From Revolution to Indispensability
Continuing the discussion of American exceptionalism.


Conrad Black

Thanks to Rich Lowry for his very gracious and effective response to my comments on his and Ramesh Ponnuru’s strong National Review cover piece on American exceptionalism. With his clarifications, especially on the deterioration of some qualities of current American life that are no longer exceptional, such disagreement as there was between us is down to very marginal points.


Rich’s reference to “European countries, Japan, and Canada” being more obedient and deferential to authority than Americans passes over the fact that much of Europe has no respect for any authority, an endearing but not necessarily always a good thing. And I thought we were discussing human rights, not public attitudes. Canadians certainly do not have fewer rights than Americans and have not had since the independence and confederation of that country in 1867.


I don’t think “We are a nation of (Benjamin) Franklins” and “We are a nation of middle-class property-owners” are identical statements, and I agree that Franklin’s services to American independence were heroic. I meant only that genius and heroism aren’t the same thing. And of course, I agree that Woodrow Wilson had reservations about the U.S. Constitution, but I do not believe that he thought it a mistake to have established the United States as an independent and democratic country.

Calling the early South an “outlier” in American democracy is appropriate, but it is a bold gambit in terms of running the country, as nine of the first twelve presidents were southerners, and then none of the next 19 presidents after 1848, until 1964.

Not quite so easily accommodated are the reflections of Jonah Goldberg. I clearly struck a raw nerve in my reference to the Revolutionary War as, in part, “a rather grubby contest about taxes,” when Britain asked the colonists to pay a representative share of the costs of ejecting France from Canada in the Seven Years’ War. He raises this hoary point four times in a short piece, like a hyperactive cuckoo clock. In his wrath, he even accuses Rich Lowry of letting me “off the hook,” claps his cyber-hand to his furrowed forehead, and exclaims “Oh please,” like Truman Capote arguing with Kenneth Tynan, and solemnly admonishes his colleagues that it is not “wise or necessary for National Review to be seen as relitigating the American Revolution.” No one asked for that.

At no point have I ever suggested that the American Revolution was “just” a genius spin-job on a massive tax-cheat, and I agree with Mr. Goldberg that any such claim, as he scoldingly put it, “really won’t do.” I have never left anyone in any doubt whose historic side I was on in that conflict.