Immigration Is What Makes America Exceptional
Recovering from festivities on the 4th of July, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of American Exceptionalism. As most Americans do, I’ve always accepted and embraced the concept without really thinking about why or what it means. I encourage you to take a second and answer to yourself, “On what basis is the United States exceptional?”
The term implies superiority, but its literal meaning is to be the “exception.” One unconfirmed (and ironic) source of the term was Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who looked at our country and wondered why the socialist wave of the 1910s and 1920s seemed to not reach America’s shores — why we were the exception.
But I do think some measure of preeminence is called for: we are unique and the thing(s) that make us unique are what make us great. What are those thing(s)?
First, we are the first nation founded on liberty.
Political historian Seymour Martin Lipset called the United States the “first new nation,” both in the sense that we were the first nation to successfully revolt against colonial rule, and the first to be established in a place where its peoples were not historically from. “Old states” were typically monarchical and derived their ruling legitimacy from tradition rooted in divine blessing. Moreover, its populaces inherited a feudal legacy, and were mostly ancestrally-linked and ethnically similar. The United States, with its legitimacy based on the consent of the governed and its people having no ancestral connection to their lands, was the exception.
While America wasn’t the first democracy, we were the first to design a system of government that empowered the people and limited the government, and not the other way around. The federal government was less powerful than states. The Presidency was less powerful than the legislature. The system of federalism and checks-and-balances was deliberately and uniquely anti-monarchical. This was born out of a belief in individual liberty and the bourgeoisie sentiment that all men were created equal.
In 1630, John Winthrop described the New World as a “city on a hill,” evoking Matthew 5:14, where Jesus tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” America was — and remains — a beacon of liberty and individual freedom.
Second, rather than ancestry, Americans are bound by a common desire for liberty.
“We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men… If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us.
“But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.
“That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of Patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
Lincoln said the above during his 1858 campaign for Senate, though his former Whig Party had dissolved. While abolisionists in the Northeast formed the Republican Party, some former Whigs were trying to reform and make common cause with the emerging Know Nothing Party, who were virulently anti-immigrant (and anti-Catholic). Of course, “Know Nothing” was a nickname; they called themselves the “American Party.”
The American Party spoke in the language of fear and grievance. They criticized allowing new people into the country when those already here didn’t have everything they wanted. They demagogued against immigrants as unskilled and lazy, and causing overcrowding and crime. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think they viewed immigrants as invaders, bringing drugs, crime, and being rapists.
Lincoln’s speech above was a pointed rebuke to the Know Nothings, and, more broadly, nativism. It captures what makes the United States so quintessentially unique: that anyone, regardless of ancestry, culture, or language, can be just as linked to their fellow man through their love of liberty.
Lincoln, of course, lost the 1858 Senate race but won the Presidency in 1860 as the first Republican President. Three years later, he famously reaffirmed American exceptionalism in his Gettysburg Address, describing the country as a “new nation, conceived in liberty,” connecting his Presidency to the values that founded the country 87 years prior.
Ronald Reagan would do the same thing 120 years later, and in promoting American exceptionalism would call upon the same values as Lincoln and the Founding Fathers:
“America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’ ”
To put a fine point on it, America is exceptional because of our embrace of immigration. Moreover, our long history of prosperity has gone hand-in-hand with our welcoming of immigrants. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, believed that the economic productivity of the North was driven by immigrants, and thus said “… an asylum should be offered to the immigrant and exile of every creed and nation.”
This is why I’m always puzzled by those who criticize America’s immigration policy for being different from other countries. Of course we’re different than other countries. That’s the entire point of America.
Modern Views of American Exceptionalism
Reagan’s view of American exceptionalism was shared by his successors George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In the early 2010s, Republicans tripped over themselves to uphold the legacy of Lincoln and Reagan in response to what they viewed as insufficient support for American Exceptionalism by Barack Obama:
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
This approach — thinking how other countries react to the concept of American exceptionalism — was echoed by Vladimir Putin in a 2013 op-ed on, of all days, September 11th:
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
As these things go, Putin’s criticism of American exceptionalism was praised by reality TV show star Donald Trump, who told CNN in 2013, “If you’re in many other countries, whether it’s Germany or other places, you don’t want to hear about American exceptionalism because you think you’re exceptional. So I can see that being very insulting to the world.”
Trump’s criticism of American exceptionalism also mirrors the Obama approach of considering how others feel about their own country. Trump would repeat this criticism in April 2015, two months before officially launching his campaign for President:
“I don’t like the term [‘American exceptionalism’]. I’ll be honest with you… Look, if I’m a Russian, or I’m a German, or I’m a person we do business with, why, you know, I don’t think it’s a very nice term. ‘We’re exceptional; you’re not.’ I think you’re insulting the world.”
The mistake that modern leaders like Obama, Putin, and Trump make is thinking of the term in terms of American superiority, rather than the more literal definition of America being unique, and further, what makes us unique. I encourage Republicans and all readers to return to the traditional view of American exceptionalism: specifically, our country being founded on the concept of individual liberty and our view of Americans as linked by those who love liberty, regardless of where they happen to have been born.
This, in keeping with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, who said in 1783, “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions,” and all the way back to John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, which was so eloquently defined by Ronald Reagan:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”