American Exceptionalism is a journey through contradictions for a more perfect union.
Flag Day was established at the suggestion of US Senators who needed an excuse to go back home early, said comedian Jimmy Kimmel as he heralded six newly minted US Citizens in 2018, yours truly included. A nation born of people who previously had little connection to it; for the people who swear by its principles of inclusion, welcome and opportunity for all; and by the people who will do whatever necessary to make their individual and collective dream a reality is a force to reckon with. That is the core of American Exceptionalism even in these days of crazy talk, and crazier behavior. As someone who chose to be “Just American’d”, July 4th that year was a personal initiation into American Exceptionalism, a celebration of this experiment in self-rule, democracy and supremacy on the individual.
The US story I was required to memorize as part of my Naturalization process did not cover Dred Scott, nor did they ever talk about Juneteenth. You could say that the “Quick Civics Lessons” study as mandated by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) left entire pages white inside, pun intended. They could do differently. As I look back at my own journey into being an American, much of emotional capital was spent in coming to accept what is known as American Exceptionalism. Today, I find a direct parallel with America’s own journey from Dred Scott through Juneteenth and beyond.
The US Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sanford case (“Dred Scott v. John F A Sanford” decided 7-2 in March 1857), took it upon themselves to decide whether Blacks had any representation in US political life at all – can Blacks, “whose ancestors were imported into the country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States”? And they found that Blacks “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to the citizens of the United States”. In other words, Blacks have no natural rights of self-ownership, self-governance based on free-will, unalienable rights the Declaration of Independence held as self-evident and endowed by the Creator. Dred Scott case was not just about the US Supreme Court. In 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court, in ruling Scotts were still slaves, reversed a jury verdict in a lower court. Chief Justice Scott proclaimed, with obvious pride, the State of Missouri was “willing to accept her full responsibility for slavery within her limits, nor does she seek to share or divide it with others”.
On July 5th, 1852 in Rochester, Frederick Douglass gave a scorching speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, beginning in sheer indignation that “Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” Continuing further, he claimed America was “false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” Strong words for sure, but knowing what Mr. Douglass has gone through in life, and given the times (he delivered the speech four months before Missouri Supreme Court verdict), you share his frustrations.
The same speech, however, ends with renewed faith in American principles and hope for American institutions. “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country….While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” Drawing further contrast with Garrisonian abolitionists, who argued the Constitution is a pro-slavery document, Douglass delivered another speech in 1860 where he averred “It would be the wildest of absurdities, and lead to endless confusion and mischiefs, if, instead of looking to the written paper itself, for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it.” He posed the question: “Shall we condemn the righteous law because wicked men twist it to the support of wickedness?” While reiterating that there were forces “in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery”, he called upon America to live up to founding principles.
And they did, with 618,222 lives, more than any other war in American history.
Juneteenth celebrates advances of a regiment led by Union Army Major General Gordon Granger riding into Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865 to deliver “General Order No. 3”, proclaiming emancipation for last of the slaves in the state. Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 fell into deaf ears in the South, and the 13th Amendment, was not yet ratified. In the thirty months between Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, thousands of slaves were bought and sold, auctioned off, worked to exhaustion, and death for many, for no compensation, families separated against will, a “gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim” as Douglass writes of a slave. On Juneteenth celebrations erupted among Blacks, who continue to celebrate the day as “Freedom Day”, “Jubilee Day” or “Emancipation Day”. 13th Amendment was followed by 14th, ratified in 1868, thereby making Dred Scott case null-and-void. By no means that was the end. Within one year of 13th Amendment, Southern States circumvented the intent of the Amendment with newly passed Black Codes intended for re-enslavement through prison system, a practice known as peonage and that did not end till 1940’s. US Supreme Court’s verdict on Plessey vs. Ferguson (1896) gave state imprimatur to segregation, which was overturned by US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and later enforced with Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). One can argue that fight for equality continues with Black Lives Matter movement that is scorching the land.
It is a shared journey. Blacks bled slavery through a thousand cuts, and faced unimaginable cruelty, violence and death in doing so, even before Civil war was fought mostly amongst white foot soldiers on both sides, though 178,000 freedmen served on the Union side; the first Black regiment raised in 1853 fought valiantly under Union General Grant in the defining battle of Vicksburg. Civil Rights movement martyr list includes, for example, a white Rev. Bruce Klunder, who placed his body in front of heavy equipment to protest the construction of a segregated school, and was crushed by a bulldozer in Cleveland, Ohio; Martin Luther King built his coalition as a call to action for all races and faiths. In a country formed on the basis of a set of ideals, the collective obligation to fight for their just implementation is borne by all, American history showcases that time and again.
American Exceptionalism is all about a shared journey. It is shared by the immigrants who mortgage ties, emotional and physical, to their motherland to stand by a country built on principles, not by heredity; they are not chosen by history, or by accidents of birth, mostly by themselves. It is shared by Blacks whose ancestors were fettered, flogged and once considered inferior by birth, if human at all. And it is shared by Whites, some ancestors of whom were indeed champions of oppression at home even while they invited to their shores fugitives of oppression from Europe in a system that began “in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty.” It is shared by the almost forgotten Native Americans, whose own population dwindled to a tenth of original to make room for this nation.
American Exceptionalism, being a journey, recognizes, above everything else, that the we are not there yet. It recognizes the frailty of the experiment we call America. It recognizes that the Sunshine of high ideals will always miss areas, if only temporarily. It recognizes that vigilance for the high ideals is a constant effort and its pursuit can be tiresome at times. It recognizes our own follies, and peccadillos, but that collective wisdom always acts as a balancing force. That said, it also recognizes, there is a true north by which we always course-correct – The Constitution, aided by a set of principles that help us rope the sails – Bill of Rights. American Exceptionalism is about its openness to any and everybody in this planet, whoever chooses to live by the principles and take an oath of allegiance gets to be part of the journey, for the most part. American Exceptionalism is recognizing that these attributes are unalienable natural rights, self-sovereign in their administration, and no authority can take it away.
We are going through choppy waters, no matter how you look at it. Like any journey, American Exceptionalism is fraught with quicksand on the way – today’s times are no exception. What happens in today’s America does not necessarily invalidate Exceptionalism, but defines it, shapes the American experiment and makes the Colors on the Flag shine ever so brilliantly. America is beautiful today especially because colors are in view now more than recently. America has never been more fraught with possibilities, especially because we are going back to the Founding Principles one more time. From Dred Scott v. Sanford to Juneteenth, from Plessey v. Ferguson to Civil Rights, from “Don’t ask, don’t tell” to Obergefell v. Hodges, and so on, our journey is about falling down, and falling apart, till we collect ourselves and march forward. Every single time.
If that is not exceptional, what is?
[Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own].