As we once again commemorate the formal birth of the United States, it’s important to think about what makes America exceptional — what makes it, despite evident flaws, so worthy of our loyalty and affection.
American exceptionalism isn’t about our country’s vast expanse and bounty of resources. Nor do we venerate the Founding as if the American people possessed superior virtues or talents.
While England was the most common origin of America’s progenitors, by 1776 there were sizable populations of people with Scottish, Irish, Dutch, French, German, Scandinavian, Spanish, aboriginal, and African ancestry. Indeed, while New England was much less diverse, in the Middle and Southern colonies people with primarily English ancestry comprised only about 40 percent of the population at the time of the Revolutionary War.
What led to that war — and what sustained the American cause through its duration — was a commitment to traditions and ideas that arose in a specific historical context but had the potential for broad, even universal, application. Two of them, freedom and self-government, were related but distinct principles for which American patriots were willing to combat a world-spanning empire.
“My first wish is for America to be free,” said John Penn, one of North Carolina’s three signers of the Declaration. Like many other North Carolinians of the 1770s, Penn was a native Virginian who had headed south in pursuit of freedom (North Carolina was comparatively lax in enforcing conformity and collecting taxes) as well as greater economic opportunity (land was cheaper).
A particular incident seems to have motivated his move. Penn, a lawyer, had been complaining publicly about Parliament taxing the colonies without their consent — that is, without having their own elected representatives in the body. According to family lore, someone reported Penn to the local authorities. He was charged and convicted of making disrespectful remarks about the king. A Virginia judge ordered him to pay a nominal fine of one penny.
Penn refused. Other members of his family had already moved to what is now Vance County, North Carolina. He joined them.
Can you spot both principles in question here? Penn was speaking in favor of self-government, that people living in a community ought to enjoy the civil right to help select those who populate and run its governmental institutions. But his personal freedom to express that view was a natural right, one that the civil authority had violated.
These ideas may have been expressed eloquently in English, but they had far older roots. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, distinguished between two conceptions of liberty: a civic one that was “for all to rule and be ruled in turn” and a personal one, “that a man should live as he likes.”
Both sets of rights were and are important. And, of course, neither has been consistently defended and advanced, including here in America. At the time of the Founding, most Americans couldn’t vote. And colonial governments imposed a range of restrictions on the freedom of Americans, including the moral outrage of slavery.
But to observe that the Americans whose representatives gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 were inconsistent in their commitments to freedom and self-government is not to deny the significance of what transpired that summer. There are worse sins than shortsightedness or even hypocrisy, including having no principles at all. As Martin Luther King would later put it so memorably, the Founders had essentially written a “promissory note,” whether they realized it or not, to future generations. Fulfilling that obligation is an ongoing project.
While not foreseeing all the consequences, the signers of the Declaration of Independence knew they were making history. Another North Carolina participant, William Hooper, celebrated “the important share which the colonies must soon have in regulating the political balance” by adopting a “constitution purged of [the] impurities” of English government and informed by “an experience of its defects.”
Our dual experiment in freedom and self-government continues. Human nature prohibits perfection. What makes America special, and worth celebrating, is the audacity of our aspiration.