Here, for the first time in history, was a government whose legitimacy explicitly rested on the claims of human nature and not on common blood, soil, language, religion, or ancient tradition.At The New York Times, Allen C. Guelzo writes that Lincoln revered the Declaration but looked down on Jefferson's personal conduct and economic policies.
This is the true root of American exceptionalism and why it is more apt that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th rather than July 2nd. It is the creed, the principles, of the Declaration that define the United States—not our successful break from British rule.
President Obama was surely right when he said that other nations, such as the Greeks, no doubt “believe in Greek exceptionalism” just as Americans believe in American exceptionalism. But this is to confuse and conflate “exceptionalism” with day-to-day “nationalism” and to overlook just how revolutionary and transformative the American experiment in liberal self-government was, and has been.
Up to that moment, republican rule was an exception, and an exception that occasionally but rarely dotted the landscape of political rule through the centuries. Today, through the growth of American power to support those universal principles—and, lest we forget, through our own bloody test of a civil war to ensure their survival—the world truly has been transformed.
History is neither a political fable in which all the brothers are valiant and all the sisters virtuous, nor is it a tabloid exposé, full of crimes and follies, signifying nothing but victimization. There is, I admit, a caustic delight in unveiling the frailties of our Jeffersons (and our Lincolns). But the delight turns malevolent when it serves only to strip the American past of anything remarkable or exceptional, or when it demeans or discourages civic engagement and confidence.
Patriotism without criticism has no head; criticism without patriotism has no heart. Lincoln was capable of understanding both the greatness and the limits of Thomas Jefferson and the founders and still come out at the end embracing the American experiment for “giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.” And so should we.