The Essential (and Exceptional) American

It has been said that times of great challenge reveal the great character of our nation. 

This observation is typically used to highlight the extraordinary sacrifices and heroics of the American people.  Time and again, whether we have been tested by war or great tragedy, the American people have revealed their fundamental bravery, compassion and honor. 

But the statement can also be said to be true in another sense: Times of great challenge for America often cause us to reexamine our nation’s policies and priorities, measuring them against the founding principles of our country. 

This year, as part of the American Solutions Real Jobs Tour, I had the opportunity to meet with Tea Party leaders across the country.  I was amazed at how many of them were leading reading and discussion groups on the Constitution and learning more about the Founding Fathers.  It became clear to me that the energy and drive of the Tea Party movement was not an allergic reaction to the radicalism of the Obama administration, as it is so often dismissed in the mainstream media.  

It was, in fact, a response to the huge challenges facing our nation, and evidence of the revival of an old idea: American Exceptionalism. 

Clarifying American Exceptionalism

Asserting American Exceptionalism is not a vain exercise in building our national self-esteem by boasting about our country’s great wealth and military capability.

It is also not an argument that says America can “go it alone” on the world stage.

Nor is it a belief that America’s success is pre-ordained by the Almighty, no matter what we do (which is not to say that the hand of Providence cannot be seen during key points in American history.)

Instead, American Exceptionalism is an idea as old as our country itself.  The Founding Fathers understood that the vast resources at our fledging country’s disposal coupled with our puritan roots and lack of a feudal past meant that the United States was uniquely positioned to thrive as an exception to the corruption and poverty of other countries. 

More importantly, they understood that the new nation was the first to be founded on the self-evident truth that individual rights come directly from God, not the church or a King, and that citizens loan that power to the state.  In America, the individual is sovereign, not the government, which was a revolutionary break with previous forms of government in the world.

This relationship was expressed in our founding political document, the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Why the Left Hates American Exceptionalism

The Left routinely mocks the idea of American Exceptionalism, with one liberal writer recently dismissing it as an exercise in “toasting our fabulousness.”

“Does anyone else think there’s something a little insecure about a country that requires its politicians to constantly declare how exceptional it is,” writes Matt Miller in the Washington Post. “A populace in need of this much reassurance may be the surest sign of looming national decline.” 

Even President Obama, a product of Left wing academia, felt the need to reduce America’s unique character and role in the world when asked about American Exceptionalism during an overseas trip.  “I believe in American Exceptionalism,” he said, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism.”

But what the Left fails to understand is that the relationship between God, the citizen, and the state, understood by our founding fathers and expressed in the Declaration, shaped the Constitution (which identifies the source of the new government’s power as “We the people…”), our subsequent national policies, and our enduring understanding of American Exceptionalism.
America developed a free market economic system not based on some academic analysis that it is more efficient at creating wealth, but because if the individual is sovereign, the idea of the state trying to organize human activity is abhorrent, a violation of the individual’s right to pursue happiness. 

Instead, our country believes the proper role of government in the economic sphere is to create a framework that maximizes the ability of citizens to engage in free exchange, such as putting the weight of law behind the enforcement of contracts and by prosecuting fraud.  It is not the role of government to try and redistribute wealth, create new entitlements or bail out politically connected special interests.

Similarly, America’s great freedom of religious practice did not evolve based on a simple desire to create social harmony.  It is a direct consequence of this historic understanding of the relationship between God, the citizen and the state.  If “our Creator” is the source of our unalienable rights – including the right to know and worship God – then it is illicit for government to get between the citizen and the worship of God. 

The modern distortion of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which has been used to justify the tearing down of crosses on public land and the harassment of civic organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, is an explicit violation of this natural order. 

The Left hates the idea of American Exceptionalism because it sets boundaries on the power of the state.  The Left’s desire for ever bigger government clashes with the core principles of America’s exceptional founding.   

That’s why the Left is engaged in an unending war in academia and Hollywood to reduce the exceptional nature of America’s founding by trashing the integrity of our founding fathers and trying to paint our country’s enormous and rapid rise in wealth and power as due to almost anything other than the freedoms we enjoy.

Learn American Exceptionalism from the Most Exceptional Americans

It is in the context of this great debate about American Exceptionalism that I am excited about the release of The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own

(Download a free chapter here.)

Written by syndicated columnist (and my daughter) Jackie Cushman, The Essential American is a collection and analysis of the 25 most important and significant expressions of American Exceptionalism in our country’s history. 

The Essential American starts with Patrick Henry’s address at the Second Virginia Convention (“Give me liberty, or give me death.”) and covers the key writings and statements of the founding generation, including some you may not expect, such as Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband (“I am your ever faithful friend.”) 

The book also covers our nation’s greatest crisis, the Civil War, presenting an analysis of what Lincoln’s greatest speeches as well as the Emancipation Proclamation say about the unique principles and character of America.

The Essential American also features modern selections, such as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ronald Reagan’s “A Time For Choosing,” and President George W. Bush’s Address to the Joint Session of Congress after the attacks of September 11th, showing the common thread that connects today’s greatest statements of the unique and special character of America with those of the past.

Communicating Great Things

In Ronald Reagan’s farewell address from the Oval Office, he offered a fitting summation of his life of public service.  Reagan said, “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation.”

While just two of the speeches included in the book are from Ronald Reagan, his statement can easily be applied to all 25 speeches and documents contained in The Essential American.  Each selection communicates something great and something unique about our country. 

Each declares and defines American Exceptionalism in a way that reinforces the core ideals on which this country was founded.  And in doing so, each selection shows that a hallmark of great American leaders is an understanding of American Exceptionalism and how it applies to the challenges of their time.

That’s why The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own is a perfect book for our time.

America faces enormous challenges at home and abroad.  Our economic vitality is threatened
by a massive federal deficit, bloated government, inadequate educational opportunities and a health care system that was already bad and now has been made worse by Obamacare.  Our physical security is threatened by the ideology of Radical Islamism inspiring terrorist attacks against our civilization.

I believe America can and will overcome these challenges.  But it will not be by turning to bigger government and betraying our core principles and beliefs.  Instead, it will be by understanding American Exceptionalism and how to apply those principles today. 

The best way to learn about American Exceptionalism is directly from America’s most exceptional leaders, and how they applied our founding principles to the challenges of their time. 

That’s why The Essential American is, yes, essential for today. 

Your friend,


P.S. Tomorrow and Friday, The Americano will hold its first annual Forum and Gala with the theme of “sharing American liberty with Hispanics around the Globe.”  This will be an important conference with a great lineup of speakers.  I encourage you to attend.  Learn more here.

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•    Callista and I had a great screening of Nine Days that Changed the World at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  You can watch our introductory remarks and some student reactions at Click here.

•    At Renewing American Leadership, you can read Newt Gingrich‘s speech to the Republican Governor’s Association on “States As Leaders In Transformation For Prosperity, Safety, And Freedom.” Click here.

•    Rick Tyler, Founding Director of Renewing American Leadership (ReAL) and Chairman of ReAL Action, wrote an excellent article on American Exceptionalism that expands on the ideas discussed in this newsletter.  Click here to read it.