United States History: American Exceptionalism--Accomplishments

Many countries have made important achievements in world history. The Greeks invented democracy. The Romans are renowned for architecture and law. The French are known for art and the Germans for music. The Chinese in the medieval era were a phenomenal source of technology. The Russians are known for literature. The Dutch and English invented capitalism. Every country have made a contribution of some kind. The idea of American exceptionalism is a theory that America's contribution and society is unique or pronounced. We believe it is. And we believe that there are a long list of American ideals and accomplishments that substantiate America's status unique. America like any country is not without its missteps and misdeeds, but the accomplishments are so immense that America has more than earned its status as an exceptional, noble country. Here we are going to list some of those achievements and the reader can judge for his or herself. We do not pretend that our list is complete, but it is long enough and sufficiently impressive to firmly establish America's unique status as an exceptionally noble country. Many countries have made important contributions to the world, but no country comes even close to the achievements of America. So let's discuss America's phenomenalachievements.

Political Freedom: Democracy

America led the way in the modern world from monarchism to democracy. Here our English traditions led the way, beginning most notably with Magna Carta (1215) and the rise of Parliament. Britain was, however, not a democrcy at the time of the Revolution. There were serious limits on monarchial rule, but that was a far cry from democracy. And many throughout Europe blieved that the average man was not capable of self government. Even after the Revolution, most Europeans felt that the ametrican experiment would not work. And to decaded adter the american Revolution, the french Revolutoon quickly turned into an orgy of blood letting. At its creation, American democracy was limited, but from its creation there was a steady expansion of democrcy, most notably during the Jacksonin era when all property tests duaappeared (1830s). Abd then with the abolition of slavery and the extension of citizenship to the freed slaves (1860s). Even at this time, nost of Europe was still ruled by kings and emperors. America and its demovracy became a beacon to the world. Millions of Europeans flocked to America to enjoy the freedom and opportunity america offered. And this continues to be the case tiday.

Religious Freedom

America founded the principle of religious freedom. Until America was founded, it was the monarch who established a country's religion. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitutions established the principle of religious freedom. This was a process began with the Pilgriims a groip which descented from the established Church of England. The Pilgrims and Puritans, however, did not believe in religious freedom. They just though that theu should be the established church. Protestantusm by its very nature contained the germ of relgious freedom. A core belief in Protestantism is the need to read the Bible as the basic source of religious belief. The problem with this is that different people reading the Bible are inevitably going to reach different conclusions. This the proliferation of denominations was preordained. And so many denominations formed that there was no real alternstive to religiou freedom. And as there was also a largely Catholic colony, unity required that Catholics be included. One of the complaints the colonists leveled agaiunst the British was efforts to ptomote an estanlished church. Thus it is no accident that the First Amendment of the Contitution prohibited any ffort to restrict the free exervise of religion. There was no real precedent for this anywhere in Europe. The Dutch were perhaps the most tolerannt, but even there, religious freedom was ot based on any constitutional guarantee. And the french Revolution which began so optimstically developed into a n effort to destroy religion.

Civil Liberties

The American Constitution also created the idea of constitutional protected civil liberties. This was based on the precedents of the state constitutions. They were not liberties granted at the grace of a monarch and subject to repeal , but guaranteed by law as part of a vitizen's natural rights. They had to be respected by the Government. America was the first country to provide constitution guarantees of civil liberties. These became liberties that people countries around the world aspire to and totalitarian governments and theocracies attempt to suppress.


No assessment of America would be complete without considering the immigrants that played such an important role in the American saga. All American except for Native Americans have immigrated from other countries. Most of the early immigrants came from the British Isles. Immigrants followed from every European country. Immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Svandinavia, and Africa played key roles. America provided opportunity for millions of Europeans immigrants seeking to build a better life and now to immigrants from all over the world. For millenia people had little choice in life. They were born and lived their lives in static communities. Most never moved than 50 miles from where they were born. They had yo accept the world in which they were born with little or no opprtunity to change it. There were some like the Vikings or phonecians who traveled but most people were ryral, lndless peasants which lived out their lives in timeless communities which the could not chnge. America played a guge role in changing this. Suddenly Europeans could pic up stakes without money and begin a whole new life where one could ewarn adecent living and their children could obtain a free public education. Individuals of all backgrounds were offored opportunities inconceivable in Europe. And because of guaranttes of religious liberty, these opporynities were often to people of all fatihs, incliding not only Protestants, but Catholics and Jews as well. While not perfrect in the 19th centiry, it was in acance of the opportunitoies avilable anuwhere in Europe. And some Asians (Chinese and Japanese) also found opportunity in America. After World war II, these opportunities become available to people all over the world and of every rce.

Economic Freedom: Capitalism

America built through capitalism and private iniative the most productive economy on earth. By an accident of hitpry, America was founded in the same year Scottish economit Adam Smoth published Wealth of Nations (1776). But it was no accidebt tht no country emvraced capitalism and privaste initive ro the degree that America did. America at the turn of the 19th centurywas a still basically agricultural country. Within only a few decades, America developed not the greatest industrial economy in the world, but was out competing the majoe European powers, Britain, France, and Germany. Of all the indusyrial powers, America had the mot capitalit economy with the fewest governmental restictions and taxes. Most people understand how American indusyry exceed not only European peoduction in quatitove terms, but also in efficency. Less well known is that American wages were the highest in the world. American industrial workers recived meaurably higher wages. That is a major reason why European emifrants flocked to America. It was capitalist America thast offered high ways, nit th more controlled European economies. And this continued in the 20th century as the Europeans adopted socualim and the Russians turned to Communism/. In simpke fact, the worker's paradise was in America. While Ruropean workes cyvled to work abd farmers had horse drawn carts, American workers had automobles and farmers had trucks and tractors. The phonomenal growth of ametican industry would be a majpr facyor in the world war II defeat of the Axis.

Figure 1.--The Great Totalitarian powers in the mid 20th century were on the verge of defeating the Western Democracies and destroying Western Civilization. Here a German Einsatzkoommando aided by ethnic Germans in Slarow allows a Jewish boy to see the bodies of his parents who they have just shot before shooting him as well (July 4, 1941). All of the totalitarian powers and not just the Fascists were guilty of unbelieveably grisly attrocities, including the soviet Union. It was American industrial might created by democracy and capitalism that provided the power that eventually destroyed the totalitarians--an achievement of monumental proportions in wotld history.

Saving Western Civilization: The Gift of Freedom

America saved the world from powerful, evil totalitarian regimes (the NAZIs, Japanese militarists, and the Soviet Communists). This accomplished no less than saving Western civilization and its great gift of freedom. And this meany not only savong the west, but the people of Africa, Asia, and Latin america as well. Western civilization began in Greece and the Levant with two different threads. First in Greece with the creation of democracy and a primitive form of capitalism. This unleased the creative capabilities of the citizens of th various city states. This enabled them to not only defeat the seemingly overwealming power of the mighy Persian Empire and to generate intelectual and artistic cultural outburst unparalled in human history. At about the same time, the Hebrews in the Levant were developing the basis of modern Judaism which its focus on the value of the individual nd individual responsibility. These two traditions were fused by St. Paul during the Roman era into the basis of what we now call Western Civilization. Over the mext two millenium through the cultural decline of the Dark Ages, Western Europe advanced. Its defining formative moments were the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enliftenment. Out of this came political (democracy) and economic (capitaism) freedom. The result was an explosion of crearive energies that gave Europe the technoloigal capacity to dominate much of the world with both positive and negative consequences. The earthshatering consequences of Western civilaztion began to transfor civilization with the advance of capitalism, the industrial Revolution and the American Republic (18th century). the American Reoublic. This lead to massive techjnological advances, increases in productivity, and liberal democracy (19th century). The essence of liberal demnpocracy is that the state is the servant of the individual and responsible to its people. For the first time in human history, large numbers of average prople began to lead prosperous comfortable lives. Progress was slow and uneven in Europe, but proceeded and a phenomenal pace in America where the forces of democracy and capitaloism were unleashed on an entire virgin continent. Another thread appeared at the same time, Marxist socialism which in various forms mixed with to varying degrees with hyper nationaism and old enmnities created the great tolalitarian powers of the 20th centuries. The inifying threat of the totalatarians was that the individual and his interests were subservient to the state, in esemnce the property of the state. Largely as a result of the horrors of World war I, the great totalirarian powers rose in Europe and Asia in Western Eutope (Italy abd Germany), Communism in Russia, and Fascist-like militarism in Japan. And by the mid-20th century, these totalitarian powers through massive military spending had amassed military power and the desire to use it to restructure the existing wotld order and murder hundreds of millions of unwanted people. These totalitarian powes committed attrocities beyonf human comprehension. All the achievements of Western civilization were suddently at risk. Their power exceeded that of the Western liberal democracies. Only two developments prevented the victory of the totalitarians. First the totalitarians broke their united front when the NAZIs invaded Soviet Russia. Second, the United Staes monilized both democracy and capitalism ona unprecdented scale to destroy the Fascist powers through the tidal wave of industrial production. The Soviet Union was vital in the Allied World War II victory. But the Soviets were part of the totalitarians coalition that launched the War. The totalitarian powers that threatened Western civilization and had committed terrible atrocities of its own on a phenomenal level. The result was the Cold war in which the United States again was the central power in destroying the final World War II totalitarian power--the Soviet Union. Not only did America in large measure, because of the internal contraductions of sociaism, help engineer the implosion of the Soviet Union, but helped bring about reformns in Communist China that has significatnly reduced its more murderous character.

Transforming the Enemies of Freedom

The United State did more than saving Western Civilization by defeating the great totalitarian powers of the 20th century. This lone would have ranked America as one of the great nations in the history of freedom. America took it a step further, not only defeating NAZI Germany and militarist Japan, but overseeing their transfornation into two of the premier liberal democracies of the world. Up until the World War II peace, countries which loss wars were punushed, not transformed. This is what occurred after World War I. President Wilson moderated the vengence of the Allies (Britain, France, and Italy), but could not transform the harsh peace they were determined to inflict on Germany. World war II was different. France was no longer a great power and Italy had been an Axis country. Britain had been part of the all important Anglo-American coalition, but was bankrupt and by the end of the war a junior partner, And America's policy, after considerable debate, was to transform Germany and Japan. Defeating the Axis countries was one thing, but to transfirm them into liberal demoracies nd allies is somrthing ntirely different. No one in 1940 could have thought such a transformation was even possible. But America did it. Of course enemis of freedom still exist. But one should compare Soviet policy as a NAZI ally to Soviet policy as an American ally. Today one of the great issues of freedom's future is China. America has helped bring econpmic freedom (capitalism) to China, wether politica freedom will follow is an open question. Another unresolved issue is Islam, in part because Americans and Europeans are unsure about religious freedom and how to contront a religious, as opposed to a political, group which supresses freedom. This is because religious freedom is such an important element in liberal democracy.

Figure 2.-- Here Italian children are patiently waiting in line for America food relief being distributed by the Red Cross in Conegliano (1917-18). Source: American National Red Cross Collection. Library of Congress.

Food Aid: Preventing Starvation and Famine

No country in history has so used its agricultural bounty to save so many lives as America. That bounty results from both fertile land, but an agriculture based on individual initiative --family farming and corporate agriculture. America has saved hundreds of millions of people in Europe and the Third world from starvation. America’s food assistance programs actually began soon after the creation of the American Republic. The Fourth American president, James Madison, dispatched emergency aid to earthquake victims in Venezuela (1812). This began in a major way with World war I (1914-18). The first recipient was German occupied Belgium. The Germans seized the civilian food supply. Starvation was only prevented by American Food Relief. Herbert Hoover became a revered figure in his non-stop efforts to save lives. American Food Relief often worked through the Red Cross. Serbia and Russia proved impossible to aid because if the difficulties of shipping food and Central Powers opposition. America supplied allies like Britain. American food aid also went to the Middle East where the Ottoman Turks had launched the Armenian Genocide (1915). America did what it could to save the Armenians through Near East Relief. The War substantially reduced European agricultural harvests. Even before the War ended, food supplies in many countries plummeted, including Austria-Hungary. Germany, and Russia. After the Armistice (1918) famine and mass starvation threatened Europe. This was only prevented by American food aid. Russia was racked by Civil War (1919-22). The Bolsheviks wanted to use food as a weapon, this delayed a food program to save starving Russians. Finally an American Food effort saved millions of starving Russians. America was unable to aid the victims of Stalin's Ukrainian famine. Stalin kept his killings in the Ukraine a secret from the West. A part of his Collectivization program he ordered the NKVD to murder most of the best farmers in the country. The result was that the Soviet Union from that point on changed from an important food exporter to country that had trouble feeding itself, eventually having to import grain from America. Despite the Depression and Dust Bowl America again mobilized its agricultural bounty for World War II. The Axis starved millions of [people to death. The NAZIs even concocted the Hunger Plan to murder people by the millions. The Japanese caused famines in many countries they occupied. American in contrast saved people by the million through Food Aid. Food delivered through Lend Lease kept Britain in the War and millions of hard-pressed Russians from starving. Much of American aid was distributed through UNRAA. And again famine was prevented after the War, in both countries victimized by the Axis as well as the Axis countries themselves. The Japanese prevented American food aid from reaching China, but food delivered after the Japanese surrender prevented millions more from starving (1945). American Food Aid continued during the Cold War. President Eisenhower launched what became known as the Food for Peace Program (1954). America dispatched emergency food supplies to the victims of virtually every major disaster around the world. And America not only shipped food and other relief supplies, but also launched the Green Revolution which enabled Third World countries to substantially increase food harvests.

Medical Technology

Created medical technologies and drugs that have saved other hundreds of millions.

Modern Technology

Created technologies that have effectively defined the modern world. Thus began long before the Space Race. But it is notable that American technology have changed out lives through transistors, computers, smartphones and much more. Notice that virtually nothing has come from the Soviet space effort.

World Economic System

Created a world economic system in which any country adopting effective economic systems (even Communist China) can bring prosperity to its people. This has included both our allies and our adversaries. America attempted to assist Germany after World War I during the Weimar era, but the forces set in motion after the War were to powerful for financial measures to deal with, especially after the disaster of the Great Depression. The outcome was very different after World War II. America played a role in both the German and Japanese Economic Miracles. Nesure like the Currency Refprm in Germany abd the Marshll Plan had a major impact as wll as upport for European unification. The situation was ifferent in the de-colonized Third World. Many of the new leaders impressedwith the Soviet Union, turned to socialosm and state p;nning. The result was abject economic failure and stagnation. Once poor countries by adopting market economics were able to build modern prosperous economies in only a generation. We se this first with the asian Tigers and then when Brazil, China and India adopted mrket reforms. America promoted this even though the modernizing economies competed with our industries. and the result is that in only a generation, some one billiob people are escaping poverty and entering the middle class. This is morre people that have made this transition in all of human history.

Charity and Philantrophy

Philantrophy is defined as "the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes." This os a little different thn charitywhich is defined as "generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless". Various dictionaries may offersome what different definitions, but these two definitions capture the fiffeence between the two words. Charity has a long history. We are nor sure about most ancient civilizations, but but it was a well established convention in all three brahamic religions. Mohammed even made it one of the pillars of Islam. nd the focus almpst exclusivly was on the poor and needy. This has continued into the modern worldm except that charity in Islam has shifted fron the poor and needy to political groups, including groups using terror tactics and perpetrating massive human rights abuses. Muslim donors are also generally only interested in efforts to benefit fellow Muslims. Christian and Jewish groups coninue the focus on the poor and needy and pursue many cross denominational causes. This sharp diverhence can be ee when national charitable donations are toted up in national disasters like the Indonesian Tusnami and the Haitian earhquake, America certainly did not invent charity, bit no other people have been more to charitable giving and supported such a wide range of charitable causes. This was especilly the case in the great disasters and tragedies of the 20th century. Nothing exemplifies Amneric's charitable spirit than the outpouring of cgritabke effort during World war I and World war II. Philanthropy is a much more modern and largely American phenomenon, although America has helped introduce the practice to other countries. Philntrophy includes charitable efforts to help the poor and needy, but wides the comcept to include many other gppd causes to improve society in general. Mpthing could illustrate this more than the Carneghi Foindation which played a huge role in expanding the American public library system. Other major foundtions like the Ford and Rockefeller foiundations have supportd a wide range of programs designed to promote cultural, eonomic, and social causes.


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Created: 6:15 AM 8/11/2015
Last updated: 2:47 PM 1/27/2016