IT’S BEEN A PRETTY GOOD TRIP SO FAR
BUT WE NEED A COURSE CORRECTION
One summer during college I worked for the Bucks County Historical Tourist Commission. My job was to drive around eastern Pennsylvania and nearby portions of New Jersey, stocking the brochure racks of gas stations, restaurants, motels, and other tourist haunts with copies of “Highways of History,” a large, folded map highlighting places of historical and cultural interest in Bucks County.
My favorite place to drop them off happened also to be the best-known site on the map: Washington Crossing. This was the riverfront location from which George Washington launched his fabled Christmas-night foray across the ice-bound Delaware to attack Trenton and Princeton, turning the tide of the Revolutionary War.
The focus of Washington Crossing Historic Park (located about 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia) was the Visitors Center. This modest structure contained a museum, the requisite gift shop, and a small auditorium where tourists could view the famous painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Display of that work, by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze, was accompanied by a recorded narration voiced, as I recall, by the late actor E.G. Marshall (though I may be wrong about the narrator; it’s been a long time). In those days the original painting was on loan to the park from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; it was later replaced by a reproduction when the original was returned.
Growing up in that part of the country, it was natural to feel a certain sense of immediacy about the nation’s founding. So many of the locations and buildings in which great events took place were so near at hand. And given the patriotic hues in which 1950s public school education presented America’s Story, it was as natural to accept that our nation really was a blest land with a special place in the annals of mankind.
Hadn’t we so recently saved the world from its great totalitarian nightmare? Weren’t we even now fending off the Communist horde, leading humanity into a future of bounteous liberty?
That unique national role was summed up in the phrase, “American Exceptionalism.”
We believed our collective progression was different — something that stood out from the endlessly repeating historical patterns of tyranny, tragedy and chaos. And surely, that assessment had been verified by generations of immigrants who voted their endorsement with their feet.
Of course, America’s Story was never as pristine as it was told in those days. There were stains on our record. The path wasn’t always straight and purposeful. And none of this is a recent discovery. Anyone honest could always have recognized the all-too-human sins and failings evident in the narrative.
In recent years, as intellectual cynicism and an urge toward historical deconstruction have become fashionable, “American Exceptionalism” has been dismissed as national conceit.
This perspective was represented impeccably by Barack Obama when he stated at a 2009 NATO Summit in France…
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
All very diplomatic — though, for the President of the United States, also rather revealing.
And yet, there’s…something…about our national experience that is different. The phrase, “American Exceptionalism,” is not an arbitrary and meaningless construct. Indeed, the exceptional character of this country was early (and wryly) captured by that great peripatetic observer of life and politics, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1840 work, Democracy in America…
“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional,” Tocqueville wrote, “and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”
Rather than the arrogance often attributed to the “Exceptionalism” idea, Tocqueville saw an earthy pragmatism that superceded the demands even of religion, keeping us focused on “practical objects.” I love the line about how Americans only “from time to time” will yield “a transient and distracted glance to heaven.”
That’s perceptive cultural criticism.
We’ve been able to immerse ourselves in our “exclusively commercial habits” largely because we’ve relied on a political system ingeniously contrived to defuse the ideological fervor that’s torn so many other nations apart. We’ve gone about our business with minds diverted “from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts,” as Tocqueville put it less than flatteringly. For the most part, we’ve let enthusiasms, movements and causes wash over us — with some notable exceptions, like the Civil War.
The system crafted by the Founders has allowed us this high degree of personal freedom and, its corollary, a high degree of self-absorption. And so people have come from the world over to join us, pursuing their own personal and family improvements. Most have prospered to levels they would never have attained in their homelands.
Yes, in that sense (and in a few others) “American Exceptionalism” is very real.
It’s not that Americans are, at heart, better people than other national groups. That would be a foolishly prideful supposition — though it’s what those who recoil from “American Exceptionalism” think it means (President Obama does, I’m certain).
Rather, it’s that we’ve had a good map to follow, a good set of general directions. To be sure, we’ve sometimes veered off the specific highways of history the Founders pointed out for us to take. But, we’ve usually found our way back pretty quickly. All in all, they showed us a good way to go.
At this moment we’re veering again, even starting to lose our bearings. The ideological surge which had been gathering strength since the removal of the Soviet Union as our unifying boogeyman — and which piggybacked on public rejection of post-9/11 Bushist nation building — has pushed us significantly off course.
An election’s coming up this fall, with an even more important one following in two years. These represent opportunities to make some corrections. There’s no guarantee we’ll make the right ones.
But we’ll see what happens.
I haven’t been back to Washington Crossing in quite a few years now, and sometimes I think about my old stomping grounds — those Bucks County highways of history.
I’ll be providing music for this Saturday’s vigil Mass (as I do from time to time), and our closing song will be “America the Beautiful.” The second of Katharine Lee Bates’ ringing stanzas is my favorite. And maybe it’s especially relevant on this particular Fourth of July weekend…
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law.
Happy Independence Day!