On Thanksgiving, I appeared on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” to discuss the origins of American exceptionalism. For those who missed it, the brief recap was that when Mike Allen and I first published A Patriot’s History of the United States (PHUSA) in 2004, we really didn’t address the topic. Later, when Dave Dougherty and I set out to write A Patriot’s History of the Modern World, he reminded me that we didn’t have a good definition and challenged us to come up with one, which we did.
After looking at what all other commentators said constituted American exceptionalism—none of which impressed us—we concluded that the four things that set America apart in all of history were:
1) A Christian, mostly Protestant religious foundation which was critically important not for reasons of piety or theology, but because the Pilgrims (who are the real founders of the American ideal) believed in individual church government. This was a “congregational” structure; a “bottom-up” structure. No other nation in the world had that at that time, let alone had it from its origins.
The Church of England was modeled after the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, i.e., top-down. All other religions were top-down. Only the American Protestants and the English Puritans were bottom up. Later, of course, many Protestant churches in America adopted this form, and even the U.S. Catholic Church came to be significantly independent from Rome (and its bishops and archbishops significantly independent from Church direction as a whole.
2) Common law. This existed in the Germanic tribes (who were not Christian), who believed that their gods put the law in the hearts of men and men elected or selected leaders to carry that out. It had nothing to do with a “written constitution,” which many nations today have and which means nothing (see: Cameroon).
The Germans passed this tradition on to the English, who passed it on to the Pilgrims. But it is entirely grounded in scripture: both the Old and New Testaments refer to this practice. Hebrews 10:16, with the Lord speaking, says “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” This echoes Jeremiah 31:33: again, God speaking told Jeremiah “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” No other nation on earth, save England, has common law.
All the other countries in Europe in the 1600s-1800 were governed by the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings,” which is to say God put the law in the hands of the monarch and he dispensed it downward. You can see that, like the Protestant Puritans, common law was bottom-up governance, not top-down.
Most of the rest of the world was already governed by top-down systems, whether Mongol, Chinese, Islamic, or African tribal. However, in Europe, “Divine Right” was spread throughout much of the Continent even after the French Revolution. This is shocking to many, but instead of spreading Republicanism, Napoleon Bonaparte designated governors of various regions from the top down. What about England, you ask? Didn’t the British spread common law into the colonies?
Well, perhaps in theory. They spoke of the “rights of Englishmen.” But the reality was that wherever the British flag went, top-down governance followed. Forgetting Napoleon for a moment, at one point in the 1800s the British directly or indirectly ruled one-third of the earth’s surface! They created parliaments and congresses, but then dictated any meaningful policies from London. These were, after all, “Dominions” meaning Britain had dominion over them. They did not learn self-government or bottom-up power.
2) Private Property with Written Titles and Deeds. This “pillar” existed in England and much of Europe—but not too far beyond that. It was the notion that private property was protected by the law, and even when kinGs or potentates disregarded the law, it still was one more impediment to top-down power. In America, this was ensconced in the Land Ordinance of 1785, arguably the most important law in American history, and passed before the Constitution was drafted four years later. It set up a system of “sections” and “townships,” all to be surveyed, and then the land was sold off to the public, not held by the king or nobles. And it was cheap, often under $2 an acre.
Jefferson was the instigator of this, though he did not write the law. He steadfastly maintained that land belonged to people individually, not to the government collectively. Interestingly, the Land Ordinance brought about our first conflict among the “pillars,” as no land in the subsequent sections (i.e., 19, 25, 36) was to be sold before the previous sections had been surveyed and sold. Americans, of course, didn’t bother with laws sometimes and ran off to settle in these remote regions. Now the Articles of Confederation Congress had a problem: common law said that the people were always right, but the law said that they were trespassers. Congress followed the people, creating the concept of “preemption” which we today call “squatter’s rights.” If someone settled on land—surveyed or not—built a house or a farm there, and remained untouched by government or another claimant for seven years, the land became theirs.
To this day in parts of Africa, while they may have “private property,” the titles and deeds are so primitive or non-existent that it makes borrowing on land as collateral impossible.
4) A free market economy. This, we originally thought, didn’t come until 1776 with Adam Smith’s publication of the Wealth of Nations, but upon reflection, it was at Plymouth (not at Jamestown). At Plymouth once the colony ditched socialism it had so many agricultural surpluses that the colonists needed someone full-time to work the mill, so they engaged one of their number to run the mill in return for other farmers paying him in food. This was division of labor.
In short, no other nation to this day has these four pillars, and none in history had them from their origins. This topic will be continued at www.uncoverdc.com and on my Larry Schweikart substack in two subsequent articles that look at our culture and language.
Larry Schweikart is the co-author of the New York Times #1 bestseller, A Patriot’s History of the United States with Michael Allen; author of Dragonslayers: Six Presidents and their War with the Swamp; and is the founder of the Wild World of History curriculum website for high-schoolers with full curriculum in U.S. and World History including teacher’s guides, student workbooks, tests, a built-in AP track, and high production videos with Larry teaching in each lesson. (www.wildworldofhistory.com)