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The Dangerous Myth of American Exceptionalism
Chronicles - October 2001
By Joseph E. Fallon
One thing that distinguishes the French from the Americans is that the French have the good grace to number their failed political experiments—two kingdoms, two empires, and five republics.
Americans, on the other hand, profess "American exceptionalism." They assert that the United States is unique among the countries of the world because she alone has successfully functioned under the same Constitution for more than 200 years. According to "American exceptionalism," the government of the United States has never been overthrown, and the U.S. Constitution has never been changed—except through the amendment process, as established by the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
If ignorance is bliss, then Americans live in a terminal state of euphoria. The War Between the States (as Congress officially termed the conflict in 1928) or the "Civil War" (as the politically correct intentionally mislabel it) alone shatters the myth of "American exceptionalism."
American exceptionalism, however, is not just a myth; it is a dangerous myth, because of its four false corollaries: First, the government of the United States is morally and politically superior to all other governments; second, the government of the United States is "indispensable" for the peace and prosperity of the world; third, other governments, as a matter of national self-interest, must conform to the policies of the government of the United States; and fourth, if any country's government refuses to conform, then the government of the United States is morally entitled to impose economic sanctions or launch military attacks against that country.
Neoconservative "theorists" William Kristol and Robert Kagan took the belief in American exceptionalism to its logical conclusion in the Summer 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs. The objective of the government of the United States, they declared in "Towards a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," must be nothing less than "benevolent global hegemony." Kristol and Kagan validate the observation of Albert Camus that "the welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants."
The myth of American exceptionalism has transformed the United States from a federal republic with limited constitutional powers into an "evil empire" and a "rogue state." From Afghanistan to Waco, from Ruby Ridge to Yugoslavia, the United States behaves increasingly as both the political equivalent of Friedrich Nietzsche's "superman" and an embryonic version of George Orwell's "Oceania."
Since the advent of political correctness, the U.S. government already practices the Orwellian concepts of "newspeak" and "doublethink." Its domestic and foreign policies are slowly conforming to the official creed of Oceania—"War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength."
In reality, American exceptionalism is "a lie agreed upon." And the lie begins at the beginning. Contrary to the myth's central tenet, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was not a lawful assembly that produced an extraordinary political document, but an illegal cabal that staged a coup d'etat.
In 1789, just six years after independence, the first republic of the United States, established under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was overthrown. The justification for this treason was the conviction shared by many politicians—including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison—that the first republic was too weak to be effective and would remain so because of Article 1 of its constitution. This article limited the general (or federal) government by declaring:
Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
As a result, the Confederation Congress had no independent source of revenue and had to rely on requisitions it received irregularly from the states; it had no control over foreign or interstate commerce; and it had no power to compel the sovereign states to honor its decisions.
While the impetus for abolishing the first republic was undeniably political—the belief, however dubious, that the Confederation was unworkable and would soon collapse—there were economic motives as well. Those demanding the creation of a second republic included holders of government securities who had not received interest on their loans; landowners and speculators who had been unable to develop commercially the western lands, because the first republic allegedly could not adequately defend or administer the frontier; and merchants, manufacturers, traders, and shippers whose interstate commerce had been adversely affected by conflicting state laws. All these interest groups also shared a common concern: the financial losses they incurred due to confusion over state and "national" currencies and the introduction by farmers of depreciated paper money.
But the actual overthrow of the first republic
was the culmination of a series of events that
had begun in 1785. Together, they resulted in a
First, there was the Mount Vernon Compact of March 1785 between Virginia and Maryland (Delaware and Pennsylvania were also invited to join), which dealt with interstate navigation and commerce. It was a success. While not a secessionist movement in the common meaning of the term, the compact, by possessing jurisdiction over the navigation and commercial rights of its members, constituted an embryonic political rival to the first republic.
Second, at the time of the Mount Vernon Compact, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a resolution calling on its delegates to the Confederation Congress to petition for a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. Delegates refused on the ground that it would lead to the overthrow of the first republic.
Third, in the summer of 1786, seven amendments to the Articles of Confederation were introduced in the Confederation Congress for reforming and strengthening the first republic. All seven were defeated.
Fourth, by September 1786, farmers were in rebellion throughout New England. Collectively known as "Shays' Rebellion," farmers—so-called "Regulators" (term that would later be replaced by "vigilantes")—took up arms in parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and the independent republic of Vermont to block attempts by their creditors to collect debts by foreclosing on their farms. "[B]y one estimate, nine thousand men—one-fourth of the potential armed force of New England—were up in arms against established authorities." Later, the issue of the "anarchy" of the Regulators, and the "inability" of the Confederation to deal with it effectively, would be manipulated at the Constitutional Convention and in the subsequent ratification debates in the states to justify overthrowing the first republic.
Fifth, in September 1786, the Annapolis Convention (meeting ostensibly to expand the Mount Vernon Compact to include additional states) conspired to draft a new federal structure. It was a failure. Five states—including the host state—refused to send delegates, while delegates from three other states arrived too late to participate. In desperation, the delegates of the five states present submitted a report to the Confederation Congress noting the failure of all states to attend, expressing the need for "reform" of the general government, and calling for a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the following May.
The government of the first republic, the Confederation Congress, agreed to this proposal and, in 1787, authorized a Constitutional Convention. But it forbade the drafting of a new constitution. The instructions were explicit: Delegates were gathering "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." Virtually every state government issued similar instructions to its delegates.
Equally explicit was Article 13 of the Articles of Confederation, which declared that no revision was legally permitted "unless such alteration be agreed to in a Congress of the United States, and be afterward confirmed by the Legislatures of every State."
The delegates ignored their instructions and the
constitution they had sworn to uphold. Instead,
they plotted the overthrow of the first
republic. Like good conspirators, they held
their deliberations in secret. Armed sentries
were posted around the State House where they
met. Rules were passed
That no copy be taken of any entry on the journal during the sitting of the House without leave of the House; That members only be permitted to inspect the journal; That nothing spoken in the House be printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave.
And all loose scraps of papers were to be destroyed.
In a letter to Oliver Ellsworth, delegate from Connecticut, a friend expressed an opinion of the Constitutional Convention that was shared by many Americans: "Full of Disputation and noisy as the Wind, it is said, that you are afraid of the very Windows, and have a Man planted under them to prevent the Secrets and Doings from flying out."
This obsession with secrecy bordered on paranoia. When Benjamin Franklin, the oldest and (arguably) the most famous delegate to the Constitutional Convention, would attend dinner parties in Philadelphia, the other delegates had a colleague accompany him to ensure that Franklin did not divulge any information of the proceedings to the public.
In such a setting of suspicion and isolation, the delegates, motivated by economic self-interest as well as pragmatic political concerns, illegally drafted a new Constitution, which unconstitutionally declared ratification by only nine of the 13 states to be sufficient for its adoption.
Some delegates, however, raised fundamental
questions of legality and logic. Luther Martin
of Maryland challenged the majority:
Will you tell us we ought to trust you because you now enter into a solemn compact with us? This you have done before, and now treat with the utmost contempt. Will you now make an appeal to the Supreme Being, and call on Him to guarantee your observance of this compact? The same you have formerly done for your observance of the Articles of Confederation, which you are now violating in the most wanton manner.
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts took the majority's position on ratification to its logical conclusion—"if nine out of thirteen can dissolve the compact, Six out of nine will be just as able to dissolve the new one hereafter."
By its actions, the Constitutional Convention proved itself to be a conclave of conspirators who betrayed their sacred oaths to the constitution of the first republic and usurped power. The subsequent adoption of the U.S. Constitution, and the establishment of the second republic, was achieved by extraconstitutional means. It was a bloodless coup d'etat. It was, in fact, a very civil coup d'etat. But it was a coup d'etat, nonetheless.
The second republic, however, did share its predecessor's ideological conviction that the United States was a compact among sovereign states, which had delegated limited powers to the government. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, one of the chief architects of the second republic, the United States would "still be, in fact and in theory, an association of States, or a confederacy."
But the coup d'etat of 1789 set a suicidal precedent. On the same pretext of establishing "a more perfect union," the second republic was overthrown by Abraham Lincoln when he launched his war against the South—a war the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in the "Prize Cases" of December 1862. Lincoln destroyed the federal principles of 1783 and 1789 and replaced them with the ideological foundation for today's centralized, "welfare-warfare," bureaucratic state.
To the degree that American exceptionalism ever existed, it was as an experiment in limited government based on the unique concept of dual sovereignties—state and federal—embodied in the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. But that political experiment lasted only six years, from 1783 to 1789. The Constitutional Convention did not create American exceptionalism; it destroyed it.
Joseph E. Fallon, author of Deconstructing America: Immigration, Nationality and Statehood (Council for Social and Economic Studies, Washington, D.C.), writes from Rye, New York.
December 21, 2001