A Time for American Exceptionalism

05/12/2011 08:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 12, 2011

Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post this week that: "... the problem of the 21st century is... what I would call the culture of smugness. The emblem of this culture is the term 'American exceptionalism.' It has been adopted by the right to mean that America, alone among the nations, is beloved of God." He argues that the term serves to justify a disgraceful education system, dysfunctional political system and dreadful health care. Cohen is correct that many leaders on the far right have adopted the phrase American exceptionalism and use it in a jingoistic way to convince their base of the divine righteousness of their cause. The phrase should not be scrapped, however. Instead, it should be reclaimed and brought back to its roots.

We are an exceptional nation, and our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to make us one. American exceptionalism is not however a passive right, and it is not a given. Preserving what makes us special as a nation requires active engagement and constant vigilance. I believe our Founding Fathers would have been shocked by a passive belief that we are exceptional, as they were anything but a passive group. In fact, with the torture debate reignited, a discussion of American exceptionalism is quite timely. After all, the roots of our exceptionalism lie in our foundational principles of humanity and specifically in the way that we treat our enemies and the extent to which our government's power is restrained in its deployment against both American citizens and against enemies of our republic.

On March 5, 1770, British redcoats fired shots into an angry crowd in Boston, killing 5 civilians and injuring 11. The event became known as the Boston Massacre and was a pivotal event in the escalation of tensions that eventually led to the Revolutionary War. The redcoats who fired the shots were arrested, but they were not tortured, and they were not held indefinitely as enemy combatants. In fact, the colonial government went out of its way to give the soldiers a fair trial, delaying the trial for months so that tempers would cool and selecting the jury from towns outside of Boston. Future President John Adams risked his reputation and political career by defending the British in court and saving them from the gallows. Afterwards he wrote that this was: "...One of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country."

When the Revolutionary War did come, temptation was great to engage in the same cruelty and atrocity that King George's army visited on our soldiers. But, as David Hackett Fischer writes in Washington's Crossing: "In 1776, American leaders believed that it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with values of their society and the principles of their cause." British and Hessian POWs were to be treated: "as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving." Incredibly, we lived up to those principles in the Revolutionary War and were successful in part because we took the high road. On this subject John Adams writes: "Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they wonʼt prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed." Those are our roots and this humane treatment of our enemies formed the very beginning of American exceptionalism. Our founders believed that the best defense against tyranny was a government that acted tyrannically neither to its own citizens nor its enemies. They had seen the ways that treason and sedition had been perverted by the British as justifications for torture, tyranny and oppression and they founded our very nation in opposition to such a use of government power, a founding principle that was exceptional at its very core.

I think the Founding Fathers would be shocked to see American exceptionalism perverted into a smug sense of entitlement to some sort of special status. They were acutely aware that the only real protection of liberty was an active and engaged electorate. I also think they would be shocked to see this phrase co-opted by those who would justify the unjustifiable and undermine our core principles of humanity.

When bin Laden was killed, his body was washed, prayers were said over him, and he was buried according to Islam within 24 hours. His acts on this Earth certainly did not earn him that level of care and respect. The way we treat our enemies has nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with who we are. It is part of what makes us exceptional. American exceptionalism is not a way of justifying morally bankrupt actions in the world and dysfunction at home. On the contrary, it should serve as a moral compass by reminding us that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. The standard that our founders set for restraint of government power is one of their most precious legacies to us. The last thing that we should do is give up on this exceptionalism. In these times our commitment to being an exceptional nation is needed more than ever. It is up to us however to reclaim the phrase and to remind those who have forgotten, that while American exceptionalism was gifted to us by our Founding Fathers, its maintenance requires constant care, scrutiny, and corrective action.