Perfectionism and the American story

Written by Jonathan Ammons

October 19, 2021

In a famous speech delivered aboard the ship Arabella in 1630, John Winthrop spoke to his fellow Puritans about the gravity of their undertaking: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”[i] From the earliest days of European settlement on the North American continent, a unique sense of purpose has permeated the people, events and ideas of America. This concept has come to be known as American exceptionalism. This essay is the first in a series exploring the meaning of American exceptionalism and its relevance today.

Any views, thoughts, or opinions expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or any other organization or corporation with which he might be affiliated.

Celebrated historian David McCullough recently described the American story as “our greatest natural resource,” a crucial asset to “help remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations that inspired our founders, of our enduring values, and the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times.”[ii]

But why turn to the American story now? What can the ideas and experiences and words of those who went before us offer us now? Can the ghosts of America’s past share any wisdom that is relevant to an America that appears so starkly different from previous eras?

One need not delve too deeply into the historical record before encountering echoes of the challenges we face today. When French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville began penning his classic text, Democracy in America, in 1835, he set the stage with the following observation:

A great democratic revolution is taking place among us. Everyone sees it, but not everyone judges it in the same way. There are those who regard it as something new and … hope to arrest it, while others deem it irresistible because in their view it is the oldest, most continuous, most permanent fact known to history.[iii]

Tocqueville was describing the 19th-century debate about democracy’s future, but he could have been describing the debates taking place on university campuses, on social media platforms, and in the halls of government today.

As in Tocqueville’s time, there are those today who “hope to arrest” the democratic impulses that have shaped our public life and the ideals that have defined our national character for generations. There are some who, rather than honestly explore our shared history – the good, the bad, and everything in between – would rather wield the past as a weapon, sowing seeds of division rather than seeds of peace. Those who thus engage do not seek to heal or repair, but rather to remake America in their own image.

The rhetoric against America in recent years has adopted a seductive – and destructive – form. Under the guise of penitent cultural self-examination, critics of American values and institutions have argued, often in sweeping generalizations, that the problems and faults of America’s past unavoidably undermine and negate all that is good in America now. Such a view is perilously deceptive because it tricks us into believing that the American story – and therefore America’s identity – is fundamentally flawed, and that democratic institutions require massive change, if not outright replacement, to successfully atone for the sins of America’s past.

While this notion has largely dwelt on the fringes of American politics, recent years have seen it increase in prominence and move into mainstream political debate. Examples include The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project[iv] and the subsequent debate around critical race theory.[v] In response, a group of eminent historians sent a letter to The New York Times in December 2019, objecting to the project’s intention to “offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.”[vi] Importantly, these historians simultaneously “applaud[ed] all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” which – though fundamentally and unequivocally abhorrent – are nonetheless important chapters of the American story that are deserving of study, analysis and retelling.

The principal risk posed by the 1619 Project and critical race theory generally, however, is that these ideas would replace the idea of American exceptionalism with American perfectionism – an alternative vision of America maintaining that anything less than full achievement of America’s founding ideals amounts to complete social, political and cultural failure. This all-or-nothing proposition thus reduces democracy to a zero-sum game.

Sadly, the disillusionment about America’s identity goes beyond mere ideological differences. As Arthur Brooks has written, “Millions of Americans believe the American Dream is no longer within their reach,” leading inevitably to “a crisis of confidence in American exceptionalism.”[vii] How do we address such a crisis? By more fully embracing the American story and our founding ideals, not by revising them or pushing them away.

The defining feature of American exceptionalism is articulated in the ideals embraced by America’s Founders and immortalized in the words of Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.[viii]

Martin Luther King Jr. declared that “[i]f our nation had done nothing more in its whole history than to create just two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable. The first of these documents is the Declaration of Independence and the other is … the Emancipation Proclamation. All tyrants, past, present, and future, are powerless to bury the truths in these declarations, no matter how extensive their legions, how vast their power, and how malignant their evil.”[ix]

Many decades after the Declaration was published, Abraham Lincoln – perhaps the Declaration’s greatest champion – offered an interpretation of Jefferson’s words that reverberate powerfully in the face of today’s hyperpartisan national discourse. In an 1857 speech responding to the Dred Scott opinion, Lincoln argued that in writing the Declaration of Independence, the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”[x]

His point was simple yet profound: America’s Founding Fathers did not write the Declaration of Independence to proclaim the immediate fulfillment of America’s sacredly held truths, but to raise a standard to which future generations of Americans could collectively aspire. Lincoln’s vision of the future is decidedly optimistic, allowing for the reality that, in the messy laboratory of a democratic nation inevitably bound by the flaws of human nature, such lofty ideals could never be “perfectly attained.”

Lincoln did not say, however, that the impossibility of achieving the perfect equality of all people absolves us of the responsibility of trying. Unquestionably, fulfilling the vision of Lincoln and his founding forebears is no easy task. Striving for this lofty ideal requires a willingness to embrace the idea that America is exceptional, while also acknowledging America’s faults and seeking to improve them. It demands that we work with fellow citizens whose ideas may be different – even radically different – from ours, rather than going it alone.

In telling the American story[xi] – every part of it – we begin to recognize the power and importance of the story. We become citizens who are willing to do the difficult work of listening and understanding, and who are eager to learn and apply the lessons of the past, no matter how hard such lessons may be. In the telling of the American story – our story – we forge the common bonds that link us to one another, no matter our differences.

In the face of (indeed, perhaps because of) economic troubles, deepening political polarization, and alarming social upheaval, our greatest hope is found in looking to and learning the lessons of our shared story, linking arms in a collective commitment to reach for the ideal set by Jefferson and championed by Lincoln, King, and many others. Only through such collective learning and commitment can we overcome the challenges that threaten American prosperity, liberty and peace.

[i] Winthrop, John, “A Model of Christian Charity,” Teaching American History, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/a-model-of-christian-charity-2/.

[ii] David McCullough, The American Spirit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), xiii-xiv.

[iii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2004), 3.

[iv] The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 14, 2019.

[v] For a summary of critical race theory, see “The Core Concepts of Critical Race Theory,” by Sutherland Institute’s vice president of policy, Derek Monson; see also “A Thoughtful Discussion of Critical Race Theory and Civics Education,” also by Monson.

[vi]We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 20, 2019.

[vii] Arthur Brooks, The Conservative Heart (New York: Broadside Books, 2015) 10.

[viii] Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence.

[ix] Martin Luther King Jr., quoted in “Inspire a reverence for liberty by teaching the full story of American slavery,” by Ian Rowe, www.aei.org.

[x] Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989), 398.

[xi] See Sutherland Institute’s Civics Initiative for further information on the history and importance of civics education in America.

More Insights

Solving our civic challenges: A Q&A with Andy Smarick

Solving our civic challenges: A Q&A with Andy Smarick

“Today’s political discourse is misleading us about our state of affairs, making us believe that things are far worse than in fact they are,” says Andy Smarick of the Manhattan Institute. He urges localism, among other things, to reestablish Americans’ sense of community.

read more

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network