By: Matthew Spalding From: Heritage.org
Today, the United States is a country of fifty states covering a vast continent. Its military forces are the most powerful in the world. Its economy produces almost a quarter of the world's wealth. The American people are among the most hard-working, church-going, affluent, and generous in the world.
Is America exceptional?
Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history.
The United States is different. America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of particular principles about man, liberty, and constitutional government.
The American Revolution drew on old ideas. The United States is the product of Western civilization, shaped by Judeo-Christian culture and the political liberties inherited from Great Britain.
Yet the founding of the United States was also revolutionary. Not in the sense of replacing one set of rulers with another, or overthrowing the institutions of society, but in placing political authority in the hands of the people.
As the English writer G. K. Chesterton famously observed, "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." That creed is set forth most clearly in the Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonies announced their separation from Great Britain. The Declaration is a timeless statement of inherent rights, the proper purposes of government, and the limits on political authority.
The American Founders appealed to self-evident truths, stemming from "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," to justify their liberty. This is a universal and permanent standard. These truths are not unique to America but apply to all men and women everywhere. They are as true today as they were in 1776.
Working from the principle of equality, the American Founders asserted that men could govern themselves according to common beliefs and the rule of law. Throughout history, political power was—and still is—often held by the strongest. But if all are equal and have the same rights, then no one is fit by nature to rule or to be ruled.
As Thomas Jefferson put it, "[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." The only source of the legitimate powers of government is the consent of the governed. This is the cornerstone principle of American government, society, and independence.
America's principles establish religious liberty as a fundamental right. It is in our nature to pursue our convictions of faith. Government must not establish an official religion, just as it must guarantee the free exercise of religion. Indeed, popular government requires a flourishing of religious faith. If a free people are to govern themselves politically, they must first govern themselves morally.
These principles also mean that everyone has the right to the fruits of their own labor. This fundamental right to acquire, possess, and sell property is the backbone of opportunity and the most practical means to pursue human happiness. This right, along with the free enterprise system that stems from it, is the source of prosperity and the foundation of economic liberty.
Because people have rights, government has only the powers that the sovereign people have delegated to it. These powers are specified by a fundamental law called a constitution. Under the rule of law, all are protected by generally agreed-upon laws that apply, equally, to everyone.
The United States Constitution defines the institutions of American government: three distinct branches of government that make the law, enforce the law, and judge the law in particular cases. This framework gives the American government the powers it needs to secure our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The ultimate purpose of securing these rights and of limiting government is to protect human freedom. That freedom allows the institutions of civil society—family, school, church, and private associations—to thrive, forming the habits and virtues required for liberty. (To be continued...)