America is the planet’s wealthiest and most powerful nation. Its gifts to the world have come in many forms – musicians, artists, writers, poets, entertainers, pioneers, explorers, inventors, laborers, entrepreneurs, soldiers, scientists, statesmen, and politicians. But true American exceptionalism is not a birthright; it is still being earned. It lies in a constitutional structure that permits improvement, a set of ideals, and a spirit that produces an endless supply of citizens – heroic and ordinary – who are willing to struggle to move us closer to fulfilling those ideals. As President Obama said in commemorating the march from Selma to Montgomery: “Oh, what a glorious task we are given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” Striving toward that goal makes America exceptional.

America’s birth was exceptional for the time. Its declaration of independence, followed by the adoption of constitutional governance purportedly free of the aristocratic and class-bound feudal baggage of the Old World, set it on an uncharted course. Its exceptional founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – distilled much of the best of the Enlightenment into an experiment in building a nation. Those documents enshrined noble ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy that defined the civic culture of America.

Unfortunately, at the start, they were little more than myths for the overwhelming majority of residents. The man who penned the Declaration of Independence – including the principles “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that amongst these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” – bought and sold human beings and operated a slave labor camp. The man who presided over the convention that wrote our Constitution also presided over the largest slave labor operation on the continent. These men understood the immorality of slavery, yet they perpetuated it and enshrined it in the Constitution.  Women, of course, were entitled neither to vote nor to exercise other perquisites of citizenship. Native Americans fared even worse. The gaping chasm between the lofty rhetoric of our founding documents and the reality of the society they created was, indeed, exceptional.

The original plan failed disastrously when South Carolina pulled out of the Union, citing its fear that the federal government would abolish slavery. When other slave states followed, the rift between rhetoric and practice had come home to roost. The country could only be reestablished through devastating force of arms.  

The rebirth of the nation following the Civil War remains a work in progress 150 years later. As a formal matter, the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery, prohibited interference on the basis of race with the right to vote, and made guarantees of due process and equal protection of the law applicable to the states.  

The road toward an inclusive society, however, has been difficult and often violent. The secessionist states fought to maintain white supremacy through Jim Crow laws and tolerance for racial terror, including the lynching of some 4,000 African Americans. But, the legal avenues for change had been created and brave individuals were able – through much struggle – to take advantage of the nation’s protection of expression, its core belief in the rule of law, and its political processes to win major victories in court, convince Congress to enact laws and maintain pressure for their enforcement. 

In the past year, the country has shown signs of awakening to problems of mass incarceration, unfairness in our criminal justice system, the tension between the police and minority communities, and the persistence of concentrated poverty in our cities. That awakening is an essential step toward change.

Unfortunately, the vestiges of our past still haunt our society in painful ways. It took the tragic, racially motivated shootings of nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston to finally convince weak-kneed politicians that the Confederate battle flag – carried by those who took up arms against the United States to preserve slavery and returned to public prominence after Brown v. Bd. of Education in defiance of the civil rights movement – should not fly in public space. 

America’s struggle to overcome its original sin has been slow and painful, but we have made and will continue to make progress. The ability to sustain that struggle and others defines what is exceptional about America.

The term “American exceptionalism” too often has been used inappropriately as a partisan litmus test to label some more patriotic than others and to exempt America from rules that govern nations. It is dangerous hubris to think that we are exempt from inconvenient rules or immune to the criticism of others.

True patriotism is not measured by seeking exemption from accountability. Rather, it requires each of us to look at America warts and all, to speak freely of its strengths and shortcomings, and to set to work to close the gap between the ideals and the reality of this great nation.