An exception to the rule
How the four pillars of American exceptionalism make the United States unique in world history
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Every Fourth of July, Americans break out the fireworks for a celebration. And, despite more than 30 years of efforts by progressives to demean or dilute the meaning of the holiday, most people still recognize in some murky sense that it had to do with the Colonies gaining independence from England. Maybe even a few know that it’s related to the Declaration of Independence. A question discussed far less is, why do we celebrate at all?
Lots of nations have gained independence from a variety of colonial empires—French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese—and many, once independent, immediately fell back into tyranny of some sort. Some of those, such as Zaire, fell under a local military dictatorship from almost the moment revolutionaries proclaimed independence from their colonial masters (in that case, the Belgians). Others, such as Germany and Japan, began their official national status as constitutional monarchies where democratic practices bloomed, only to fall to internal tyranny before being reconstituted as democracies following World War II.
Similarly, Latin American republics that gained freedom from Spain suffered a century’s worth of upheaval, military coups, and reconstruction of their “republican governments.” Even France needed five tries to get the concept of a republic right.
In short, independence from a colonial power doesn’t necessarily mean much in and of itself. So why do we celebrate ours?
Sometime in the early 2000s it became fashionable to use the term “American exceptionalism” to encapsulate what’s special about the United States—what it is, exactly, that we’re celebrating on the Fourth of July. But the definition of American exceptionalism was tough to pin down. Commentators such as Niall Ferguson tried, with extensive lists and nebulous concepts—for example, limited government or decentralizing power—but they failed to really distinguish America from other countries.
Rush Limbaugh used to say the United States was the first nation on earth based on the premise that the people control the government. Actually, that wasn’t true, either. The Greeks, the Romans, Florence, and the Dutch all had variations of systems where “the people” ran things. For the Greeks, it was the free citizen, but of course Sparta was a slave society with vast numbers of helots in servitude. Rome had a “republic” (from res publica, or “rule for the good of the people”) but, alas, only the upper classes counted as people. While the early Dutch republic probably came closer to what people think of when they use the term democracy, it was a tiny nation entirely kept in the hothouse of Spanish or British protection, depending on the era. It’s pretty easy to be a republic if you don’t have varied interests inside the country to vie for power. You can ask most of the African republics about that.
When I taught at the University of Dayton, my next-door colleague was from Cameroon. I asked him about his constitution, and we looked at it. It was remarkably similar to our own. Yet while Cameroon had a “president,” the same dictator had been in power for over 30 years. Obviously, it wasn’t having a constitution that kept a country free.
In 2004, Michael Allen and I published A Patriot’s History of the United States. But we had not done a deep dive into American exceptionalism. Not until years later, when I began work on a book about world history with another author, David Daugherty, did we attempt to define it. “What does exceptionalism mean,” he asked, and “Why is America different?”
We investigated a number of traits and historical firsts, comparing and contrasting, until we finally arrived at four distinct differences between America and any other country in history. Not only has no other nation had these four as a whole, but none in history has ever had—or even today has—the first two. We called these traits the “four pillars of American exceptionalism.”
The United States’ founding as a Christian, mostly Protestant, religious state. This is critical, not for reasons of theology in the strictest sense but for reasons of church governance. Let me digress: The Protestant Reformation that swept across parts of Europe took nations that were Catholic and imbued them with Protestant theology. But the countries’ governance remained the same: top down. Likewise, the German Lutheran Church and its splinters employed top-down church governance and in this respect resembled the Catholic Church in Rome.
The Church of England may seem like an exception. But it was not a Protestant church in the strictest sense, in that it was not protesting anything except whether Henry VIII could divorce and remarry at will. When the king sought a divorce, the pope refused. Henry retaliated by creating his own church—with himself as the head, then the archbishop of Canterbury under him, and so on. It was the epitome of “top-down” governance.
But there were some in England who wanted change. They were known as the Puritans. One key element of Puritanism was the congregational form of church governance. Puritans practiced “bottom-up” polity. They considered the people, rather than any sort of institutional hierarchy, best suited to govern, which meant they governed themselves. It’s important to note that the Jamestown colony, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, was populated with Anglicans, not Puritans. Keep that in your pocket for a moment.
Common law. This was a concept that developed in the Germanic tribes—which were heathen—that said their gods put the law in the hearts of men and that people then elected or selected rulers who would carry out and execute laws the people had already agreed to. That thinking migrated to England, which uniquely adopted common-law concepts. This, too, was bottom-up governance, although the British would wait until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to fully embrace it—70 years after American colonists adopted common law in practice.
But the fact that these heathen tribes practiced this was hardly new. In both the Old and New Testaments, God expressed this very concept. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires … [t]hey show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14-15). And the writer of Hebrews, looking toward Christ’s better covenant, cites the prophet Jeremiah: “After those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Hebrews 8:10).
It might be argued that Jamestown employed bottom-up governance. In April 1607, settlers there elected Edward Wingfield as their president. But Wingfield had to take his orders from the Council back in London, not the settlers under his authority. In other words, the Jamestown colony was substantially governed by England or by men appointed to the Council from England before the colonists arrived. It was top-down, not bottom-up, governance.
But the Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth were quite different. As “separatists” (apart from those Puritans who remained in England), they were used to self-governance. When they arrived at Plymouth, of course, they risked the wrath of the king because they had landed well off course and beyond the limits of their charter. Technically, they were engaged in treason. They also had no predetermined governor, nor were they quite sure what to do with the “strangers”—the half of their number who were not Puritans. Their remarkable solution to all of these problems was the Mayflower Compact, which established political equality by giving the strangers equal vote, the promise of selecting their own governor, and an appeal to the king that beseeched him to recognize that they were not being defiant.
Clearly Jamestown, to some degree, and certainly Plymouth, constituted something completely different in human history. Around the world at that time, the only government structure in place anywhere was top-down. Europe, for example, built its system of royals, nobles, and commoners on the “divine right of kings,” by which God was said to have placed the crown on each monarch’s head. In the New World that would become America, the people handled whatever “crown” there was. Yes, they remained English subjects, but locally they pursued self-government like nowhere else on earth.
Private property with written titles and deeds. By the time of the Plymouth settlement, private property with written titles and deeds was established in much of Europe and reinforced in 1215 by the Magna Carta. The key, though, was written titles and deeds. Then, much of the world practiced an oral tradition that even today many progressive scholars try to elevate as somehow desirable. It was not. Spoken words came down to “might makes right,” and whoever had the biggest club had the “right story.” Well into the early 1700s, both English and colonial government could seize property for almost any reason, but written deeds made it much more difficult.
It was not just security that written titles and deeds provided but the ability to leverage one’s personal wealth to obtain loans. Societies without written titles and deeds, as economist Hernando de Soto noted in The Mystery of Capital (2003), found the absence of such documents a fundamental impediment to economic growth. Without clear proof of ownership through titles, land could not be transferred or, more importantly, used as collateral for loans. (This, of course, is the basis for any number of small-business loans.) De Soto found that in Cairo, one of four test areas he looked at, just to get government access to develop desert land took between six and 14 years and required almost 150 separate government steps.
In 2016, my wife and I sold our Ohio home and purchased one in Arizona, hundreds of miles away. A real estate agent came to my house, sat down at my table, and in less than an hour we had sold one house and bought another. One hour and one step versus six to 14 years and 150 steps. Across tens of thousands of transactions, that’s nothing short of revolutionary.
Indeed, the Founders saw written titles and deeds as so important they codified them into law even before the development of the U.S. Constitution. I often argue that the Land Ordinance of 1785 was the most important law in American history because it set up a system of surveys and sales of public lands. Based on Thomas Jefferson’s ideas, all government land should be moved into private hands as soon as possible. Today, however, the federal government still owns one-third of the country.
What is most interesting about the Land Ordinance is that the survey started in southeastern Ohio, near Portsmouth. Land was to be divided into 36 “sections” that formed a “township,” and then sold off sequentially to ensure settlements were sufficiently large to protect against Indian raids. Land in section 24 would not be sold until sections 1, 2, 3, and so on were sold. But being Americans, the pioneers’ general attitude was, “No one’s gonna tell me where I kin settle.” Thus people immediately snapped up sections 12, 20, 31, and so on even before they were surveyed.
This posed a remarkable challenge to the Founders because pillar #2 said, in essence, “The people know what they are doing.” Which principle would win? The Founders decided to accommodate those who settled outside the survey through a new law called “preemption,” better known as “squatter’s rights.” If a person settled on unsettled land, held it for seven years, and built something (a house or a farm), he could take a deed he designed and a government official would ratify it.
Hence, whereas the “sections and townships” were orderly, perfect squares, the “preemption” deeds were jagged and uneven. One can imagine a settler explaining his deed: “Well, it runs from the crick here, down to that big rock way over there, over to the treeline there, then back here to the crick.” It’s remarkable to fly over, for example, Ohio, with its jigsaw patterns, and the more modern parts of Arizona, with its grids and squares.
Following the Land Ordinance came the second most important law in American history—again, before the Constitution—called the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It allowed for the settlement and creation of new territories on lands that today comprise Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. When a territory reached 5,000 free inhabitants, it could apply for “territorial status,” giving it a governor, a U.S. marshal, and a judge who “rode the circuit.” In the second phase, it leveled up to merit an assembly and a nonvoting member of Congress. When the area reached 60,000 free males of full age, it could draft a constitution and request entry into the Union.
Two astounding elements accompanied that structure. First, slavery was prohibited in the Northwest Territory. Since the words slave or slavery did not appear in the U.S. Constitution drafted two years later, this was incredibly important, meaning it presumed that all future U.S. territorial expansion would be free. Or, as one historian put it, “freedom was national, slavery local.”
A free market economy. Years ago I did a video for PragerU called “America’s Socialist Origins.” Both Jamestown and Plymouth started with a form of a socialist economy. Each had common lands that were to be cultivated. Each had common grain storage to be divided up. Both failed.
We call the period 1609-1610 the “starving time” in Jamestown. People ate shoelaces, rats, and dung. Commenting on the adoption of the failed socialist structure, young William Bradford lamented that it was as if he and his fellow colonists had thought themselves wiser than God. While Plymouth didn’t suffer as deeply, it had its own time of scarcity. Its first governor, John Carver, divided up the land and seed among the hardworking Pilgrims and within one planting season enjoyed abundance. The ensuing abundance led Bradford to proclaim a day of Thanksgiving, the first such officially proclaimed day in America.
Some historians and analysts chalk up American exceptionalism to capitalism and the free market. It is true that the moral philosopher Adam Smith, who was concerned with pinpointing the most moral system of economics, developed what is generally considered the theory of capitalism in 1776. But this was quite a while after Plymouth in 1620. And when we dig a little, we find that by 1630, Plymouth’s colonists had so many crops coming in that they needed a full-time miller. In one of the first-ever systematic “divisions of labor,” the colonists agreed to pay a miller with crops for milling their grains.
Thus, in both Jamestown and Plymouth, two of the “pillars” were present—a form of common law and private property with written titles and deeds. But only in Plymouth did a bottom-up Protestant religion take root—congregationalism versus the top-down Anglicanism and Presbyterianism of Virginia—and it was Plymouth that first had a free market economy.
I repeat what I said earlier. No other nation in the world has these four pillars, let alone had them from its origins. Only the United States of America. Moreover, it was Plymouth, not Jamestown, that had all four. American exceptionalism was born in Plymouth with a bottom-up religious structure that stressed local control, bottom-up governance that admitted virtually everyone into the “body politick,” private property with written titles and deeds, and a free market economy.
That’s American exceptionalism. That’s what we celebrate. Those four pillars, not the Declaration or Constitution, make us exceptional—and those two amazing documents merely place into the written record what Americans had already known for more than 150 years: We’re just different.
—An image caption in this story has been corrected to reflect that John Trumbull’s painting depicts a presentation of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Not the king’s English
Americans did develop differently, often in spectacular ways. By the early 1800s, we had even concocted our own version of English, replete with phrases no one from the Old Country would have recognized. We had a “Kentucky breakfast”—defined as three cocktails and “a chaw of terbackey.” Americans, not the Brits, invented the “stiff upper lip.” We “got religion” (1826), would “fly off the handle” (1825); and would “get the hang” of something. From the 17th century onward, our increasingly bespoke tongue reflected the way Americans saw themselves: unbound by outside arbiters such as the king and his English—intent on imposing our reality on language itself.
We created an almost entirely new language by incorporating foreign words or phrases that could be Americanized: boss (Dutch); depot, rapids, prairie, shanty, chute, cache, and crevasse (French); mustang, lasso, sombrero, patio, corral from Spanish; and settlers’ words such as squatter or lot. We also changed the meanings of words, such as help for servant, or suit—as in “it suits you.”
Camp meetings dominated the frontiers, and Americans created new religions to suit themselves, too, giving rise to Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, and Christian Scientists.
Once explorers lit out for the West, they brought back still more terms for our custom lexicon, as Paul Johnson notes in The Birth of the Modern: portage, raccoon, war party, backtrack, medicine man, squaw, overalls, rattlesnake, huckleberry, and moose.
So different were the Americans that, as historian Gordon Wood has pointed out, by the time of the revolution we had also recast industry—another of those Americanized words—as a highly desirable quality, with work itself as something to be desired instead of, as in England and Europe, avoided.
In fact, industry was a descriptor applied favorably to so many men that even the slave-barons in the South were forced to work in the fields from time to time to prove they weren’t lazy!
Little did they know that by doing so, they were helping to seal slavery’s doom: For if a man owned his labor, then he certainly owned himself. —L.S.