Daniel W. Drezner

The real American exceptionalism

On this Independence Day, it’s worth considering whether there really is anything to this notion of "American exceptionalism."  Realists, for example, like to argue that the rigors of the international system render differences in domestic institutions meaningless.  Liberals genuinely believe that democracies do foreign policy differently.  But has the United States practiced a particularly distinctive set of ...

On this Independence Day, it's worth considering whether there really is anything to this notion of "American exceptionalism."  Realists, for example, like to argue that the rigors of the international system render differences in domestic institutions meaningless.  Liberals genuinely believe that democracies do foreign policy differently.  But has the United States practiced a particularly distinctive set of foreign or domestic policies since its independence? 

Given that it was signed on this day 236 years ago, perhaps it's worth perusing the Declaration of Independence to see if there was anything particularly unique about it.  Some of the better-known passages were not actually all that new.  The whole "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was a mild modification of an old John Locke passage, for example.  Better-written, perhaps, but not uniquely American.

Looking through the list of greivances against the British crown, there is one particularly striking and unusual dimension to the Declaration of Independence.  Boiled down, a healthy fraction of the colonists' compliaint are targeted at British mercantilism.  In essence, the American authors of the Declaration were not too keen on being violently or economically cut off from commerce with the rest of the world.  Consider this list of King George III's offenses: 

On this Independence Day, it’s worth considering whether there really is anything to this notion of "American exceptionalism."  Realists, for example, like to argue that the rigors of the international system render differences in domestic institutions meaningless.  Liberals genuinely believe that democracies do foreign policy differently.  But has the United States practiced a particularly distinctive set of foreign or domestic policies since its independence? 

Given that it was signed on this day 236 years ago, perhaps it’s worth perusing the Declaration of Independence to see if there was anything particularly unique about it.  Some of the better-known passages were not actually all that new.  The whole "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was a mild modification of an old John Locke passage, for example.  Better-written, perhaps, but not uniquely American.

Looking through the list of greivances against the British crown, there is one particularly striking and unusual dimension to the Declaration of Independence.  Boiled down, a healthy fraction of the colonists’ compliaint are targeted at British mercantilism.  In essence, the American authors of the Declaration were not too keen on being violently or economically cut off from commerce with the rest of the world.  Consider this list of King George III’s offenses: 

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands….

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power….

[C]utting off our Trade with all parts of the world….

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

It was the American desire to allow future Americans to migrate to these shores, and to truck, barter, and exchange with everyone else, that stands out this year when I read the Declaration of Independence.  Which is something to think about when one major party candidate for president demagogues immigration and the other one demagogues trade

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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