were sobered by Ecclesiastes: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

American leaders at the creation repudiated quixotic national quests to perfect, dominate, or conquer the world as fool's errands that would culminate in ruination. They steered the United States to strict neutrality during the protracted Napoleonic Wars and the South and Central American upheavals against Spanish and Portuguese colonialism. They understood that going abroad in search of monsters to destroy and to become dictatress of the world would replace liberty with war as the nation's emblem. Then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in his July 4, 1821 Address to Congress elaborated on the foreign policy of the United States celebrated by President George Washington and his luminous colleagues:

"She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all...
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own...
[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty."

The genius of the Founding Fathers was in splintering power, pitting ambition against ambition, and fashioning procedural protections to safeguard individual liberty and achieve justice--the summum bonum of any political dispensation. The magnificent constitutional edifice they constructed was informed by the frailty of human nature. Large electoral districts would defeat the ability of a single special interest faction to dominate or oppress minorities. Limiting the number of House members was necessary to check demagoguery. A separation of powers was imperative to block natural ambitions for limitless power. Life tenure for federal judges was required to attract candidates unblemished by the ordinary depravity of human nature. Treaties were subject to Senate ratification as a safeguard against Executive perfidy. The exclusive power to declare war was conferred on Congress because of the President's incentive to concoct excuses for belligerency to become famous or aggrandize power.

Thomas Jefferson lectured in the Kentucky Resolution of 1798: "In questions of power...let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."
The wisdom and humility of the Founding Fathers have been abandoned by the ascendant ruling class. It presumes government benevolence, infallibility, and a commandment to seek a risk-free existence. Presidential powers exceed the executive tyranny that provoked the American Revolution: limitless power to initiate war, kill, detain, spy, circumvent faithful execution of the law, and operate secret government. Congress spends with juvenile insouciance on the unworthy while saddling posterity with a staggering $17 trillion national debt.

American Exceptionalism should restore individual liberty as the center of the Constitution's universe and transparency the lifeblood of self-government. It should understand that the final end of the state is to make citizens free to develop their faculties and to be morally accountable for their destinies, not to bestride the world like a colossus or to make the people government wards. It should make the rule of law king, accept risk as the oxygen of freedom, and repudiate arrogance in favor of self-doubting.

American Exceptionalism is not dead. Hope springs eternal. The very fact that President Putin could publish his criticism of America in The New York Times shows American Exceptionalism is alive.