The subject of American exceptionalism has been the recent focus of controversy about the content of History textbooks in public schools. We believe this refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. This is derived from our political institutions founded on the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, and the Constitution.
There is a counter argument that there is also a negative connotation that we have been exceptionally immoral, racist, and violent. We tend to exaggerate and politicize both extremes as we reevaluate the incremental recognition of rights and the violence involved in the denial or acquisition of those rights.
We began as a group of independent colonies which found the necessity of national unity to gain our independence from England and “to form a more perfect union.” We debated the need for a standing army, or reliance on a system of well-regulated militias. Our Tenth Amendment allowed states to practice or prohibit slavery, later resolved by a bloody war. Our entrepreneurial spirit enabled us to achieve the American dream, and also gave us industrial giants and the financially elite. We ran our factories with low wage and child labor, and workplace tragedies. We created unions, suffered acts of violence in our coal mines, walked picket lines, and eventually found ways to regulate commerce and monopolies. We denied voting rights and access to social equality on bases of gender, skin color, and national origin.
We cited the wisdom of our founding fathers to determine whether we were a Christian or secular nation. We attached labels of Christian or Deist to measure the spirituality and secular wisdom of those who wrote our Constitution and formed our government. We speak of and fear moral decline, or impending theocracy.
On two occasions we deployed our military to save humanity from Facism and Imperialism making the world safe for democracy. Since then we have found reason to invade a dozen or more countries to impose that democracy on unwilling cultures, petty dictators, and radical ideological and ethnic genocidal insurgents. We have come to be the self-appointed arbiter of religious conflicts in the Middle East. We wonder if we will be listed among the great empires of history, as conquerors or liberators, as exploiters of our natural resources, or the eventual eradicators of human suffering.
Our History textbooks include a chapter on the turbulence of the 1960s and the anti-war and civil rights movements. We condemn a generation of drugs, protests, and sexual promiscuity. Then we cite a decade of freedom of assembly for redress of grievance, and the vision of racial and social equality derived from the conflict and violence of that period.
We include a chapter on immigration. We tell the story of the English, Spanish, and French who discovered, settled, and built a new nation. We include the history of the Irish, Catholics, Jews, Asians, and Native Americans whose seat at the table of democracy and religious equality was reluctantly and belatedly acknowledged. We recite the celebratory phrase “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores” and we appeal for a higher wall and more security on our borders.
Our History books accurately define our exceptional America in democratic ideals, free enterprise, religious freedom, military superiority, family values, our historical founding documents, and human rights. Yet there should be a few paragraphs or pages to document and learn from the times and events in which those have been denied to some, or unwillingly and violently imposed on others.