Monday, October 10

American Exceptionalism

“Government is but a tool. If ever we come to the place where our tools determine what jobs we can or cannot do, and by what means, then nary a fortnight shall pass in which new freedoms shall be wrested from us straightway. Societal problems are solved by families and communities as they carefully and discriminately use a variety of tools." Henry Cabot Lodge

"The Constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government--lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” Patrick Henry

“The principles of the Constitution form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.” Thomas Jefferson

“Every word of the Constitution ultimately decides a question between power and liberty.” James Madison

The English pundit G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” Other nations find their identity and cohesion in ethnicity, or geography, or partisan ideology, or cultural tradition. But America was founded on certain ideas—ideas about freedom, about human dignity, and about social responsibility. They are objective ideas—as must be the case if they are to take the form of a creed—codified in a sovereign standard of law, a constitution.

It was this profound peculiarity in the affairs of men and nations that most struck Alexis de Tocqueville during his famous visit to this land at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He called it “American exceptionalism.” Sir Henry Maine, the renowned British historian simply called it “the evident genius of the American Constitution.”

No other instrument of government—ancient or modern—produced such stability, offered such freedom, enjoyed such prosperity, or conveyed such hope as this one document. And amazingly, during more than two centuries of social, cultural, political, and technological revolution throughout the entire world, this Constitution has endured, fundamentally unchanged.

All the other European social contracts, manifestos, national charters, and constitutions of the eighteenth century have long since been consigned to the dust bin of history. The lofty ambitions ensconced in the constitutions of Latin America drawn up in the halcyon days of their new-found independence have all vanished. All the nationalist declarations drawn up in the heady days following the First World War are likewise gone. Those constitutions promulgated at the end of the Second World War have hardly fared better. And there is little doubt that the same fate yet awaits the emerging democracies that have begun dotting the maps of Europe, Asia, and Africa following the collapse of Communism.

Through it all, the American Constitution has flourished. It is a creed that has withstood every test.

Drawing on a great wealth of sage knowledge and practical experience, the Founding Fathers codified in their national charter a whole host of carefully wrought provisions designed to preserve the freedoms and liberties of the people. They designed the government with a series of interlocking checks and balances—not only were the executive, legislative, and judicial branches given spheres of authority over which the others could not interfere, localities, regions, states, and even individuals were afforded certain hedges against the imposition of tyranny. Powers were carefully separated. Authorities were circumspectly delineated. Rights were vigilantly secured.

Rather than yield to the inherent weaknesses of pure democracy, absolute monarchy, elitist oligarchy, radical republicanism, or haughty aristocracy, the Founders created the Constitution as a bastion of a kind of mixed government known as Federalism. It was to be a confederation of accountable spheres and covenantal sovereignties. It provided the nation with a government of laws, not rulers. It established a legacy of limited government, as Jefferson asserted, “laced up straitly within enumerated powers.”

History has proven the brilliance of the plan. Hardly the fruit of an antiquarian system meant for an agrarian people, the Constitution’s genius is that it is, as president Calvin Coolidge once asserted, “grounded upon a firm foundation of enduring principles, applicable to any society for any time.” It is a creed. It is the very quintessence of American exceptionalism.


Chris Yokel said...

Excellent post. However, I'm afraid I would have to sadly take exception to your statement that "this Constitution has endured, fundamentally unchanged." While the letter has remained, the letter has been ignored and manipulated and twisted so badly that I think the framers would find our modern government unrecognizable in many ways.

Amber Benton said...

Dr. Grant, I just finished your book Blood of the Moon. It was the first of yours I have read, and the first I have read on this topic. I was already drawn in to trying to reclaim my understanding of history through a Christian worldview, but now I am determined - thanks. I found the comparison of our two Roosevelt's most enlightening. My husband just made me aware of this website: which has given me a new vision for WWI, it made it more real for me to see this in color instead of black and white (I guess that comes from being in this generation.)

Thanks for all you write, you are greatly enhancing my studies!

Amber Benton
Charlotte, NC
homeschooling Mom to 3 young boys
(I'm the one who sent the package to Wes. And I was wondering how he is doing)