WASHINGTON, May 6, 2014 – The term American “exceptionalism” has become a part of our political discourse in recent years. Some in the political arena, such as President Barack Obama, have been accused by their critics of not believing in American exceptionalism.
What this “exceptionalism” involves remains undefined, although those who wield the term as a weapon may be surprised to learn what its essence really involves.
Recently, I visited the U.S. military cemetery at Nettuno, Italy, down the road from Anzio, with my son Peter and grandson Dario. This visit caused me to reflect on the unique nature of American society.
The Sicily/Rome American Cemetery, established as a temporary wartime cemetery on January 24, 1944, two days after the landing at Nettuno/Anzio, covers 77 acres. The total number of interred is 7,861, which represents only 35 per cent of those who died in combat from the invasion of Sicily to the liberation of Rome. The Wall of the Missing located in the chapel has 3,095 names inscribed
Twenty three sets of brothers are buried side by side, as well as two sets of twins.
The U.S. maintains 24 permanent military burial grounds on foreign soil for the 124,914 U.S. war dead interred.
Headstones of pristine marble Latin crosses mark the graves. Headstones of those of the Jewish faith are tapered marble shafts surmounted by a Star of David.
While looking at the names and birth dates on the headstones, I remarked to my son, then 31, that most of the soldiers there were much younger than he was at that time.
Reading the names of the dead and their hometowns tells us much about the uniqueness of the American society. Virtually all nationalities and ethnic groups are represented. In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote:
“We are the heirs of all time and with all nations we divide our inheritance. If you kill an American,” he said, “you shed the blood of the entire world.”
America is more than simply another country. Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his “Letters From an American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782:
“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
During the radicalism of the 1960s, when many young critics of America denounced their own country, although they understood little of its history, author Mario Puzo wrote:
“What happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries…whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.”
As a young man growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Puzo, who would later achieve fame as the author of “The Godfather,” was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up.
When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded that, “For a thousand years in Italy no one in our family was even able to read.” But in America everything was possible—in a single generation.
“It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her own dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself, and looking back she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her.”
Speaking in Philadelphia in 1776, Samuel Adams declared:
“Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last resort.”
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In his now famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, George Washington wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherited natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
In 1866, Lord Acton, the British Liberal party leader, said that America was becoming the “distant magnet.” Apart from the “millions who have crossed the ocean, who shall reckon the millions whose hearts and hopes are in the United States, to whom the rising sun is in the West.”
From the beginning, America has represented hope for a better future to people from throughout the world. In a letter written from London in 1849 by Thomas Carlyle to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the writer declares:
“How beautiful to think of lean tough Yankee settlers, tough as gutta-percha, with most occult unsubduable fire in their belly, steering over the Western Mountains to annihilate the jungle and bring bacon and corn out of it for the Posterity of Adam. There is no Myth of Athene or Herakles to equal this fact.”
This, of course, is not to say that our society has not had serious flaws, as any human enterprise must. Slavery tarnished our early history, as did the years of segregation which followed. But we built into our Constitution and our legal system the means to change—-and change we have, mostly for the better.
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany, Frenchmen have loved France, Swedes have loved Sweden. This is only natural. But America has been beloved not only by native Americans but by men and women of every race and nation who have yearned for freedom. America dreamed a bigger dream than any nation in the history of man.
In 1904, British author Israel Zangwill wrote a famous passage:
“America is God’s Crucible, the Great Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are reforming. Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups and your fifty languages and histories and your fifty blood-hat reds and rivalries. But you won’t long be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to—these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas. German and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians, into the crucible with you all. God is making the American.”
One wonders if Israel Zangwill visited America in 2014 if he would be surprised to see the Melting Pot still at work–now including not only Europeans but Asians, Africans and Latin Americans as well. America is still “becoming.
The willingness of so many brave people, like our own ancestors, to abandon their native lands and take a chance on America is an indication to the rest of us that we have fulfilled the promise of the nation’s founders.
This, in the end, is the essence of what American Exceptionalism means.