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What is American Exceptionalism?

Updated on September 29, 2017
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Jack is a volunteer at the CCNY Archives. Before retiring, he worked at IBM for over 28 years. As of 2/2020, Jack has over 100,000 views.


In recent discussions, I've found many people does not have a good understanding of the term "American Exceptionalism." They think it meant that we are arrogant and we look down on the rest of the world. They think we should be more tolerant and understanding of other countries and their views. Unfortunately, that is not what it meant. I will explain the true meaning.

- Nov. 2016

- updated Jan. 2017


I am a student of history. I have always been fascinated by historical events. Where we come from explains half of what we know. We can learn from history to avoid some of the pitfalls. That is why history should be taught in our schools along with English, Math and Sciences.

I am a first generation immigrant from Taiwan. I came here when I was 10 years old. I did not speak English and settled in Queens County NY. I attended Public School and went on the attend CCNY and graduated with an Engineering degree. By all indicators, I should be a liberal Democrat as many of my fellow students. An Asian by heritage, living in blue State of NY, product of the public school system and finally a graduate of the free college of the City of NY. Yet, I am a Conservative by choice. I came to this decision by my own experience, both attending school and learning about our history and working in the real world after graduation. I worked for IBM for 28 years and during that time, had the opportunity to travel all over the world. I saw first hand various cultures and nations and people and came to the logical conclusion.

One of my unique ability in the work place is to take in a lot of data, and sort them in my mind, and determine which is important and which are not and come to a conclusion as to the best course of action. This has served me well at IBM and lead to a long an rewarding career.

The history of the world for almost 5000 years have demonstrated that humans have been ruled by mostly Kings and dictators and tyrants. The one unique exception was the United States in 1776. It was after a hard fought war that we won our independence from King George. We created a new form of government that is based on limiting the power of the central government and forming a democracy where the people have a say in how they are to be governed. This is what is exceptional.

We are also exceptional in the way we form our economic system by adopting Capitalism and the free enterprise system as the engine of growth. It has led to the most prosperous nation in the world in a short 150 years.

America is also exceptional because of our melting pot of all immigrants from all over the world. They come here to work and assimilate to our form of government and to adopt our unique Constitution. I am a prime example. I loved history and in my youth, I studies all history of the world. I read many books and were fascinated by the various different cultures and countries. I decided early to become an American citizen. I waited 5 years before I was qualified to apply. I took the exam and passed it with a perfect score. I was so proud on the day I was naturalized to be a US citizen. When I was at PS 145, one of my friend was a Cuban immigrant. He told me of the hardship of his family having to leave everything behind after Castro took over. He and his family made it to America with literally the shirts on their back. His father had a thriving business in Cuba and all was lost. He taught me first hand about Communism and how it affected their lives.

America is exceptional because of our innovation and entrepreneurship. Why is it that we produce the most number of patents? Why is it that we have the most number of Nobel winners? Why is it that we dominate Olympic medal winners? It is not by accident or luck? It can be traced to our freedom to choose. Our people are allowed to use their creativity to innovate, to take chances, to succeed or fail and try again.

Finally, we are also exceptional for one of few nations, having won wars, decided not to conquer but to help the defeated nations of Germany and Japan rebuild. We are the only super power in the world and as such have the responsibility to maintain peace and help the developing nations. We are exceptional for being the most generous of all nations in our charities and foreign aids. When I was growning up in Taiwan, one of my fondest memory was getting a block of cheese and dry powered milk cans from the American USO center every month or so. We could not understand why these strange looking people would give these stuff away for free when they can sell it for money. We were just grateful for their generosity. It had an impression on a young boy of 8 which lasted to this day. I do my share of donations and volunteer work to give back.

That being said does not mean we are a perfect nation. We have made mistakes. No country or nation or empire in the past or present is perfect. We've also made mistakes. The difference is our Constitution made allowances for orderly change in the Amendment process. We have corrected past wrongs such as abolishing slavery and other form of bias.

Some Have Distorted the Meaning

A few years ago, our President, Barack Obama in a speech said "I believe in American Exceptionalism just as I suspect the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism..."

He miss characterize the term and its true meaning. Whether he said it in passing or on purpose, he was being politically correct and not standing up for our unique experience.

On the contrary, another immigrant and author and film maker named Dinesh D'Souza said this "America is the greatest, freest and most decent society in existence. It is an oasis of goodness in a desert of cynicism and barbarism. This country, once an experiment unique in the world, is now the last best hope for the world."

I truly believe my unique experience and others like me, have given me the advantage of seeing this country from different vantage point. It is easy to take it for granted if one is brought up here and never left. It is quite different when you can contrast what we have here compared to other nations. All things considered, we are by far the best country in the world.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Our strength as a nation is based on three things. First, our people are diverse. They are given the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Second, our Constitution which was designed to be a democratic republic that stood the test of time. Finally, our faith in God, who was instrumental in the formation of our country. It is with divine guidance that we were able to win a war of revolution against a stronger and better equipped army of Great Britain and given the wisdom of our Founding Fathers to draft a document that has governed our nation for over 200 years.

The credit goes to God, and our Founders and the waves of immigrants from all over the world who caught the dream and took the chance to come here and be part of this exceptional nation.


American Exceptionalism Is a misunderstood term. It should be a source of our national pride. It is by the grace of God that we are here. May He continue to bless our nation. I welcome comments and other opinion.

A Simple Poll

Did you know what is meant by American exceptionalism?

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© 2016 Jack Lee


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