Robertson School of Government
Next year will be the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth and the thirtieth anniversary of this great man's assumption of the Presidency. These two important dates in American history will be celebrated at Regent's Sixth Annual Ronald Reagan Symposium and make it a truly special event.
Past symposiums have been a great success, and the next one promises to be the best, not only because of the two anniversaries in the great President's life, but because the theme of the 2011 Symposium celebrates the central values of Ronald Reagan's character.
The title of the event is "A Shining City on a Hill … Still? The Future of American Exceptionalism." From that day in 1630 when John Winthrop first expressed his desire that his fellow Puritans establish a "City Upon a Hill" down to this very day there is a pervasive sense that this country is exceptional among the nations of the world. Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America, that the United States was different from other countries and held a special place among nations because it was the first working representative democracy. It was a country of unique morals and opinions inhabited by a people sharing a common destiny rooted in freedom and liberty and the prosperity that comes from respect for private property and the rule of law.
American exceptionalism originates in a nation founded by a people who did their very best to reject the history of the past and all the baggage and corruption that came with it. Immigrants to this country, especially those from Europe, came here with the express intention of leaving the past behind and starting afresh in a new country in an open land with what was almost an unlimited frontier of immense possibilities. Across a continent of fertile soil networked by navigable rivers in a temperate climate they and their children built a forward-looking and self-reliant and generous civilization, focused on the future and separated by a great ocean from the historical preoccupations and terrible legacies that are so much a part of the ancient civilizations they left behind.
America is also exceptional because Americans are mobile geographically and have fewer reminders of their past in the way of art and houses and monuments and traditional ties to place and social class. They are not obsessed with their ancestry and the position they inherited by consequence of the circumstances and place of their birth nor are they constrained by stifling values of the monarchies and aristocracies they left behind. Liberty and individualism and egalitarianism and self-reliance and a strong desire to be free from the authority of church and state have molded a distinctive culture unique to America, with an emphasis on the rights of individuals in private property and to equality before the law and their Maker.
Americans are rooted in the present, not the past, and look to influence the future. They want to change the world, not be bound by it, and simply do not accept that the future is in any sense determined by impersonal forces that limit their possibilities. This is, after all, one of the major points of Marxism and other European theories of history, and it is rejected by Americans because it is inconsistent with their vision of the limitless future of a nation protected by a Creator with a purpose for every American.
Finally, America is exceptional because it has nurtured a people who view the world as one of grandeur beyond the ability of mere mortals to comprehend. For this reason, the typical American tends to be anti-intellectual, in the best sense of the word. Americans are not looking for intricate theoretical explanations of philosophical notions about the nature of the world, but simple practical ideas relevant to the problems of an active life. Americans do things rather than think about things. They are not interested in never ending philosophical speculations about complex and insoluble riddles, which in their mind bear little relation to their lives and their future and in any event have no real essence. To Americans, science and the scientific method inform practical matters. God and faith inform those areas where metaphysics reigns. Moreover, the strong religious influence in America's Puritan past was absorbed into the American mainstream where the idea of America as the "City Upon the Hill" serves as a model community for the rest of the world.
No one was more American than Ronald Reagan and no one is more reflective of the American Creed and spoke more of the American Credo than he did. As he explained in his Farewell Address to the nation, Ronald Reagan's vision of this country was always one of exceptional promise with an exceptional purpose:
"I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still."
The 2011 Reagan Symposium, set for Friday, February 4, brings together eight nationally recognized scholars to assess Ronald Reagan and American exceptionalism at a time when the notion that the founding experience of the United States and its role in the history of the world is special and unique is even questioned by its sitting President. The shade of doubt in President Obama's affirmation of American exceptionalism, and the ever present argument by those of the Left that American exceptionalism is a myth, call for a reassessment—some would say reaffirmation—of this wellspring of the American character.
This Symposium provides the opportunity to reconsider Ronald Reagan and our understanding of the strength it brings to the American people.