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American Exceptionalism Comes in Recognizing All of Our History

by on July 03, 2014 6:00 AM

Tomorrow we celebrate our nation's 238th birthday.

While other nations and civilizations may be older it was the United States of America that embarked on an experiment in self-governance and democracy that changed the history of the modern world.

In George Washington's Mount Vernon home is the key to the Bastille, a precious symbol from the French Revolution given to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette. The gift recognized the powerful example of American democracy that inspired the people of France. The example of our government cast the light of inspiration around the world then and continues to do so today.

We were founded by a truly rare convergence of transcendent people. Their words and those of leaders who followed have been translated, read and etched into pages, minds and monuments around the world; lifting the spirits of those yearning for freedom.

Our nation has changed the world with inventions and innovations. We've created and protected peaceful commerce in the skies and on the seas for our country and the free nations of the world.

To that extent we've been the planet's indispensable nation and remain so.

There is a school of thought that preaches American exceptionalism. We do occupy a special place in the world order. But we must never mistake the reality of American exceptionalism with a myth of American perfectionism.

We are not perfect now, nor have we ever been. All human endeavors are fraught with the imperfections of human frailty. Our founders recognized this when they wrote "We the people in order to form a more perfect union. Through their words they acknowledged that this would always be an evolving process.

But we are still Reagan's "Shining City on the Hill." Despite armies of lobbyists and special interests, we remain Lincoln's "Government of the people, by the people and for the people".

We must channel Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." We must remember that which binds us, not what separates us and what Ben Franklin predicted in 1776, "We must hang together, else we shall most assuredly hang separately."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt told us "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

But it all began with Jefferson's words emanating from a small hall in Philadelphia that swept the world, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."

Reagan, Lincoln, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Jefferson ... exceptional people and Americans, but certainly none was perfect.

The Kennedy and Reagan administrations both engaged in questionable covert actions. Lincoln maneuvered around the constitution. Roosevelt attempted to pack the US Supreme Court and opened internment camps during World War II.

Jefferson and his fellow Virginian George Washington may have been international beacons of equality and freedom, but both enslaved people. Andrew Jackson is revered, yet he drove Native-Americans from their home lands.

Imperfections do not make any of those leaders ordinary, nor do the missteps in our country's history make our nation somehow less than exceptional.

We got here through struggle, and by fighting for independence, to end Slavery, civil rights, a Civil War and two World Wars. Some of the country's problems were of our own making.

Denying all that happened here will not make us stronger, in fact it weakens us. It prevents us from moving toward the more perfect union. As Americans, we stand on the shoulders of giants, but we're foolish not to study all of our nation's history, particularly that which may make us uncomfortable.

What makes us exceptional has been the enduring constitution and our system of government. Some say that it is broken, yet history shows gridlock is hardly a recent phenomenon. Attempts by Kennedy and Johnson to pass civil rights legislation faced a standoff between factions of Congress. A century earlier Congress failed to tackle the great question of slavery and it ripped the United States apart.

From the lessons of history we've learned that when our backs are against the wall our unity binds us together and rallies us like no other nation. It is the bold, but imperfect leadership of extraordinary people that makes this nation special.

As we celebrate with fireworks, hot dogs and hamburgers, take a moment to reflect on all the history of our nation -- the good and the bad. Our country is a product of all the people and all the history that is and has been here. Immigrants, slaves and free men and women all brought a stone to build our "City on the Hill".

Some stones are scarred with painful memories but they are often the strongest because they are dearest to us. Trying to build a world without them leaves us weaker.

We are a unique nation of diverse people. We are not perfect and saying that doesn't make one an "apologist".

Truth is that failing to see our imperfections, and failing to continue efforts to improve our nation are the surest ways to insure that we will no longer be exceptional.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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