Is America's past a tale of racism, sexism, and bigotry? Is it the story of the
conquest and rape of a continent? Is U.S. history the story of white slave owners
who perverted the electoral process for their own interests? Did America
start with Columbus's killing all the Indians, leap to Jim Crow laws and Rockefeller
crushing the workers,then finally save itself with Franklin Roosevelt's New
Deal? The answers, of course, are no, no, no, and NO.
One might never know this, however, by looking at almost any mainstream
U.S. history textbook. Having taught American history in one form or another for
close to sixty years between us, we are aware that, unfortunately, many students
are berated with tales of the Founders as self-interested politicians and slaveholders,
of the icons of American industry as robber-baron oppressors, and of every
American foreign policy initiative as imperialistic and insensitive. At least Howard
Zinn's A People's History of the United States honestly represents its Marxist
biases in the title!
What is most amazing and refreshing is that the past usually speaks for itself.
The evidence is there for telling the great story of the American past honestly
--with flaws, absolutely; with shortcomings, most definitely. But we think that an
honest evaluation of the history of the United States must begin and end with the
recognition that, compared to any other nation, America's past is a bright and
shining light. America was, and is, the city on the hill, the fountain of hope, the
beacon of liberty. We utterly reject "My country right or wrong"-- what scholar
wouldn't? But in the last thirty years, academics have taken an equally destructive
approach: "My country, always wrong!" We reject that too.
Instead, we remain convinced that if the story of America's past is told fairly,
the result cannot be anything but a deepened patriotism, a sense of awe at the
obstacles overcome, the passion invested, the blood and tears spilled, and the
nation that was built. An honest review of America's past would note, among
other observations, that the same Founders who owned slaves instituted numerous
ways --political and intellectual-- to ensure that slavery could not survive;
that the concern over not just property rights, but all rights, so infused American
life that laws often followed the practices of the common folk, rather than dictated
to them; that even when the United States used her military power for dubious
reasons, the ultimate result was to liberate people and bring a higher
standard of living than before; that time and again America's leaders have willingly
shared power with those who had none, whether they were citizens of territories,
former slaves, or disenfranchised women. And we could go on.
The reason so many academics miss the real history of America is that they
assume that ideas don't matter and that there is no such thing as virtue. They
could not be more wrong. When John D. Rockefeller said, "The common man
must have kerosene and he must have it cheap, "Rockefeller was already a wealthy
man with no more to gain. When Grover Cleveland vetoed an insignificant seed
corn bill, he knew it would hurt him politically, and that he would only win
condemnation from the press and the people --but the Constitution did not permit
it, and he refused.
In fact America is an exceptional nation, not because its people are inherently
superior, smarter, braver, or more moral, but because it is the only nation on
earth that, from its founding, rested on four "pillars" that no other nation shared.
The first two pillars focus on religion and small government politics, and the
second two are economic pillars that support the first two. These "Pillars of
American Exceptionalism" are as follows:
1) The country originated in a Christian, mostly Protestant religious tradition
that valued a bottom-up church governance called "congregationalism".
From their first appearance in the early 1600s, Puritans believed
that individual church congregations, not a church hierarchy such as a
presbytery, an archbishop, or a pope, should set local church policy. Of
course, heresy (deemed as ideas that were too far outside the mainstream
of Puritan thinking) was not permitted, but instead of being burned at
the stake, heretics in early American colonies were simply shown the
door and shooed off to another place. No other Protestant nation had
such an origin. The Pilgrims and the Puritans, later followed by other
congregationalists, thus instilled in the colonies (the United States) a bias
toward democracy and government "of the people, by the people, and for
2) Another fator, "common law," reinforced the "bottom-up" structures of
government. Common law originated with medieval Germanic tribes,
then gravitated to England, before settlers brought it over to the colonies.
It held that God put the laws in the hearts of the people, and they
in turn elected or selected rulers who reflected that "general will." This
was in direct contrast to the other European nations that followed the
practice pf "divine right of kings," in which God placed all authority in
the hands of the monarch and people had to act accordingly. That was a
"top-down" form of government later cemented across Europe by Napoleon
in the Napoleonic Code.
3) The third pillar involves the right to own private property with written
titles and deeds. Coming through English tradition in the Middle Ages,
the respect for private property spread to the common man from the
upper classes through written titles and deeds that were harder (though
not impossible) for a monarch to ignore or violate. Their economic value
was immense, as one's property could be used as collateral for loans,
ensuring exceptional business growth not found in other parts of the
world. Moreover, this pillar supported widespread respect for the law
because anyone could acquire property protected by the government.
4) The final pillar, capitalism, came in 1776 with the publication of The
Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, but took until the 1790's to fully reach
American shores. The free markets undergirded America's penchant for
the protection of individual rights and the distaste for "big government"
in that free markets relied on individual choice, not market direction, to
advance the economy.
Taken together these four pillars made America truly an exceptional nation
among all those in the world.
But there were other less-institutionalized elements that defined the American
character. Consider the scene more than two hundred years ago when President John
Adams -—just voted out of office by the hated Republicans of Thomas Jefferson—-
mounted a carriage and left Washington even before the inauguration. There was
no armed struggle. Not a musket ball was fired, nor a political opponent hanged.
No Federalists marched with guns or knives in the streets. There was no guillotine.
And just four years before that, in 1796, Adams had taken part in an equally
momentous event when he won a razor-thin close election over Jefferson and,
because of Senate rules, had to count his own contested ballots. When he came
to the contested Georgia ballot, the great Massachusetts revolutionary, the “Duke
of Braintree,” stopped counting. He sat down for a moment to allow Jefferson or
his associates to make a challenge, and when he did not, Adams finished the
tally, becoming president. Jefferson told confidants that he thought the ballots
were indeed in dispute, but he would not wreck the country over a few pieces of
paper. As Adams took the oath of office, he thought he heard Washington say, “I
am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!”1 So much
for protecting his own interests! Washington stepped down freely and enthusiastically,
not at bayonet point. He walked away from power, as nearly each and
every American president has done since.
These giants knew that their actions of character mattered far more to the
nation they were creating than mere temporary political positions. The ideas they
fought for together in 1776 and debated in 1787 were paramount. And that is
what American history is truly about --ideas. Ideas such as "All men are created
equal"; the United States is the "last, best hope" of earth; and America "is great,
because it is good."
Honor counted to founding patriots like Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and
then later, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Character counted. Property was also
important; no denying that, because with property came liberty. But virtue came
first. Even J. P. Morgan, the epitome of the so-called robber baron, insisted that "the
first thing is character . . . before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it."
It is not surprising, then, that so many left-wing historians miss the boat
(and miss it, and miss it, and miss it to the point where they need a ferry schedule).
They fail to understand what every colonial settler and every western pioneer
understood: character was tied to a Christian tradition, which was then
tied to liberty through a widespread acceptance of common law, and liberty to
property -- preserved and protected by titles and deeds and, soon, by a free market.
All four were needed for success, but character was the prerequisite
because it put the law behind property agreements, and it set responsibility right
next to liberty. And the surest way to ensure the presence of good character was
to keep God at the center of one’s life, community, and ultimately, nation.
“Separation of church and state” meant freedom to worship, not freedom from worship.
It went back to that link between liberty and responsibility, and no one
could be taken seriously who was not responsible to God. “Where the Spirit of
the Lord is, there is liberty.” They believed those words.
As colonies became independent and as the nation grew, these ideas permeated
the fabric of the founding documents. Despite pits of corruption that have
pockmarked federal and state politics --some of them quite deep -- and despite
abuses of civil rights that were shocking, to say the least, the concept was deeply
imbedded that only a virtuous nation could achieve the lofty goals set by the
Founders. Over the long haul, the Republic required virtuous leaders to prosper.
Yet virtue and character alone were not enough. It took competence, skill,
and talent to build a nation. That's where property came in: with secure property
rights, people from all over the globe flocked to America's shores. With secure
property rights, anyone could become successful, from an immigrant Jew like
Lionel Cohen and his famous Lionel toy trains to an Austrian bodybuilder-turned-millionaire
actor and governor like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Carnegie arrived
penniless; Ford's company went broke; and Lee Iacocca had to eat crow on
national TV for his company's mistakes. Secure property rights not only made it
possible for them all to succeed but, more important, established a climate of
competition that rewarded skill, talent, and risk taking.
Political skill was essential too. From 1850 to 1860 the United States was
nearly rent in half by inept leaders, whereas an integrity vacuum nearly destroyed
American foreign policy and shattered the economy in the decades of the 1960s
and early 1970s. Moral, even pious, men have taken the nation to the brink of
collapse because they lacked skill, and some of the most skilled politicians in the
world --Henry Clay, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton --left legacies of frustration and
corruption because their abilities were never wedded to character.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, there was a subtle and, at times,
obvious campaign to separate virtue from talent, to divide character from success.
The latest in this line of attack is the emphasis on diversity --that somehow
merely having different skin shades or national origins makes America special.
But it was not the color of the skin of people who came here that made them
special, it was the content of their character. America remains a beacon of liberty,
not merely because its institutions have generally remained strong, its citizens
free, and its attitudes tolerant, but because it, among most of the developed
world, still cries out as a nation, "Character counts." Personal liberties in America
are genuine because of the character of honest judges and attorneys who, for the
most part, still make up the judiciary, and because of the personal integrity of
large numbers of local, state, and national lawmakers.
No society is free from corruption. The difference is that in America,
corruption is viewed as the exception, not the rule. And when light is shown on it,
corruption is viciously attacked. Freedom still attracts people to the fountain of
hope that is America, but freedom alone is not enough. Without responsibility
and virtue, freedom becomes a soggy anarchy, an incomplete licentiousness.
This is what has made Americans different: their fusion of freedom and integrity
endows Americans with their sense of right, often when no other nation in the
world shares their perception.
Yet that is as telling about other nations as it is our own; perhaps it is that as
Americans, we alone remain committed to both the individual and the greater
good, to personal freedoms and to public virtue, to human achievement and
respect for the Almighty. Slavery was abolished because of the dual commitment to
liberty and virtue—neither capable of standing without the other. Some crusades
in the name of integrity have proven disastrous, including Prohibition. The most
recent serious threats to both liberty and public virtue (abuse of the latter damages
both) have come in the form of the modern environmental and consumer
safety movements. Attempts to sue gun makers, paint manufacturers, tobacco
companies, and even Microsoft “for the public good” have made distressingly
steady advances, encroaching on Americans’ freedoms to eat fast foods, smoke, or
modify their automobiles, not to mention start businesses or invest in existing
firms without fear of retribution. By the early twenty-first century, a New York
mayor had attempted to ban soft drinks over a certain size; San Francisco had
waged a war on plastic bags; and elementary schools across the nation had prohibited
everything from soccer balls to doing cartwheels—all in the name of “public
safety.” Many, particularly foreigners and especially America’s enemies, came to
view this as weakness and “sissification.”
The Founders --each and every one of them --would have been horrified at
such intrusions on liberty, regardless of the virtue of the cause, not because they
were elite white men, but because such actions in the name of the public good
were simply wrong. It all goes back to character: the best way to ensure virtuous
institutions (whether government, business, schools, or churches) was to populate
them with people of virtue. Europe forgot this in the nineteenth century, or
by World War I at the latest. Despite rigorous and punitive face-saving traditions
in the Middle East or Asia, these twin principles of liberty and virtue have never
been adopted. Only in America, where one was permitted to do almost anything,
but expected to do the best thing, did these principles germinate.
To a great extent, that is why, on March 4, 1801, John Adams would have
thought of nothing other than to turn the White House over to his hated foe,
without fanfare, self-pity, or complaint, and return to his everyday life away from
politics. That is why, on the few occasions where very thin electoral margins
produced no clear winner in the presidential race (such as 1824, 1876, 1888,
1960, and 2000), the losers (after some legal maneuvering, recounting of votes,
and occasional whining) nevertheless stepped aside and congratulated the winner
of a different party. Adams may have set a precedent, but in truth he would
do nothing else. After all, he was a man of character.