Weeks after the Tennessee legislature banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Tennessee schools, Governor Bill Lee called for Tennessee students to be taught “unapologetic” American exceptionalism. What is the meaning of “exceptional”? To be exceptional is to be uncommon, outstanding, extraordinary or superior. How has American exceptionalism been expressed over generations?
America is an unprecedented superpower and one of the richest countries in the world, in the history of the world. America has been described as a “shining city on a hill,” an “empire of liberty,” the “last hope of earth,” an “unequally virtuous nation,” “one that loves peace,” “embraces the rules of law,” “leader of the free world,” and a “morally superior nation where a better life exists for all.”
To understand the concept of American exceptionality, we must differentiate between “heritage” and “history,” related as they are in the way of estranged siblings. Heritage is based upon belief, myth, tradition and ideals transmitted from generation to generation. Heritage encompasses tales of the past but not necessarily a full accounting. History is the study of the past, based upon facts and evidence; the recording and telling of all events and incidents, good and bad that have occurred; how society came into being, evolving over time to influence today.
The ideal of American exceptionalism is rooted in its creation. The ideals expressed by the founding fathers differed from centuries-old traditions of social status and opportunity based upon birth -- nobility or peasantry. The ideals emphasize that every human being possessed natural rights that could not be withheld or given by the state. The famous Preamble to the Constitution in the Declaration of Independence established the ideal of American exceptionalism:
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.
(According to Thomas Jefferson (1819), “The Declaration [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and the rights of man.”)
The preamble was a “promise” to the people of their individual freedom, rights, and opportunities. The articles of the Constitution ensured how these promises would be fulfilled.
But did all residents of the United States enjoy the rights, freedom, and opportunities so eloquently written? Or were they exceptions to the “ideal”?
American history and heritage differ in reference to two words found in the Declaration of Independence -- “all men.” These two words alter the circumstances and reality of the philosophical ideal. When the document was created, “all men” meant white male landholders.
American history versus American heritage provides evidence that these words did not give everyone value, rights, or freedom at all. While the ideal expressed by the founding fathers seemed to establish a government based upon individual rights, freedom, and rule of law, history proves that not all members of the society enjoyed the freedom of individual rights, the core of the unprecedented historical breakthrough of a country ruled “of, by and for” the people. It sounded like exceptionality but has never quite met its obligation.
Unapologetic American exceptionality implies American innocence, divine right, and the infallibility of the founding fathers. But unapologetic American exceptionality can focus only on the ideals of American heritage. Unapologetic American exceptionalism cannot and does not include the telling of the experiences of those not included in the “ideal.” Unapologetic American exceptionality cannot address Native American genocide, theft of Native American land, breaking of treaties, or the Trail of Tears. Most definitely, the capture and enslavement of Africans cannot be mentioned, the brutality the Post-Reconstruction South, almost a century of Jim Crow, and the violence of the Civil Rights movement. Unapologetic American exceptionalism can only transmit the ideals and myths, which is the American heritage.
Our students, the future leaders of America, need to be taught both the heritage and the history of the American ideal proposed by the founding fathers. They need a realistic and critical assessment of the nation’s character and accomplishments. They must understand how our nation evolved to be the one that it is in the 2lst century. There is no place for mythology if we are to finally build a mature nation of integrity truly based on the ideals of our founding fathers. It is unfair as well as morally corrupt to students, to all citizens, to deny American history.
To achieve true American exceptionality, students of today -- our future leaders -- must learn American history without omission or distortion. It is only in truth-telling that Americans can grow into true exceptionality – our history living up to our heritage.