Happy 234th Anniversary: On American Exceptionalism

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In just a few days, we will be celebrating the 234th anniversary of our republic. To mark the occasion, I thought it would be fun to go back to one of the great acceptance speeches of the past 50 years – Ronald Reagan’s speech at the 1980 Republican convention – and pull out eight important themes for 2010.

Three-hundred-and-sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a mighty ocean to build a future for themselves in a new world. When they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they formed what they called a “compact,” an agreement among themselves to build a community and abide by its laws.

This single act – the voluntary binding together of free people to live under the law – set the pattern for what was to come.

A century and a half later, the descendants of those people pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to found this nation. Some forfeited their fortunes and their lives; none sacrificed honor.

Four score and seven years later, Abraham Lincoln called upon the people of all America to renew their dedication and their commitment to a government of, for and by the people.

What candidate Reagan was getting at is that the United States is an idea in the way no other country is. It is a country of ideals, an identity not based in race or ethnic history, not based on blood or provenance. It is not a cultural-historical construct in the way that, for example, Italy is.

Our ideals-based identity is the reason why we are obsessed with the idea of failing to live up to the “promise”. Again, in this brief, pre-Fourth series of ruminations on one of Reagan’s best speeches, he exorts us to accept the responsibility of being exceptional, which I know is not much in vogue in DC these days.

Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them – for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?

Together, let us make this a new beginning. Let us make a commitment to care for the needy; to teach our children the values handed down to us by our families; to have the courage to defend those values and virtues and the willingness to sacrifice for them.

Let us pledge to restore, in our time, the American spirit of voluntary service, of cooperation, of private and community initiative; a spirit that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation.