The True Meaning of Exceptionalism

Rich Tucker /



Lieutenant Colonels Peter Fromm, Douglas Pryer, and Kevin Cutright manage to make a negative out of a positive. In the latest issue of Military Review, they write that our military is filled with people who believe in American exceptionalism:

It usually occurs when Americans apprehend the empirical fact that they enjoy remarkable freedoms and prosperity and transfer those accomplishments of their forebears into feelings of personal superiority. Instead of perceiving their heritage as a lucky accident, they irrationally perceive it as a personal virtue and a sign of their own superiority.

The authors show a misunderstanding of both what American exceptionalism means and how it was born.

Americans are exceptional not because we think we’re better than others but because we know our country is different. The United States was founded on a universal truth, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence: All are created free and equal. No other country is dedicated to the principle of freedom and equality as we are. All other countries are founded on things such as ethnic traits or adherence to a particular religion.

Our unique founding explains why anyone can come here and become an American. You don’t have to be concerned about your race, religion, or color; you simply have to adopt our creed: liberty, equality, and government by consent.

Further, American’s heritage isn’t “a lucky accident,” as the journal piece puts it. “America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of particular principles about man, liberty, and constitutional government,” notes Matthew Spalding, a visiting fellow at Heritage. The Framers knew exactly what they were doing: allowing the people to govern themselves according to common beliefs and the rule of law. Luck has nothing to do with it.

Their true accomplishment, as social commentator Os Guinness says, is that the Framers managed to arrange freedom in a way that allowed it to last. And that’s also unique. “The French did not do it. The Russians and the Chinese did not do it,” Guinness explains. “In fact, their revolutions spiraled down to demonic disorder worse than the tyrannies they replaced. But the genius of the American Revolution [is that] they won freedom and they ordered freedom: the Constitution.”

American service members are, almost by definition, the tip of the spear. They represent our country overseas and carry forth our founding ideals. They live out those founding principles every day, often in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They, like the country they serve, are exceptional.