Ronald Reagan’s American Exceptionalism

Sam Karnick Heartland Institute
Published February 6, 2017

This 106th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan provides an apt occasion to reflect on what was surely a keystone of the 40th president’s thoughts on government: the idea of American Exceptionalism.

Reagan is justly known for his expressions of optimism, exemplified by his use of the slogan “Morning in America” at a dark time in the nation’s history. In 1980, while running for the presidency, Reagan looked at the nation’s declining economy, diminished position in the world (exemplified by the Iran hostage crisis), growth of government, and President Jimmy Carter’s sense that the people of the United States were suffering from a “malaise,” and instead of merely complaining about the darkness, Reagan looked forward to the morning.

Central to this hope and faith in the American people was Reagan’s belief in American exceptionalism. He restored that concept to the national vocabulary in a time when many Americans—and certainly the nation’s political, educational, and cultural elites—had lost sight of it.

In his election eve address in 1980, the day before he would be elected president, Reagan described his vision of America by referring to the aims of the Puritans who settled Massachusetts in the 1600s:

I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill” as were those long-ago settlers….

These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still … a shining city on a hill.

For Reagan, as for the Puritans, exceptionalism was more than just a natural process or a product of the nation’s history and geographical position. As far back as 1952, presenting the commencement address to William Woods College, Reagan invoked the idea of America as a nation chosen by God for a special purpose: “I, in my own mind, have always thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.”

Winthrop, it is crucial to note, was not saying that America is by nature great. Quite the contrary, Winthrop’s point was that the American colonies, having been explicitly founded as free, Christian states, bore a responsibility, indeed a burden, unique among the nations of the world:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

The significance of the “city upon a hill” image is not that America resides on some commanding heights with special advantages not given to other nations, but that all the nations and peoples of the world would judge the God of Christianity based on the behavior of the American colonies—and the United States that they would later become. For Winthrop, existence as the “city upon a hill” was a heavy responsibility, not a privilege, and failure to keep that commitment would bring well-deserved punishment from the Almighty:

We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a commission. The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own articles. We have professed to enterprise these and those accounts, upon these and those ends. We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it; but if we shall neglect the observation of these articles which are the ends we have propounded, and, dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and be revenged of such a people, and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant.

Although, as noted above, Reagan understood Winthrop’s point, he updated the concept of American exceptionalism to translate it into secular, worldly terms. Reagan continually argued that the principles of nation’s founding were the source of any greatness America achieved, and, conversely, that a failure to adhere to those principles of popular sovereignty and natural individual rights would bring disaster. In his “A Time for Choosing” speech on behalf of presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964, Reagan succinctly described the principles he saw as the essence of America and why they make this nation exceptional:

[T]his idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people, is still the newest and the most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man.

Reagan went on immediately to characterize this principle as essential in the nation’s founding and sustenance and to argue that the decline of respect for the principle of popular sovereignty was the source of the problems of the time:

This is the issue of this election: whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

A little later in the speech, Reagan cites the principles of the nation’s founders, and in particular their respect for individuals’ natural rights, to criticize the worldview variously known as progressivism, socialism, and modern liberalism:

[T]he full power of centralized government”—this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.

This attempt “to solve all the problems of human misery through government and government planning,” Reagan said, is an “assault on freedom” that results in economic inefficiency, coercion, and enormous wastes of resources. Reagan noted several examples in that speech—government farm programs, “urban renewal” disasters, wasteful welfare spending in the “War on Poverty,” the failure to fund Social Security, monetary inflation, “accommodation” of the Soviet Union’s expansion by conquest and subversion, foreign aid to corrupt, socialist governments, etc.—as he did on multitudinous occasions throughout his political career.

In discussing welfare spending in that speech, Reagan pithily demonstrated the evils of big government and exposed the huge political class that grows up to populate the welfare state’s apparatus and continuously agitates for the further metastasis of government:

We’re spending 45 billion dollars [a year] on welfare. Now do a little arithmetic, and you’ll find that if we divided the 45 billion dollars up equally among those 9 million poor families, we’d be able to give each family 4,600 dollars a year. And this added to their present income should eliminate poverty. Direct aid to the poor, however, is only running only about 600 dollars per family. It would seem that someplace there must be some overhead.

All of these ills, Reagan said, result from a failure to respect the rights of individuals, which in turn derives from the people’s willingness to cede those rights (and their associated responsibilities) to a self-proclaimed class of superior individuals who promise to manage their lives and those of their neighbors with scientific precision and effectiveness:

Our natural, unalienable rights are now considered to be a dispensation of government, and freedom has never been so fragile, so close to slipping from our grasp as it is at this moment.

Reagan closes this extraordinary speech by referring to the United States as “the last best hope of man on earth,” and he says that a failure to preserve the nation for its children “will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.” From our perspective more than a half-century later, it appears that we have taken further steps in that direction.

Reagan, however, would surely counsel hope and faith as he did in 1980. In his presidential farewell address to the nation on January 11, 1989, Reagan again evoked the image of the “shining city”:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life…. And how stands the city on this winter night?… After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true to the granite ridge, and her glow has held no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

Renewed respect for the principles of the nation’s founding had halted America’s descent into socialism and eventual despotism. As Reagan noted in his 1986 State of the Union address, the future of the United States will always be in the hands of the people, unless the people refuse that responsibility once and for all:

What brought America back? The American people brought us back—with quiet courage and common sense; with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free.

For Reagan, as for Winthrop and the nation’s founders, American exceptionalism referred to the great burden a free people must bear: responsibility for their choices as a nation, and the preservation of freedom for future generations. As Reagan made clear throughout his political life, America, whether standing tall or retreating in fear, remains truly exceptional in that regard.