In his article “What is American Exceptionalism?”, Ian Tyrrell writes, “In its classic forms, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty.”

The word “except” means “not including.” An “exception” is something not included in a set of characteristics, when there are otherwise some similarities. “Exceptional” means being an exception. “Exceptionalism” then means being exceptional and unique, and applied to a country, exceptionalism means that there is some aspect or characteristic that makes it different from all other countries.

What makes the United States of America unique among all countries cannot be the culture, the practices, or the system of government. The USA is not uniquely free or democratic, nor are the ideals of liberty and justice unique to the USA, as the French revolution and country, for example, had and still has the motto of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Nor is exceptionalism having a belief, a patriotic pride in accomplishments and history, since, as Obama stated, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

According to Tyrrell, “American exceptionalism” was coined by Marxists to explain why the USA by-passed the otherwise deterministic rise of socialism or even a major socialist movement. Explanations include the abundance of land, although that would apply also to Canada and Australia, or to Siberia, so that does not make the USA unique. The widespread use of the term derives from a Communist usage in the 1920s, including the rejection of the concept. But long prior to this usage, Alexis de Tocqueville used the term “exceptional” in Democracy in America (1840): "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."

The Wikipedia article on American exceptionalism bases it on three ideas. First is the history of the USA. Second is a mission to transform the world, if only to serve as an example. Third is American superiority due to its ideology and mission.

The Wikipedia article on American exceptionalism bases it on three ideas. First is the history of the USA. Second is a mission to transform the world, if only to serve as an example. Third is American superiority due to its ideology and mission. But 1) other countries had revolutions establishing a new system; 2) other countries such as the USSR had a mission, and some religions also have a global mission; 3) the feeling of superiority is not unique to the USA. Therefore some scholars believe that American exceptionalism is a useless myth.

While the typical American belief in liberty in the abstract is not unique, what is unique to the USA, so far as I know, is the constitutional recognition of natural rights in the 9th Amendment and in some of the state constitutions.

While the typical American belief in liberty in the abstract is not unique, what is unique to the USA, so far as I know, is the constitutional recognition of natural rights in the 9th Amendment and in some of the state constitutions. The 9th Amendment to the US Constitution states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The California constitution states, in Article I, Section 24, “This declaration of rights may not be construed to impair or deny others retained by the people.” These “others” are common-law and natural rights.

Natural rights are the moral rights based on natural moral law, a universal ethic derived from two aspects of human nature. The British philosopher John Locke expressed the premises in his Second Treatise of Government: “that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Natural rights are the moral rights based on natural moral law, a universal ethic derived from two aspects of human nature. The British philosopher John Locke expressed the premises in his Second Treatise of Government: “that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Locke recognized as a fact, that there are no inherent inequalities of human worth, and that thinking and feeling occur individually. From the biological premises of equality and independence, “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it.” Influenced by Locke, the founders of the US Constitution inscribed the recognition of pre-existing rights into the Constitution with the 9th Amendment.

American exceptionalism is the recognition of natural law and natural rights in the Constitution, even though in practice, the US government did not implement it. The exceptionalism is the ideal of equal liberty, not the practice, although the ideal has influenced reforms such as the abolition of slavery, the recognition of American Indians as equal citizens, equal voting rights for women, and the movement promoting racial equality in civil rights.

Do other country constitutions recognize natural rights? Other constitutions do proclaim a bill of rights. The constitution of Ecuador recognizes “Rights for Nature,” that the living beings of nature have the right to exist. The Constitution of Jamaica has a “Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms” that recognizes human and fundamental rights.

The American exception is not the declaration of rights but the recognition that rights are not established by the constitution, that rights existed prior to the constitution, and are recognized by the constitution, thereby making them also constitutional rights. A recognition of “human rights” implies that also, but American exceptionalism would be voided only if another country’s constitution had wording similar to that of the 9th Amendment. It is not enough to recognize that there are moral or human rights; they need to be recognized as natural rights, derived from natural law. Only the recognition of natural moral law can put teeth into the constitutional recognition of human rights, since otherwise the constitutions don’t fully recognize human rights by stating exceptions, conditions, and vague qualifications.

The American exception is not the declaration of rights but the recognition that rights are not established by the constitution, that rights existed prior to the constitution, and are recognized by the constitution, thereby making them also constitutional rights. A recognition of “human rights” implies that also, but American exceptionalism would be voided only if another country’s constitution had wording similar to that of the 9th Amendment. It is not enough to recognize that there are moral or human rights; they need to be recognized as natural rights, derived from natural law. Only the recognition of natural moral law can put teeth into the constitutional recognition of human rights, since otherwise the constitutions don’t fully recognize human rights by stating exceptions, conditions, and vague qualifications.

The constitutions of other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, that have a relatively high degree of liberty, are based on “parliamentary sovereignty.” The state, through its parliament, is sovereign, in contrast to the US Constitution’s recognizing individual personal sovereignty, per the 9th Amendment. Parliaments enact laws allowing some liberty, but they also limit liberty, as the constitution allocates all power to the parliament.

The French Declaration of Rights recognizes natural rights, but also states that “The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation,” and that “The law is the expression of the general will.” The American exception is the rejection of parliamentary, governmental, and national sovereignty, that “we the people” are recognized as individually sovereign. There is no “general will,” but only individual wills.

American exceptionalism has been an ideal, not recognized in its full glory, only partially practiced. If any other constitution does declare that there are rights that pre-exist, then America would no longer be unique and exceptional.

© Text Copyright Fred Foldvary, Ph.D. rights reserved.
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