On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times titled, “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” His essay has been much debated, reviled by some and welcomed by others.
The paragraph that struck me most was his response to President Obama’s recent claims for American exceptionalism. Putin: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
According to a poll taken after Putin’s essay, 59 percent of likely American voters believe that “the United States is more exceptional than other nations.” Only 27 percent disagree, while 14 percent are not sure. So, is America “exceptional”?
Our founders thought so. In 1782, they enshrined this motto in the Great Seal of the United States: Novus Ordo Seclorum, “a new order of the ages.” On the same Seal they emblazoned Annuit Coeptis around the symbolic “eye of providence.” Taken together, they mean “Providence Has Favored Our Undertakings.”
In what way was America a “new order” favored by God? British writer G. K. Chesterton observed, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.” George Grant, introducing The American Patriot’s Handbook, states that “other nations find their identity and cohesion in ethnicity or geography or partisan ideology or cultural tradition. But America was founded on certain ideas—ideas about freedom, about human dignity, and about social responsibility.” He notes, “It was this profound peculiarity that most struck Alexis de Tocqueville during his famous visit to this land at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He called it ‘American exceptionalism.'”
America’s exceptional commitment to freedom, dignity and social responsibility began with the first Europeans to settle here. In 1630, Puritan leader John Winthrop called their experiment a “City upon a Hill.” As his followers sailed to the New World, he warned them: “The eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work, we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us.”
Here is how his message closed: “Beloved there is now set before us life and good, death and evil in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His ordinance, and His laws, and the articles of our covenant with Him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.”
What would Winthrop say about America’s exceptionalism today?