Sunday, September 05, 2010

For A Return To American Exceptionalism By Rep. Lamar Smith



During an interview last year, when asked if he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama replied, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

It is remarkable that the first black president would not recognize American exceptionalism simply by looking in the mirror. President Obama's election is itself a prime example of American exceptionalism.

To understand what makes America unique, we must look to history. Our nation was largely settled by the English, who came to the new world with a unique legal culture based on the Magna Carta, which was the foundation for the rights of all Englishmen.

The settlers also brought a commitment to making money, as the colonies were commercial propositions. By making money for investors in England, the colonists created wealth for themselves. Separated from England by thousands of miles, the self-reliance needed to live in America's frontier communities and to begin new lives had major political implications that ultimately led to a revolt against English authority.

The outcome of the American Revolution boosted the elements of American exceptionalism and led to its most fundamental element: the first national constitution in history. Our Constitution reflects key elements of American exceptionalism, which led to the development of the wealthiest and strongest nation in the world.

The Constitution creates a federal union, allowing for local experimentation. It ensures "a republican form of government," which means, as President Lincoln said, "a government by the people, of the people, and for the people."

It establishes checks and balances between different branches of government and between the national government and the states. Most dramatically, it establishes a representative democracy. True, it was limited to white men, but the seeds were laid for a national right to vote.

The Constitution provides not only a political framework, but also a blueprint for economic and social success. For example, it protects the sanctity of contracts and, through the Bill of Rights, ensures the protection of individual property from government seizure.

Such constitutional rights established in law what the Declaration of Independence reflected: that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that no government can take away. From the founding documents, we see the essence of American exceptionalism, a combination of individual liberty and equality of opportunity.

Trust in individuals and distrust of institutions that could threaten individual freedom is at the core of our government.

Both Congress and the president were subject to the laws, and the Supreme Court established that the courts would ensure that the other branches acted only in accordance with the Constitution. This diffusion of power kept any one branch from overwhelming the others.

In addition, unlike the later constitutions adopted by many foreign governments, our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are limiting documents. They limit the power of the federal government to intrude into the lives of average Americans. Instead of Americans needing the permission of their government to do things or go places, the government in the United States needed the permission of its people to do things.

These elements, a commitment to individual liberty, equality and the rule of law, form the essence of American exceptionalism. The nation eventually overcame its failure to live up to its basic principles with the abolition of slavery. As the nation grew, it became a draw for immigrants.

A central aspect of American exceptionalism is that being an American depends not on race, color, religion or ethnicity. It depends on fidelity to the core principles of liberty and equality and the rule of law. America is an idea as much as a place. And it is that idea and the bedrock principles that underlie it that make America unique.

We are now facing crises on several fronts — a deep recession with high unemployment, a staggering debt load that will only get substantially worse on our present course, an implacable enemy in radical Islamic terrorists and rogue regimes developing nuclear weapons. In other words, the world continues to be a dangerous place, often hostile to America's principles.

By returning to the ideas that underlie American exceptionalism, we can again lead the world. Ultimately, it is the American people who must live up to the principles of the Founders and demand that their representatives return the government to those core principles. It is in the people's hands to renew our national compact of liberty and equality and exceptionalism.

President Obama must reject the big-government solutions his administration has offered and instead return to our founding principles. If he does not, the American people need to seek a president who recognizes that America is truly different, with a unique heritage, serving as a beacon to all nations. A president who will rally us toward this view will enable the American people to preserve our preeminence in the world.

• Smith, who represents Texas' 21st congressional district, including San Antonio and Austin, is the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

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