On December 22, 1783, after eight long years of war, General George Washington surrendered his commission to Congress. The act was the response to a viable plot by his officers, with Washington as their leader, to march on Congress and take over the government. This was a plot that would have obviously altered the course of history, but something not uncommon in a post revolutionary environment. Similarly, in 1796, then President Washington announced that he would not run for a third term, and instead return to his beloved Mount Vernon.
We often hear political commentators either defend or criticize the term, american exceptionalism. Unfortunately, we rarely hear a discussion of what it actually means. Given the connotation of the term, and the tone of many who proselytize the concept, I understand why many react adversely to it. As a Christian, it is not my place to view myself or my country as better than any other. The negative reaction, however, often derives from a misunderstanding of the term.
Speaking of the exceptional nature of the United States does not mean we are better than the rest of the world, and does not overlook any of our many mistakes. Conversely, this phrase acknowledges our human nature. We are imperfect beings, and George Washington understood his own imperfections as well as anyone.
For the first time in human history, our founders by God’s grace, created a contract where we completely submitted ourselves to the rule of law, with a balance of power for protection. That is exceptional. As a people, we’ve done some awful things, but our deference to the rule of law to protect individual liberty has acted as a beacon of hope to the world. The term is not a recognition of our superiority, it’s an admission of our guilt.
So from on when you hear the term american exceptionalism, think humility.