WASHINGTON – The American creed, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," lies at the heart of American exceptionalism, argued Dr. Robert George at the Young America's Foundation's National Conservative Student Conference in Washington, D.C. And, the gratitude that immigrants show for the liberty and security provided by America's institutions and buttressed by its founding moral and political creed illustrates why America is an exceptional nation.
"Some of our friends on the left do not have much use for" the concept of American exceptionalism, said George, who is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and founder of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and American Principles Project, to the gathering of more than 200 young conservatives on Friday.
What binds Americans together as a nation and makes it exceptional, George explained, is not shared ethnicity, ancestry, religion or land, but ideals that recognize the dignity and natural rights of every human being.
George summarized those ideals in the words of Abraham Lincoln who said in the Gettysburg Address that America is a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
"Part of what is unique about this country is that our common bonds are not in blood or ethnicity or soil," George said, "but are rather in a shared moral and political creed. We do indeed hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights."
American exceptionalism, therefore, is demonstrated in the fact that immigrants, with different customs, races and ethnicities, can become Americans in the fullest sense as they commit to the American creed.
"Now, one can become a citizen of, say, Greece or France or China. But, can one really become a Greek, a Frenchman or Chinese?" George asked rhetorically. "An immigrant who becomes a citizen of the United States can become, not merely an American citizen, somebody who's got the certificate, has been through the ceremony, but can become an American – someone who is recognized as an American by his fellow Americans, not in a thin sense, having citizenship papers, but in a full and robust sense. He is as American as the guy whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower."
The interesting question, said George, is how does that happen?
"The essential ingredient is gratitude," George answered.
George then recalled the story of his own immigrant grandfathers, one who fled oppression in Syria and one who fled poverty in Southern Italy. Both of these men were "exceedingly grateful" and "proud" to be Americans, George said, even though both of them encountered prejudice in their new country.
"It wouldn't have dawned upon them, crossed their minds, to blame the bad behavior of some Americans on America itself," George said, because they "viewed America as a nation of unsurpassed blessing."
"Immigration is and has been a great strength to the United States of America," George said.
A nation under God is also a nation under judgment, George said, recalling a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."
America's record is not unblemished, George admitted.
"From the very beginning we were unfaithful even to our own principles, slavery was the great original sin in this nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
But America's story also includes, George reminded, "the great struggle, by blacks and whites, to right the wrongs of racial injustice."
The current struggle to protect the life of the unborn, George added, is consistent with upholding the principles upon which the country was founded.
"That principle of the profound inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family, irrespective of race, or sex or ethnicity, but also of age, or size, or stage of development, or condition of dependency, ... is why our struggle in defense of the unborn child is a struggle that is entirely in the spirit of this exceptional nation and our exceptional principles."
The July 30-August 4 Washington, D.C., conference had more than 300 attendees representing 37 states throughout the week. Other speakers included Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Star Parker, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker. Some of those speeches can be viewed on YAF's Ustream page. George's speech is also available on C-Span's website.