Exporting Jefferson

The United States is different.  In our history and our way of life, we are unlike other countries.  These statements are debatable, but I believe them to be true; for argument’s sake, let us assume they are.  The interesting question then becomes:  how are we different?

One school of thought maintains that Americans are, by nature, messianic.  We are an example to the world:  “a City upon a Hill,” John Winthrop declared, in a phrase later used by Ronald Reagan; “the eyes of all peoples are upon us.”  Being an exemplar, we are fated by a sort of moral necessity to help other nations, to save them from themselves.

Our manifest destiny may be to “go west” or “make the world safe for democracy” or “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” – but it is clear, on this view, that we Americans were put on earth for something grander than watching TV and drinking beer.

There’s probably some truth to this.  Americans sometimes confuse self-interest with redemption.  At any rate, we can, in our worst moments, sound grimly sanctimonious, and we provide those who loathe this country, and wish to see it weakened, with a target too inviting to pass up:  witness the editorialists at the Guardian linking “the neo-conservatives of George Bush with the Puritan colonists’ certainty of being God’s instrument on earth and with the American Revolution – which, like all major revolutions, developed world-missionary convictions.

Still, I believe American exceptionalism has little to do with the Puritans and everything to do with the Enlightenment.  We are a nation founded on a proposition.  This fact, first remarked on by Lincoln, sets us apart from other nations, past or present, which have considered themselves founded on a string of precarious historical accidents, with the only theme or logic being the victories and defeats of the home team.

For the French or Chinese (or Greeks or Paraguayans), the drama of history has a sporting flavor:   we win, rival countries lose; they win, we lose.  The drama of American history is driven by an internal logic:  the working out of the consequences of the founding proposition.

The terms of Lincoln’s proposition are spelled out in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  Everything in the American story flows from that single source.  Its logic is Jeffersonian, and flies in the face of observed fact:  freedom, equality, and morality are said to be primitive and natural conditions, and the role of government is to prevent challenges to this natural state – including from government itself.

Many questions immediately arise, about how to square this happy state with real-life divisions of wealth and poverty, freedom and slavery, men and women; but it was Jefferson’s supreme genius to make it all seem easy.

Today, all Americans are Jeffersonians, and have internalized as self-evident truths the golden assumptions of the Declaration.  The United States exists in an extended “Jeffersonian moment,” in which self-interested action, deprivation of freedom, and gross political inequality appear as unnatural acts.  Other nations that seek freedom or equality believe these to be terribly difficult goals, resisted by the natural selfishness of the human animal and achieved, if at all, by the implacable application of state power.  We consider it a simple restoration.

At the heart of American exceptionalism, of the mutual incomprehension between ourselves and the world, stands the enigmatic figure of Thomas Jefferson.

The implications of this fact are endlessly fascinating.  President Bush has stated that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”   Translation:  we are now in the business of exporting Jefferson, the intellectual author of those American ideals and behaviors that so puzzle the world.

Michael Ignatieff, who is currently writing a book on American exceptionalism, has published a somber but thoughtful NYT piece on the matter.  Ignatieff begins with Jefferson, as he must – in this case, Jefferson’s certainty, expressed in the last letter he crafted, that freedom and democracy were fated to spread throughout the world.

”To some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,” he wrote, the American form of republican self-government would become every nation’s birthright. Democracy’s worldwide triumph was assured, he went on to say, because ”the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion” would soon convince all men that they were born not to be ruled but to rule themselves in freedom.

Ignatieff’s thesis can be stated quickly:  “American freedom aspires to be universal, but it has always been exceptional because America is the only modern democratic experiment that began in slavery.”  Jefferson, after all, owned more than 100 slaves.  It is all too easy, then, to accuse him of hypocrisy, though in my opinion that is both wrong and misses the point.  Jefferson was shifty but utterly sincere, insofar as one can judge such matters.

The larger point is his unwillingness, over a long and productive life, to acknowledge any conflict between his ideology and the facts on the ground.  That unwillingness, passed on to the American body politic, undoubtedly delayed for much too long the confrontation between the lovers of freedom and the defenders of slavery and racial oppression.  But it made the confrontation inevitable, and it allowed for only one acceptable outcome, the triumph of freedom; and, at any rate, it separates us in a more fundamental way from other democracies than does the original sin of slavery.  Ignatieff understands this too:

If Jefferson’s vision were only an ideology of self-congratulation, it would never have inspired Americans to do the hard work of reducing the gap between dream and reality. Think about the explosive force of Jefferson’s self-evident truth. First white working men, then women, then blacks, then the disabled, then gay Americans — all have used his words to demand that the withheld promise be delivered to them. Without Jefferson, no Lincoln, no Emancipation Proclamation. Without the slave-owning Jefferson, no Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream of white and black citizens together reaching the Promised Land.

Jefferson‘s words have had the same explosive force abroad. American men and women in two world wars died believing that they had fought to save the freedom of strangers. And they were not deceived. Bill Clinton saluted the men who died at Omaha Beach with the words, ”They gave us our world.” That seems literally true: a democratic Germany, an unimaginably prosperous Europe at peace with itself. The men who died at Iwo Jima bequeathed their children a democratic Japan and 60 years of stability throughout Asia.

Yet many of these nations, assisted in their attainment of freedom by the shedding of American blood, today resist the President’s call for the expansion of democracy throughout the world.  Why is that the case?  Some explain the behavior of (say) France and Germany as realism, others as moral indifference, others still as envy and spite.  Certain it is that abstaining from the new struggle for freedom places free countries in a peculiar place, both in relation to the United States and to their own ruling values.

What is exceptional about the Jefferson dream is that it is the last imperial ideology left standing in the world, the sole survivor of national claims to universal significance. All the others — the Soviet, the French and the British — have been consigned to the ash heap of history. This may explain why what so many Americans regard as simply an exercise in good intentions strikes even their allies as a delusive piece of hubris.

The problem here is that while no one wants imperialism to win, no one in his right mind can want liberty to fail either. If the American project of encouraging freedom fails, there may be no one else available with the resourcefulness and energy, even the self-deception, necessary for the task. Very few countries can achieve and maintain freedom without outside help. Big imperial allies are often necessary to the establishment of liberty. As the Harvard ethicist Arthur Applbaum likes to put it, ”All foundings are forced.” Just remember how much America itself needed the assistance of France to free itself of the British. Who else is available to sponsor liberty in the Middle East but America? Certainly the Europeans themselves have not done a very distinguished job defending freedom close to home.

The Jeffersonian moment has directed American energies at home and abroad for over two centuries, chalking up unimaginable successes along the way.  Hundreds of millions have been raised to political maturity.  Rulers have been taught modesty in the use of power, while citizens have learned that power, as conceived in the Declaration, resides in them.  It sometimes seems as though a magnificent ideal has been converted into reality, because Americans refused to recognize a difference between the two.

But if one reflects on 9/11 and the more recent mayhem in London, and on the human capacity for evil, the Jeffersonian moment can come to seem like a sleight of hand, a conjurer’s trick, impossible to sustain.  Which vision is true?  I myself have no idea:  I hope for the first, and worry about the second.  Ignatieff also refuses to offer easy answers.  He concludes with an accounting of the American lives lost in the liberation of Iraq, and observes, rightly I think, that we must redeem those lives with an ideal worthy of their loss.

There is nothing worse than believing your son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother died in vain. Even those who have opposed the Iraq war all along, who believe that the hope of planting democracy has lured America into a criminal folly, do not want to tell those who have died that they have given their lives for nothing. This is where Jefferson’s dream must work. Its ultimate task in American life is to redeem loss, to rescue sacrifice from oblivion and futility and to give it shining purpose. The real truth about Iraq is that we just don’t know — yet — whether the dream will do its work this time. This is the somber question that hangs unanswered as Americans approach this Fourth of July.


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