• Exploring American History

American Exceptionalism

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

In the year 1831, a French statesman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to the United States. The reason for his journey was to discover for himself what it was that made the country so unique. Tocqueville spent eight months traveling from coast-to-coast as he explored the nation that so intrigued him. Along the way, he spoke with many of her citizens.

When he returned home, Tocqueville wrote a report he entitled, “Democracy in America.” In this report, the noted historian proclaimed, “The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” It was this statement by Tocqueville that birthed the term, “American Exceptionalism”.

American exceptionalism refers to the unprecedented liberty, stability & prosperity enjoyed by the country’s various institutions. This is due to the fact they are based on concepts such as the inalienable rights given to all by God; along with the opportunity of individualism, coupled with a limited government that is controlled through the separation of powers, and an educated citizenry.

The dreams that became the building blocks used by the Founding Fathers to create this exceptionalism likely had a unique genesis – but what? In an effort to answer that question, political scientists began to delve into the writings left behind by the Founding Fathers – some 15,000 written during the years 1760 – 1805, a timeframe referred to by some as the Founding Era. Their goal was to discover the origins of the ideas the Founders expressed. If a common source could be unveiled, the foundation of American exceptionalism would then be known.

After much research, which included the identification of 3,154 quotations and the documentation of their source, it was discovered the authority most cited by the Founders was the Bible. It was revealed that 34% of the documented quotes (four times that of the next most popular source), had a biblical origin.

Delving further, researchers wanted to discover which books within the Bible’s text were the Founders’ most often referenced sources. The Old Testament encompassed much of their time. If one thought of the various books as a football team, Deuteronomy would be the captain. Referred to by some as the “Cliff Notes® of the Pentateuch,” Deuteronomy contains a number of passages the Founders used for both the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution.

Following the “captain” is the first string – in this case: Isaiah, Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus.

The Founders’ Old Testament junior varsity was comprised of Psalms, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Chronicles and Judges.

The researchers also discovered a large presence with respect to the New Testament. Captain of this team was the Apostle Paul with his many epistles. John served as his backup with Peter rounding out the ‘Big 3’.

In the process of completing Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville had this to say about his findings:

Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America, I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.

. . . they brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion. This sect contributed powerfully to the establishment of a democracy and a republic, and from the earliest settlement of the emigrants’ politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved.

. . . there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.

Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions . . . I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation, and to every rank of society.

The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”

Therein lies the foundation of the wonder known as “American Exceptionalism”.

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The secret of freedom lies in educating people,

whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.

Maximilien Robespierre

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