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Tolerance and American Exceptionalism

Friday, August 30th, 2013

In a new essay published by the Claremont Review of Books, Richard Samuelson makes the case for “American exceptionalism,” arguing that America’s national identity is rooted in the Constitution rather than a unified culture. Owing to the Constitution’s embrace of universal rights, America is more tolerant of minority groups than most other nations, Samuelson argues.

Samuelson traces America’s identity back to the Revolutionary War, drawing a distinction between “British subjects” and “American citizens.” As British subjects, Americans only had rights insofar as the government granted them, Samuelson argues. The Declaration of Independence, however, relied on a principle of citizenship, in which all people possess rights inherent by nature. America is structured less according to social classes and more according to individual rights. As a result, America has been largely tolerant of minority immigrant groups. Samuelson writes:

Our political institutions strive to treat individuals as individuals, who relate to the government on that basis, rather than as parts of groups, castes, or classes. A regime dedicated to protecting the rule of law and the rights of men—including the right of each individual to make his own way in the world, and to keep the rewards he gains for his work and talent—was the key to making America a beacon for wandering peoples, and for immigrants in general.

Samuelson acknowledges that the political climate toward immigrants has ebbed and flowed, noting that Asian immigrants have frequently been mistreated throughout American history. Despite these imperfections, Samuelson suggests that American immigrants have historically been afforded a unique opportunity through naturalization. Samuelson explains:

Anyone who becomes an American citizen is fully American, from that day forward. By contrast, a naturalized citizen of France, Japan, or Nigeria can live for decades in his new country, and his family can remain there for generations, yet many of the locals will still think of them as foreigners.

Richard Samuelson is an associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino.