America's Founders and both early and recent Progressives agree that America is an exceptional nation. But they very much disagree about the meaning of American exceptionalism.
The Progressive view is that America is in the vanguard of the march of freedom in history. We have an obligation to bring civilization and liberty to those peoples that lag behind us. Early Progressives such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson wished to declare war on barbarism or autocracy around the world. Wilson put it nicely when he said that the US should enter World War I not to secure American rights but to vindicate the rights of all mankind. "We are glad . . . to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples . . . . The world must be made safe for democracy." The principal means to accomplish the liberation of all peoples and "peace with an aspect of permanence" was to be "a partnership of democratic nations." Later Progressives such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama have basically restated the call for America's obligation to aid the spread of democracy around the world through international organizations and the utilization of military, diplomatic, and economic coercion.
The Founders, on the other hand, thought American exceptionalism could not cohere with a policy of forcing other nations to accept free government. They believed that all human beings are created equal and endowed with inalienable natural rights such as the rights to life, liberty, freedom of religion, and the ability to acquire and possess property. But they denied that it was America's task to go forth and force other nations to live up to these universal principles.
A frequent objection to the Founders' position is related to universal rights. If all human beings have the same right to be free of arbitrary or non-consensual political rule, how can we not intervene when tyrannies oppress their citizens? The Founders' answer is that all free government exists by compact. The social compact demands that a nation secure the rights only of its own citizens while respecting the rights of all human beings. We have no right to enslave or kill foreigners who have not harmed or intended to harm our rights. At the same time we have no obligation to secure their rights.
America has an obligation to secure the rights of Americans while respecting the rights of non-Americans. The Founders established the Constitution to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. . . ." America's obligation to secure the blessings of liberty is an American obligation to present and future Americans. The Founders did not think it just or prudent for America to be a base from which the blessings of liberty could be imposed on the rest of the world through a combination of military action and modern social science.
In my next post I will describe the Founders' case against intervention in the internal affairs of other nations and why social compact theory is not isolationist. If we are to restore constitutionalism at home, we must eschew intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. We must hope that a Presidential candidate will see the relationship between freedom at home and foreign policy in the way that Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln did if we are perpetuate the republicanism of the Founding.