It is with regret and trepidation that I take some issue with Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s stimulating essay on American exceptionalism in the March 8 issue of National Review. I am afraid they exaggerate the pristine idealism of the founders of the United States, and the current state of the effervescence of its democracy. They state that America has always had “a unique role and mission in the world; as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it.”
There is no doubt that this is the country’s longstanding self-image, and the American genius for the spectacle, for public relations and advertising, which is as old as the republic, gathered much credence for this version of events, through the polemical talents of Jefferson, Paine, Patrick Henry, and others. In fact, though King George III and his prime minister, Lord North, handled it incompetently, they were really only trying to get the Americans to pay their fair share of the costs of throwing the French out of Canada and India in the Seven Years’ War.
Lowry and Ponnuru are correct that America was already the wealthiest place in the world per capita, and it had 40 percent of the population of Britain and was the chief beneficiary of the eviction of France from Canada. The colonists should certainly have paid something for the British efforts on their behalf, and “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes.
In its early years, the U.S. had no more civil liberties than Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and parts of Scandinavia. About 15 percent of its population were slaves and, in the Electoral College, the slaveholding states were accorded bonus electoral votes representing 60 percent of the slaves, so the voters in free states were comparatively disadvantaged. (If America had stayed in the British Empire for five years beyond the death of Jefferson and John Adams, the British would have abolished slavery for them and the country would have been spared the 700,000 dead of the Civil War.)
The authors write: “We are a nation of Franklins.” I don’t think so. Franklin was the principal architect of one of the greatest triumphs of statesmanship in modern history: America’s enlistment of Britain to evict France from Canada and of France to eject Britain from America, without which the colonists would not have won the Revolutionary War. America’s precocious manipulation of the world’s two greatest powers was brilliant, but not exactly heroic.
Nor was the United States much interested in exporting democracy. One of its greatest secretaries of state, John Quincy Adams, spoke of being a brilliant light and example, but of avoiding attempts to influence other countries except by example. After the country was established, there was almost no focus on foreign affairs generally until John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root, and then Woodrow Wilson (whom I do not accept to have been a non-believer in the goals of the Revolution, as the authors suggest). Then there was another lapse until the late 1930s, when the objective emerged of getting rid of the Nazis and Japanese imperialists, and Stalin was eventually sustained in doing most of the heavy work with the Germans. As late as 1944, the only democracies in the world were the U.S., the British Isles and Dominions, Switzerland, and the unoccupied parts of Scandinavia, though the French, Danes, Norwegians, and Benelux countries had legitimate hopes of democratic restorations.
The brilliant achievement of Roosevelt and Churchill in salvaging — from the disasters of 1939–41 — France, Germany, Italy, and Japan for the West, and of Roosevelt’s lieutenants (especially Truman, Marshall, MacArthur, and Eisenhower, with outstanding indigenous statesmen such as de Gaulle, Adenauer, and De Gasperi) in reconstituting those countries and their neighbors as democratic allies, took democracy decisively forward. So did the success of a number of American protégé countries that were or became democracies, such as Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, Chile, and Spain.
The propagation of democracy emerged as a goal only in the Cold War, and exceptions were made for all manner of dictators, from Franco to the Shah, Sadat, and Chiang Kai-shek. And the American-led victory in the Cold War brought the long-suffering Poles and Czechs, the Slovenians, Baltic countries, and others into the democratic column and crowned democracy with the laurel of a mighty and relatively bloodless geopolitical victory.