Recently Paul Ryan defined American exceptionalism as “just this”:
while most nations at most times have claimed their own history or culture to be exclusive, America’s foundations are not our own — they belong equally to every person everywhere. The truth that all human beings are created equal in their natural rights is the most “inclusive” social truth ever discovered as a foundation for a free society. “All” means “all”! You can’t get more “inclusive” than that!
I’ll say! This is a big-hearted and generous-minded idea, but for our own purposes, we need a boundary smaller than the whole world.
American exceptionalism begins in the fact that America was founded by a people united in belief in certain truths. Theoretically, these truths are universal and applicable to all mankind, but they require a culture with the capacity to transmit them. Thus John Jay in Federalist 2:
With equal pleasure I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
So it’s not that there was no culture, only ideas, at the time of the Founding. It’s that the underlying culture was presumed. This early homogeneity may have been part of why the ideology was able to thrive, which in turn may be part of American exceptionalism. Of no less importance, Jay also notes the specific effort and sacrifice it took to establish the universal ideals.
Of course, as history progressed, American citizenship and peoplehood expanded, but always with assimilation to the cultural base. Our new reign of diversity and multiculturalism presents something new and untried. Certain cultural components, such as Judeo-Christian principles, are still vital to sustaining the American creed. By contrast, for example, is a religion that commends polygamy compatible with our way of life? If we want to preserve American exceptionalism, we should ask questions like that instead of throwing ourselves on the benevolence of the universe, where we may find that our exceptionalism dissolves in the ether.