There is a word which is uniquely associated with the United States of America. That word is Exceptionalism. This term was first used in association with America in 1831 by French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. He traveled throughout the United States in the 1830s, spending two years absorbing everything he could about this remarkable new nation. Remember: at the time de Tocqueville was crisscrossing the American landscape there were only 24 states.
In de Tocqueville’s first book, Democracy in America, (1835) he writes, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” The actual term, “American Exceptionalism,” was coined in 1929 by Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, which he used in criticizing the American Communist Party. The definition for American Exceptionalism is, “the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from its unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.”
The early settlers in America knew something unique was taking place on these shores. “The idea of America as an exceptional entity dates back to colonial times. Its roots can be found in the thought of Puritan settlers who regarded the North American continent as a promised land where a new Canaan could be built as a model for the rest of the world. The earliest expression of this belief that continues to live on in American public memory comes from John Winthrop, a Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop delivered a lay sermon aboard the Arbella, during its passage to New England in 1630, in which he declared that his fellow settlers "must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." This belief has persisted throughout our history and is what has been the underlying influence in our nation’s foreign policies.
It is this religious theme in American history that I find most fascinating. Based upon the definition for American Exceptionalism, I believe God was granting this fallen world another opportunity to experience freedoms that were both religious and political – something quite unique in the annals of world history. De Tocqueville wrote, “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”
In an attempt to explain the uniqueness he found in America, de Tocqueville made this astute observation: “There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”
In a pamphlet written in 1855 entitled, “Liberty Bell: Testimony Against Slavery,” de Tocqueville boldly expresses his grave concerns over the practice of slavery in America with all of its apparent contradictions. “I do not think it is for me, a foreigner, to indicate to the United States the time, the measures, or the men by whom Slavery shall be abolished. Still, as the persevering enemy of despotism everywhere, and under all its forms, I am pained…… An old and sincere friend of America, I am uneasy at seeing Slavery retard her progress, tarnish her glory, furnish arms to her detractors, compromise the future career of the Union which is the guaranty of her safety and greatness, and point out beforehand to her, to all her enemies, the spot where they are to strike. As a man, too, I am moved at the spectacle of man's degradation by man, and I hope to see the day when the law will grant equal civil liberty to all the inhabitants of the same empire, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to the dwellers upon earth.”
Today we face enemies within and without our nation that are quick to disregard de Tocqueville’s exceptional analysis of America. Many say we are no more exceptional than any other nation and its history. It is true that each region and nation of the world has its own unique history. But I will be forever convinced that God chose America to be a beacon of hope to the world because of the spiritual and political balance that was established. There’s a reason why an annual average of one million immigrants are legally brought into the American family to pursue the American Dream.
With all of the problems our nation faces, America is still the last great hope of the world.