As we once again commemorate the official birth of the United States, it is important to reflect on what makes America exceptional – what makes it, despite obvious flaws, so worthy of our loyalty and affection.
American exceptionalism is not about the vast expanse and richness of our country’s resources. Nor do we revere the Foundation as if the American people possess superior virtues or talents.
While England was the most common origin of American ancestors, by 1776 there were significant populations of people of Scottish, Irish, Dutch, French, German, Scandinavian, Spanish, Aboriginal, and African ancestry. Indeed, while New England was far less diverse, in the Middle and Southern Colonies people of primarily English ancestry made up only about 40% of the population.
What led to the Revolutionary War – and what sustained the American cause throughout its duration – was a commitment to traditions and ideas that arose in a specific historical context but had the potential to broad, even universal application. Two of them, freedom and self-government, were related but distinct principles for which American patriots were prepared to fight a world-spanning empire.
“My first wish is that America be free,” said John Penn, one of three signatories to the North Carolina Declaration. Like many other North Carolinians of the 1770s, Penn was a native Virginian who had headed south in search of freedom (North Carolina was relatively lax in enforcement of compliance and collection of taxes) as well as greater economic opportunities (land was cheaper).
A particular incident seems to have motivated his move. Penn, a lawyer, had complained publicly that Parliament was 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 local authorities. He was accused and found guilty of making disrespectful remarks towards the king. A Virginia judge ordered him to pay a nominal fine of one cent.
Penn refused. Other members of his family had already moved to what is now Vance County, North Carolina. He joined them.
Can you spot the two principles in question here? Penn was speaking in favor of self-government, that the people living in a community should enjoy the civil right to help select those who populate and run its governmental institutions. But his personal freedom to express this point of view was a natural right, which the civil authority had violated.
These ideas may have been expressed eloquently in English, but they had much older roots. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, distinguished between two conceptions of freedom: a civic one which was “that all govern and be governed in turn” and a personal one, “that a man should live as he wishes”.
Both sets of rights were and are important. And, of course, neither has been consistently championed and advanced, including here in America. At the time of the founding, most Americans could not vote. And colonial governments imposed a series of restrictions on American freedom, including the moral outrage of slavery.
But to observe that the Americans whose representatives met in Philadelphia in 1776 were inconsistent in their commitments to freedom and self-government is not to deny the significance of what happened that summer. There are worse sins than myopia or even hypocrisy, including having no principles at all. As Martin Luther King would later so memorably put it, the founders had essentially written a “promissory note”, whether they knew it or not, to future generations. Fulfilling this obligation is an ongoing project.
Without foreseeing all the consequences, the signatories of the declaration of independence knew that they were writing history. Another participant from North Carolina, William Hooper, celebrated “the important part the colonies must soon have in regulating the political balance” by adopting a “constitution purged of [the] impurities” of the English government and informed by “an experience of its faults”.
Our dual experience of freedom and self-government continues. Human nature forbids perfection. What makes America special and worth celebrating is the audacity of our aspiration.
John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with ancient American history (FolkloreCycle.com).