On July 4, 1776 we declared that “The American Experiment” itself is an idea as much as it is a national experience. It is an idea that transcends place and provides a baseline for the ideology of a country, as well as for the life of an individual.
Many people are turned off by the term “American Exceptionalism.” They believe it means that we are better than any country and if taken to its jingoistic extremes would be a problem. But that is not what the term means. It refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. It means that we are not a nation due to our heritage, but a nation due to the NOTION that people can govern themselves.
There is no doubt that there are some great dichotomies about our country. Two of the most obvious ones are how slavery could exist while liberty was at the forefront of every idea behind the revolution, and how we treated our indigenous people when life and the pursuit of happiness are paramount to our beliefs.
In fact, that strange duality existed nearly 300 years before we declared our independence. Its roots could be traced back to Christopher Columbus.
In my conversation this week with world renowned historian Laurence Bergreen about his book, Columbus: The Four Voyages, we closely examine how this one time admired explorer was himself a walking contradiction. As Laurence reveals in Columbus’s letters to Ferdinand and Isabella, the great navigator truly loved the people he met on his voyage.
All are people of love and without greed, and suitable for every purpose. I assure Your Highnesses that in all the world there is no better people nor better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and have the sweetest talk in the world, and gentle, and always with a smile.
However, to Columbus this implied that rather than treat these seemingly lovely people with kindness, they would be perfect to enslave. As Laurence writes:
It seemed to Columbus that the Indians were prepared to assume this role; indeed, with their show of subservience they were practically auditioning for it.
Why do such dualities, dichotomies and contradictions abound on the macro level of nations and the micro level of individuals?
I believe it is because what truly separates humans from other animals are not our opposing thumbs, our large frontal lobes or our ability to produce art. It is that we are the only ones who know better and still do the wrong thing. Now that is exceptional!
So, as we celebrate the exceptional birth of our country, it has been a tradition in our household and one that I share every year with my readers, to spend a few moments with the beginning words of our Declaration of Independence, for you will then experience the notion of our nation.
Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies
In Congress, July 4, 1776
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Have a very happy and safe holiday,
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