July 4th is celebrated as Independence Day—the day the 13 colonies formally declared their independence from Great Britain. In truth, that decision was made on July 2nd, 1776, in a vote by the Continental Congress. July 4th is the day the Congress issued the Declaration of Independence—a document justifying that break with an eye toward “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” In that respect, the Declaration was as much a foreign policy document as a simple statement of the governing principles by which both our break from London and our future government was to be judged. A government’s failure to take account of the fact that “all men are created equal” and a failure to secure men’s individual rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means that a people, any people, has justifiable grounds for “abolishing” its ties, its allegiance, to that government.
As was obvious to both the Founders who drafted and approved the Declaration, and the monarchies and despotisms that ruled the vast majority of the rest of mankind, the American declaration of these principles was a revolutionary moment not only for a sliver of the North American continent but, potentially, for the rest of the world. The United States, initially weak relative to the other great powers in the world and, as such, disinclined to involve itself in the their conflicts, set itself inevitably on a course that is aptly captured in the title of Robert Kagan’s history of early American statecraft, Dangerous Nation. Here, for the first time in history, was a government whose legitimacy explicitly rested on the claims of human nature and not on common blood, soil, language, religion, or ancient tradition.
This is the true root of American exceptionalism and why it is more apt that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th rather than July 2nd. It is the creed, the principles, of the Declaration that define the United States—not our successful break from British rule.
President Obama was surely right when he said that other nations, such as the Greeks, no doubt “believe in Greek exceptionalism” just as Americans believe in American exceptionalism. But this is to confuse and conflate “exceptionalism” with day-to-day “nationalism” and to overlook just how revolutionary and transformative the American experiment in liberal self-government was, and has been.
Up to that moment, republican rule was an exception, and an exception that occasionally but rarely dotted the landscape of political rule through the centuries. Today, through the growth of American power to support those universal principles—and, lest we forget, through our own bloody test of a civil war to ensure their survival—the world truly has been transformed.
Image credit: Statistics on Democracy
July 4th is a day to celebrate America’s birth. But Americans can proudly, and justly so, celebrate that July 4th is also the day the Americans gave birth to a set of ideas that not only transformed their own polity but that of the world at large. So fire off a few bottle-rockets, light as many sparklers as you like, and know that the United States of America is, indeed, exceptional as no other nation in the history of the world has been.
Gary Schmitt is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at American Enterprise Institute and the director of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship.