John Winthrop, a wealthy Puritan lawyer and would-be theologian, might be styled a founder of “American exceptionalism.” It was his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, that contained the line made famous in modern times by President Ronald Reagan, “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us."
His role in the exceptionalism meme is appropriate in another way, since he’s said to have kept three Pequots as slaves after he engineered the military defeat of the tribe. Most of the male Pequots were traded away for Negro slaves, illustrating the ongoing problem of keeping Indian slaves: if they escaped, they had somewhere to go.
Winthrop’s theological view of land titles converged nicely with colonial desires. Any land not being put to immediate use was considered free for the taking, and take the colonists did. God favored farmers over hunter-gatherers. How convenient.
While the Winthrops and the Reagans deserve a flogging I’d be happy to deliver, I’m not so certain that the United States is lacking in the good kind of exceptionalism.
There was a revolution here and it was, like all revolutions, in the name of “the people.” Then as now, some people counted more than others. People were sorted by skin color, by religion, by gender—all as they are today. “The people” meant white, male property owners, just as the “rights” protected in the English Magna Carta were rights guaranteed to feudal lords at a time when most of “the people” were property of those lords, the right to their labor running with the land.
The American Revolution was not the first nor the last uprising in the name of “the people,” but it differed from the French, Russian, Mexican, Chinese, Cuban, and many other revolutions in that it produced a government immediately capable of yielding power without violence, repeatedly. Lest the English claim credit for peaceful governance after royalty is pitched out, look at what happened to poor Oliver Cromwell. Not only is his place in the history of democracy hotly contested, the royalists dug him up just so they could behead him posthumously. And they claim Indians are weird?
Another thing about the American Revolution. The operative definition of “the people” has changed over time in one direction. It has steadily expanded to encompass white males without property, women, gay people, and even non-whites. Progress for non-whites comes slowly to this day because they are easily sorted by color and the US made two bargains with the Devil at the founding of the nation that plague us to the present day.
Coming out of the chute, the first strong Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall, was able to write the inherent inferiority of American Indians into the Constitution.
Second, that same document was founded on tolerance of chattel slavery. It took a Civil War to break that infernal bargain on paper and the Civil Rights Movement to attack the social practices that continued to render blackness one of the “badges and incidents of slavery.”
Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans have made more progress than we have. Our nonviolent struggle for equal treatment is hobbled by the same disunity that doomed our violent resistance to colonization in the first place.
Various waves of immigrants have been subjected to disadvantage, and I predict the next to suffer will be the Afghans who threw in with the US in its longest war.
At various times, Asians and Hispanics have been disadvantaged in law, but that is over. Some social disadvantage remains, but there are limits to what law can accomplish in people’s hearts and when we talk about American exceptionalism, we are talking about, first of all, law.
In law, rights have always expanded over time, as have the classes of people who have rights.
The U.S. is exceptional in that it was the first revolution to segue immediately into a government capable of the peaceful transition of power.
The U.S. is exceptional in that its written charter, by assuming the worst in human beings, seems to slowly, too slowly, bring out the best in human beings. All power in the Constitution is balanced by another power held by another institution. The separation of powers principle allows institutions to check each other.
Where there has been need to move quickly, the Constitution has been an obstacle and Presidents have played fast and loose with it. President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. President Truman nationalized the steel mills. President Nixon imposed wage and price controls by fiat. It all came out in the wash.
Except when it didn’t. President Jackson sent my people and many others on the Trail of Tears in violation of principles made up by Chief Justice Marshall. President Theodore Roosevelt shredded the treaty rights of the Five Tribes to create the state of Oklahoma, where I would be born and raised. The Supreme Court, in Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, would have written Indian nations out of the Constitution if they had been there in the first place.
If you read American exceptionalism as a claim of perfection, it’s nonsense, and this brings us back to the worthy John Winthrop and his partial quotation by President Reagan. After placing the Massachusetts Colony as a “city on the hill” being observed by “the eyes of all people,” he went on “so that if we shall deal falsely … in this work we have undertaken … we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. … We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
If you take “this work we have undertaken” to mean, as President Reagan meant, President Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” then we the people must keep our eyes on that end because the world’s eyes are on us. If we fail, we fail spectacularly.
President Reagan took Rev. Winthrop to be bragging about a success when Winthrop was in fact warning about the consequences of failure. America in fact makes exceptional claims, but the laurels go not to those who would sit on them but those would help this nation grow into the terms of its promise.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.