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The Progressive As Patriot: What George Washington Can Teach Us About Reclaiming American Exceptionalism

Stephen Howard Browne is Liberal Arts Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences. He is the author, most recently, of The Ides of War: George Washington and the Newburgh Crisis. His current work includes a project on Washington and America’s first presidential inauguration.

Progressives stand in a hard way of late. Beset by a deeply cynical political culture, incipient class warfare, and impoverished leadership, we find ourselves grasping for a language capable of meeting these challenges, of giving us voice—yes—but a voice that will be heard and taken seriously. Such a language is in fact available to us, and has been since the nation’s founding. It is powerful, it is appealing and, though clearly vulnerable to expropriation, remains a resource very much worth our reconsideration.

The problem is that it has been hijacked by the right and put to purposes that undermine any meaningful sense of what it might mean to be a patriot —a Progressive Patriot —in our time. I refer to the language of “American Exceptionalism.” We need to reclaim it—now. Fortunately, we have in George Washington both a resource and example as to how this language may be effectively deployed.

We needn’t be Samuel Johnson to know that scoundrels find in patriotism their last resort; nor a political scientist to warn of the ways in which patriotism, and the language of exceptionalism upon which it relies, has fueled the worst excesses of ethnic nationalism, privilege, xenophobia, racism, territorial expansion, war, and cheap populism (viz. Make America Great Again). This is all quite the case; it is to be admitted and cause for regret. But it is also evidence that what once was and can be a very potent vocabulary has been stolen from us in an act of rhetorical banditry. The Progressive Patriot now has every reason to take it back.

“America” is great. Of course it is, and always has been. It is great in magnitude, in multitude, in its extraordinary natural and human resources. At issue is the question: in what ways shall we understand this greatness? And what obligation do we assume in acknowledging our citizenship? How shall we act then to realize its gifts and potential? The Progressive Patriot, it turns out, has an exceedingly rich and forceful discourse upon which to give genuine and compelling answers to these questions. If only we would seize the opportunity.

Meaning what? Three lines of argument immediately offer themselves. There are more. But because I happen to be working lately with that oldest, deadest white male George Washington, I will rely upon him to suggest how we might capitalize on this reanimated sense of American Exceptionalism. An unlikely source—but if even this Southern slave owning elite can imagine the terms of what makes our nation great, surely we can as well.

Argument number one: America as an asylum unto the world. Shortly before taking office, Washington wrote to his Spanish friend Joseph Mandrillon of his hopes “that the foundation is laid for the enjoyments of such purer civil liberty and greater public happiness than have hitherto been the portion of Mankind . . . and [so to] prove an Asylum for the persecuted of all Nations.” Now, this appeal is scarcely his alone: from John Winthrop to Thomas Paine, Emma Lazarus to Barack Obama, we have, at our best, sent out the beacon and said: come. We can avail ourselves of this rhetorical opportunity to reshape the debate over immigration in new and productive ways.

Argument number two: Americans are an exceptionally generous people. In 1790, Washington declared that “a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent than it formerly was among the enlightened nations of the earth . . . Happily the people of the United States have, in many instances, exhibited examples worth imitation.” In truth Americans can be amazingly generous of their time, talent, and treasure. We volunteer at exceptional levels, donate to those in need (including to those in other countries), we work the hotlines;. We give. So when countries around the world are reeling from natural disasters, including our own Puerto Rico, we must answer.

Argument number three: America respects freedom of conscience. Here is a famous passage from Washington’s letter to the Newport synagogue: “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean [comport] themselves as good citizens.” To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance: if that is not patriotism at its best, what is? Here is a better version of ourselves, and it asks only that we give it life again.

Aristotle described rhetoric as the art of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion. We have such an available means of persuasion in the language of American Exceptionalism. Has it been perverted, debased, and cheapened? Absolutely. But for those who would put it to better ends, it is a language of demonstrable power. Go ahead. Be a Patriot. It’s OK. It’s more than OK.