Last week, President Putin of Russia told Americans, it is “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” But we Americans have often viewed ourselves as an exceptional nation because our history is different from that of everyone else.
Typical nations are formed in warfare by conquering neighboring tribes and expanding. The Franks conquered many of the Germans in the time of King Charlemagne, and the Franks soon became France. Likewise, President Putin’s Russia expanded into a large nation purely through conquest. The way that one got to be known as “The Great” in Russian history was by conquering nearby land and absorbing it into the Russian empire—Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are examples.
America has always been different. Our nation received immigrants from many nations, and they came here not to conquer, but to enjoy freedom. We are a nation built on an idea—the idea that with God’s help we can govern ourselves and “secure the blessings of liberty” to ourselves and our children.
We fought a war for independence to preserve the liberty we were enjoying. Robert Morris, the man George Washington called “the financier of the Revolution”, was from England. He migrated to America, fell in love with his adopted country, and fought to see it emerge as a new nation.
Years later, at the Alamo, several Mexicans died with the Texans because liberty brought them there, and they were willing to die for freedom and Texas rather than live under a dictator in Mexico. So it has been with millions of immigrants who have come to this exceptional nation. We were not built on conquest, on power, or on domination, but on the idea that a free people, under God, can govern themselves and enjoy the blessings of liberty.
John Winthrop, the Puritan governor who came to Massachusetts, said, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” We were in an experiment in liberty and in obedience to God, which would make us an exception to what was happening everywhere else in the world.
Abigail Adams, wife of one president and the mother of another, wrote to young John Quincy Adams when he was resisting the work his family was doing to secure independence from the British. “These are the times in which genius would wish to live,” she wrote. “It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
Abigail Adams recognized the uniqueness of the American experiment in liberty, and she concluded with these words: “When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”
My job as a teacher is, in part, to show students at Hillsdale College that “the habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.” Preserving the liberty we have inherited as an exceptional nation is the difficulty we are contending with now. Great necessities are calling out great virtues in our students, who must master the history of our country in order to maintain our liberty and hand it down to their children. That task, as Abigail Adams would remind us, is worthy of raising our mind and engaging our heart to prepare the heroes and statesmen for the next generation.