Tomorrow, the Fourth of July, Americans will celebrate their independence, the birth of a free nation. Leading the celebrations will be a president mysteriously dependent on a foreign power—a president who lavishly praises dictators and publicly despises the institutions of freedom, not only the free press but also an independent judiciary and other constitutional restraints on his will.
This is a Fourth tinged with sad ironies. Can we put the occasion to any good use? Near the end of a much more terrible national ordeal, Abraham Lincoln urged Americans: "Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from.” Good advice. We should try.
A traditional theme of the rhetoric of the Fourth is the celebration of “American exceptionalism.” That phrase has acquired a boastful overtone, which is why President Obama famously handled it so diffidently. "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
“American exceptionalism" began its career, however, not as a boast, but as a question.
“Why is there no socialism in the United States?” asked a Marxist German in 1906. According to Marxist ideology, the United States—as the most highly developed capitalist nation—should have led the way toward proletarian class-consciousness. When that did not happen, Marxists squirmed to explain the deficiency away. Non-Marxists took up the inquiry after World War II. With a Labor government nationalizing railways and steelworks in Britain—Germany shattered by Nazism—and communism holding Russia, China, and half of Europe in its grip, the United States stood out as a lonely beacon of liberalism. Again America seemed a special case that needed explaining. This time the explanations came from fellow-liberals who admired the American exception, which is how the phrase acquired its secondary and more positive meaning.