Sunday, November 23, 2014

374. American Exceptionalism, the Founders and Confucian Moral Philosophy

Usually, American exceptionalism can be traced to Alexis De Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations.

Actually, the notion that the United States is a different country is older than that. The founders of the United States worked hard to make the United States a new nation on the earth. Thomas Paine in this widely read Common Sense expressed for the first time the belief that American was not just an extension of Europe but a new land. From In his paper Confucius in the American Founding (Virginia Review of Asian Studies, vol. 16, 2014), Dr. Dave Wang states that the American Revolution was also simultaneously a moral revolution. While the founders were concerned with preserving their civil liberties and economic freedom through their stance, “no taxation without representation,” they were also concerned with public morality. They fully understood that the war was as much a battle against “the corruption of 18th century British high society” as it was against financial oppression. As a result, the founding fathers were determined to construct new virtues responding to the needs of the new nation. Having seen the results of the moral corruption in the old world, the founders worked diligently to use all valuable moral resources available for them to create virtues for the new nation.

As the main designers of the new nation, the founders knew that it took more than a perfect plan of government to preserve liberty. They needed some moral principles accepted by the people to encourage them to obey laws voluntarily. They recognized that a free government should be supported by people who could act morally without compulsion, and would not willfully violate the rights of others. Benjamin Franklin firmly believed that "Laws without morals are in vain." Cultivating new virtues for the fledgling United States therefore became one of the most significant themes during this time of social and political transformation. Thomas Jefferson believed the United States was founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people. Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European morality. He opposed the system of the ruling family over the needs of the people. With this notion in mind, the founders turned to Confucian moral philosophy. These efforts to build new virtue for the new nation laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism.

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