Posts Tagged ‘American exceptionalism’

Many Americans open to a U.S. military coup

September 16, 2015

A poll by YouGov, a private polling organization, indicates that, if push came to shove, a sizeable minority of Americans, including a plurality of Republicans, would support a military coup in the United States.

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Why are Americans leaving the work force?

August 3, 2015

150714171144-chart-labor-force-participation-780x439

Another example of American exceptionalism.

A report by CNN Money indicates that, since the year 2000, the American labor force participation rate—the proportion of working-age Americans with jobs or looking for work—has fallen, while the rate has been increasing in other industrial countries.

I don’t think CNN’s theory—that other countries make it easier for women to work—is the whole story.

Hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, have been falling in the USA since the late 1970s.  For a long time Americans maintained their material standard of living by working longer hours, sending more families into the work force and borrowing money.

Now this has collapsed.   The good jobs are no longer available.  In many cases it makes more sense to cut back on spending than to get a job where low wages are offset by the costs of transportation, child care and the like.

I think—although I don’t claim to be able to prove—that the other countries on the CNN chart are following the same path as the United States, but are not so far along.

One straw in the wind is the increasing number of Europeans who are working “extreme” working hours—50 hours a week or more.   This is pretty much the trend in the USA during the 1990s.

I think the best explanation for what is going on is the Marxist one.   In all the rich countries, there is an increasing flow of income to holders of financial assets and to people in executive positions and a decreasing flow to the middle class, working people and the poor.

LINKS

Why America’s workforce is shrinking and Europe’s isn’t by CNN Money.

Extreme working hours have radically increased in many western European countries since the start of the 1990s by Anna S. Burger of the London School of Economics.

Darwin’s theory and American exceptionalism

January 20, 2015

20150119_differnt_0Source: Calamities of Nature via Zero Hedge.

As this chart shows, we Americans are less likely to believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution than the people of any European nation.

Oddly, though, we are more likely to believe in social Darwinism (although we don’t call it that)—the idea the law of life is survival of the fittest, and society does not exist so that people can cooperate for mutually beneficial ends, but so that the population can be sorted into winners and losers.

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How America shaped the early 20th century

January 12, 2015

Adam Tooze in THE DELUGE: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, which I just got finished reading, traced the impact of the emergence of the United States as the world’s dominant superpower and arbiter of world affairs.

He described in great detail the struggles in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Japan for security and economic stability, and how they all hinged on the action and inaction of the USA.

Leaders of the USA today call our country the “indispensable nation”, and assert the right and the power to be the arbiter of the world.  Tooze’s book shows how this self-appointed role began.

24926_large_The_DelugeThe early 20th century USA was a new kind of world power, Tooze wrote.  It had a greater area and greater population than any European country except Russia.  It was uniquely invulnerable to invasion.  It was the world’s leading manufacturing nation, agricultural producer and oil exporter and, as a result of the war, the world’s leading creditor nation.  No other country could even come close to matching American power.

Tooze began his history in 1916 because that was when Britain, France and their allies came to realize how much they depended on the United States, not just for supplies, but even more for financing of the war.

Woodrow Wilson’s policy was to use this leverage to dictate a “peace without victory,” a compromise peace based on liberal democracy, international law and—most importantly—a worldwide open door for U.S. commerce.

The United States was not interested in new territorial acquisitions because it didn’t need them.  All it wanted was access to other nations’ territories by American business.

Wilson’s neutrality became politically unsustainable because of German attacks on U.S. shipping, and the Zimmerman telegram to Mexico urging reconquest of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but he still tried to maintain U.S. position as an arbiter above the fray.

His Fourteen Points encouraged liberal democrats around the world.  According to Tooze, with better decisions and better luck, there might have been a compromise peace between the pro-democratic Provisional Government of Russia, which came to power in March 1917, and a German government forced to yield to pressure from liberals and socialists in the Reichstag.

But the USA and the other allies pressured Russia’s Provisional Government to go on fighting, and the German army successfully counterattacked.  The Russians ceased to hope for peace and the Germans ceased to see a need for peace.   Wilsonian liberal movements in China and Japan also received no support, partly because of Wilson’s racism.

Tooze pointed out that the Fourteen Points were all highly consistent with American national interests.   The first three points were (1) no secret treaties, (2) freedom of the seas and (3) removal of barriers to equality of trade, all policies that advanced U.S. economic interests.

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How American history should be taught

October 3, 2014

The United States is an exceptional nation because American nationality is not based on race, religion, an ethnic culture or loyalty to a dynasty.  What unites us Americans as a nation are certain foundational ideas, and to a Constitution created to implement these ideas.

These ideas were set forth by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, who said that —

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776_cph.3g09904We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men [1] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed …

I think the best way to understand American history is to understand what led up to the writing of those words, and the consequences that followed.   The history of the United States is largely an argument over the meaning of those words, and the story of the struggles (not always successful) to live up to them.

The history of the United States, like the history of all nations, is a history of crimes and oppression as well as of glory and achievement.  There is nothing exceptional about that, and no reason to hide it.  What makes us exceptional is that we have created a benchmark by which we judge ourselves and by which others can fairly judge us.

Please don’t be hung up on the phrase “all men.”  The logic of the Declaration’s ideas meant that their application ceased, over time, to be limited to white male property-owners and came to apply to all human beings.   .

The Founders, of course, were very different from 21st century Americans.  They didn’t agree among themselves, some of them hated each other and they didn’t necessarily practice what they preached.  To be loyal to their spirit does not mean to try to recreate the USA as it was in George Washington’s administration.  It means to love liberty as the Founders did.

I don’t believe the teaching of American history should be indoctrination.  I don’t believe students should be required to profess belief in American ideals of freedom and democracy, or anything else, but I do believe they should have a concept of those ideals.  If we disagree on what these ideals are, then teach the controversy.

Because when we Americans cease to be a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, when we cease to pledge allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all, then the United States of America ceases to longer a nation.  It becomes nothing more a labor force and a consumer market with an army.

The old American myth and the new one

February 20, 2014

When I was growing up, most Americans believed that one of the things that made our country exceptional was “the American standard of living” — that Americans of all social classes were better off than their counterparts elsewhere, and that is why everyone would want to move to the USA if they could.

Now we’re adopting a new belief — that what makes our country exceptional, at least compared t is that we Americans are tough and therefore don’t need job security, guaranteed medical care or all the other things that cushion their lives.   However, if the Europeans follow their present austerity course, we may not be exceptional in that respect, either.

The opposite of what America does

February 19, 2014

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We Americans have a lot of things to be proud of, but we hurt ourselves when our national pride prevents us from learning from the best practices of other nations.

Hat tip to Hullabaloo.

American exceptionalism in perspective

January 22, 2014

americanexceptionalism

I first came across the phrase “American exceptionalism” when I studied American history in college in the 1950s.  It referred to a historical fact—that the United States had taken a different direction than most other countries of the Western world.

I think that the United States is exceptional in some ways that are good, which I have written about in previous posts.

I think there are ways in which the United States once was exceptional and no longer is, either because we have changed or the rest of the world has changed.   Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as “the last, best hope of earth” because, in his time, the USA was the only broadly-based democracy [1] in the world, and the survival of the Union was regarded as a test case as to whether democracy was a viable form of government.  This is no longer true.  Democracy now has many homes, not just one.

Unfortunately the United States is an outlier in bad ways as well as good.  We Americans pay more for medical care and have worse health than the people of any other advanced nation.  We are exceptional in the number of deaths by violent crime, in lack of knowledge of foreign languages and in our government’s willingness to go to war.\.

Nowadays some Americans speak of having “faith” in American exceptionalism, as if it were a religious doctrine or a definition of patriotism.   For me, love of country is like love of family.  I love my country because it is mine, not because other countries are unworthy of being loved by their patriots.

Many foreigners take the phrase “American exceptionalism” to mean that Americans arrogantly deny that we are bound by the same laws and moral rules as other peoples’.  Unfortunately this is all-too-true, and it is a way in which we are not exceptional at all.  The arrogance of power is common to all powerful nations in all periods of history.

If we Americans think of ourselves as exceptionally dedicated to the cause of human liberty, this does not exempt us from the standards of law and morality that government other nations.  Rather it obligates us to live up to a high standard regardless of what other peoples do.

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American exceptionalism: Church and state

January 15, 2014

One of the ways in which we Americans are exceptional in a good way is our separation of church and state.  The United States is a country that is friendly toward religion, yet the government neither subsidizes religion nor takes orders from a religious authority.

In virtually every other country of which I know, the government either taxes the public for the support of religion, or is actively hostile toward religion.  The U.S. government is neither.  Perhaps for this reason, church attendance and religious belief are stronger in the USA than in the countries of western Europe.

We have storefront churches in poor neighborhoods here in Rochester, NY, with more worshipers on a Sunday than some of the empty cathedrals of Europe, or so I am told by friends who have toured Europe.

I think the reason for this is in our history.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain’s North American colonies provided refuge to religious dissenters not only from Britain itself, but from all over Europe.  Being persecuted doesn’t necessarily make people tolerant, but the colonies became home to so many different kinds of dissenting religious groups that tolerance become a necessity.

Voltaire is supposed to have said that the best thing for a country is to have many religious sects, and the worst thing is to have just two.  The religious diversity of the United States is a safeguard of religious freedom, because no one denomination is in a position to take over..

I admit the United States has not been free of religious hatred.  The worst was the anti-Catholic riots and persecutions in the 1830s and 1840s.  As late as 1960, there were still Protestants who questioned whether a Catholic could be trusted to occupy the White House.  I do not think these attitudes were justified, but there is an explanation for them.

The Papacy in the 19th century aligned itself with European monarchs and was hostile to democratic movements and to religious tolerance.  It was mistaken, but not crazy, to think of Roman Catholicism as incompatible with American freedom and democracy.  Indeed, I might well have thought that way myself, if I had not had Catholic friends and realized that all these 19th century encyclicals were irrelevant to the way my Catholic friends and neighbors actually thought.

The same is true today of Islam.  The fear of Islam is not so much intolerance of difference as the fear of being subject to the religious law of someone else’s religion.  I think this fear is far-fetched, but if I had never met any American Muslims and nor had any Muslim friends, I would feel the same way about them as my 19th century forebears thought about Catholics.

We have a lot of controversies in the United States about separation of church and state.  Most are about trivialities—whether a local government meeting can begin with a prayer, and, if so, what kind of prayer.   I don’t care either way.  Whatever is decided, nobody is denied the right to practice their religion nor compelled to practice someone else’s religion.  This is as it should be.  Religion that is practiced out of compulsion is meaningless.

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American exceptionalism: Loyalty to a Constitution

November 26, 2013

An American patriot is one who will uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

This is in the oath sworn by members of the armed forces when they are inducted, the oath sworn by federal officers, including the President of the United States, when they take office, and the oath sworn by immigrants when they are naturalized as citizens.

      Our form of patriotism does not consist of loyalty to a king, or a dictator, or a ruling political party, nor to a race, religion or cultural tradition.  It is rather loyalty to a set of rules for living together, governing ourselves and respecting each others’ rights.

This is why the name of the Department of Homeland Security seems vaguely wrong to many of us.   The word “homeland” expresses the European concept of nationality—that a nation consists of people speaking the same language, living in the same place that their ancestors have lived for centuries.   North America is the homeland of the American Indians.  All the rest of us have come from a homeland somewhere else.

American constitutional patriotism is better than European blood-and-soil nationalism.  Making race, language and ethnicity the basis of national identity is very natural, but it has led to bloody wars, ethnic cleansings and second-class citizenship.

You can be born anywhere in the world and think of becoming an American.  I don’t think anyone thinks this way of becoming German or Japanese or any of the other nationalities defined by ethnicity.

We Americans have had and still have a lot of problems with immigration, but I think we do better than most nations because we make loyalty to the Constitution the basis of patriotism.   I have a good friend born in Uzbekistan who is a naturalized American citizen.   She is as good an American as I am, and as good an American as my immigrant ancestor, Johann Ebersole, who served in the Continental Army under George Washington.

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Filibusters and our undemocratic Senate

November 26, 2013

      The one provision of the U.S. Constitution that cannot be amended is equal representation for the states in the Senate (see Article V).

This guarantee was the price of having all 13 original states agree to a Constitution in the first place.  So we’re stuck with the theoretical possibility that Senators representing 51 states with 18 percent of the population could cast a majority vote.

This doesn’t matter much with enactment of laws.  For a bill to become a law, it must also be approved by the House of Representatives, which is chosen on a population basis, then signed into law by the President or passed over his veto by a super-majority.   But to appoint judges, ambassadors and other federal officers, the President only needs the advice and consent of the Senate.

Most democratic nations have parliamentary forms of government, in which the parliamentary majority chooses the Prime Minister and routinely approves the PM’s proposed laws and appointments.  If the executive and the legislature disagree on any important measure, the people get to vote on who is right.

These systems work well most of the time.  When they don’t work, it isn’t because of the tyranny of a majority, but because there are multiple parties than can’t work together.  I don’t think the people of any democratic country would want to create the equivalent of the U.S. Senate.

We Americans don’t have a choice because the principle of state sovereignty is baked into our Constitution.   I think there is a case to be made for our exceptional system of checks and balances, but I don’t think we need to carry it beyond what our Constitution requires.

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American exceptionalism: Capitalism as freedom

November 25, 2013

One of the things that is exceptional about the United States is that, unlike people in all other countries I know about, we Americans associate capitalism with freedom.

That is not to say Americans are the only people who think that way—Margaret Thatcher in 1980s Britain and Ludwig Erhard in postwar West Germany were as strong believers in capitalism as any American ever was.  But the United States is the only country in which such beliefs go unchallenged.

market-revolution-in-america-liberty-ambition-eclipse-common-john-lauritz-larson-paperback-cover-artJohn Lauritz Larson’s THE MARKET REVOLUTION IN AMERICA: Liberty, Ambition and the Eclipse of the Common Good, which I read on the recommendation of my friend Craig Hanyan, attempts to explain why.

Most of the peoples of the world define capitalism as Karl Marx did—a system ruled by the holders of financial assets, in contrast to older systems ruled by landowning aristocrats and Oriental despots and a hoped-for future system ruled by workers.

Americans think of capitalism as Adam Smith’s “system of natural liberty,” in which each person is free to pursue their own interests in their own way, subject only to “the law of justice.”  I was brought up to believe in this and I still do, although my idea of the “law of justice” is broader than Adam Smith’s probably was.

Larson’s argument is that the United States between the Revolution and the Civil War was the world’s greatest example of Adam Smith’s ideas in practice.   The system of natural liberty didn’t apply to black people or to native Americans,  but white American citizens, especially those in the North, experienced a degree of freedom and rising prosperity that was a wonder of the world.

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American exceptionalism

July 4, 2013

A writer named Alan R. Sanderson pointed out recently that the United States is still No. 1, at least in some things.

As our nation adds another candle on its cake […], let’s take stock of where we stand in the world after a couple centuries of trying.  Yes, we are about the only country with pick-up trucks and a preference for ice in drinks; we have an immense prison population and large carbon dioxide emissions, and, for a developed economy we have a troubling amount of income inequality.  We are a portly people, though the rest of the world is—pun intended—gaining on us; and we spend (waste?) far more time on Facebook than citizens in any other country. […]

No-1-USA-patch-197x300We have the largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world, about triple our nearest rival—China (on an exchange-rate basis, though only 50 percent larger on a purchasing-power-parity standard).  On a per-capita measure there is even more distance between us and Beijing, though not in comparison with several Scandinavian countries.

We have the highest spending—as a percentage of GDP—on health care of any nation, though that may be understandable—we’re rich!  And while we are not #1 in life expectancy, once one adjusts for the heterogeneity of our population, income inequality, infant-mortality, obesity, a high murder rate and automobile fatalities, we look more respectable.

With just 4.5 percent of the earth’s population, the U.S. produces 20-25 percent of all output, has a per-capita income 4-5 times the world average, and holds a third of the world’s wealth. […]

In terms of industrial and manufacturing output, the United States, China, Japan and Germany are the top four world economies.  We lead everyone by a wide margin in the production and export of services.  Three of the four largest non-bank businesses (by market capitalization) in the world are U.S. firms, and they reflect our diversity: Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, and Walmart. By the same metric we have four of the largest ten banks in the world, and the largest stock market. […]

flag-fireworksChina, India and the United States have the largest agricultural outputs, though it is only one percent of our GDP and less than two percent of our labor force.  (We lead the world by far when it comes to the consumption of coffee and cocoa!)  China, Germany and the United States are the three largest when it comes to the dollar volume of international trade, though in spite of all the political rhetoric and grousing about goods made abroad, relative to GDP the U.S. has one of the smallest foreign-trade sectors among developed nations.  In dollar terms, we have the world’s largest trade deficit, though it is less than 4 percent of our GDP.  (For Goldfinger fans: we have by far the world’s largest gold reserves.)

When it comes to flying, no other nation is close to us in logging air miles, and two of the three largest airports in the world, measured by passengers served, are in the U.S.—Atlanta and O’Hare.  France, Indonesia and the United States are the three top tourist destinations, though in terms of visitors’ spending, the U.S. comes out on top.  The most popular museums? In the U.S., France, and U.K.

Most of the world’s top universities are in the United States and, not surprisingly, in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics, 41 percent of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Americans or scholars working here, and we lead the world in R & D expenditures.

via Chicago Life.

I’m grateful for my good fortune in being the citizen of a rich and powerful nation, but my greater gratitude is for being an heir to the United States’ tradition of freedom and democracy.

When President Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as the last, best hope of earth, the United States was not No. 1 in gross domestic product and did not have full spectrum military dominance.  What Lincoln could justly claim is that the United States was a country in which ordinary working people had a voice in their government, and could better their condition through their own efforts.

A high national GDP is good and strong military power is good, but what matters is what they contribute to the well-being and liberties of the citizens of the nation.

Click on Celebrate the 4th of July for Sanderson’s complete article.

Click on Rethinking American Exceptionalism for David R. Sirota’s thoughts in In These Times.

Click on American Exceptionalisms for Richard J. Gamble’s contrast in The American Conservative of the older American exceptionalism and the new.

The American credo divides and unites us

July 4, 2011

The United States is exceptional in being founded not on loyalty to a monarch or charismatic leader, nor on identification with a racial or ethnic group, but on a set of ideas.   We Americans take this for granted, but foreign visitors do not.

Here’s how the English Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton saw us in the 1920s:

The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed.  America is the only nation in the world that is founded upon a creed.  That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.  It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice and that their authority is for that reason just. …

Here’s how Canadian sociologist Sacvan Bercovitch saw us in the 1960s:

I crossed the border into the United States and found myself inside the myth of America … a country that despite its arbitrary frontiers, despite its bewildering mixture of race and creed, could believe in something called the True America, and could invest that patent fiction with all the moral and emotional appeal of a religious symbol. … Here was the Jewish anarchist Paul Goodman berating the Midwest for abandoning the promise; here, the descendent of American slaves, Martin Luther King, denouncing injustice as a violation of the American way; here, an endless debate about national destiny … conservatives scavaging for un-Americans, New Left historians recalling the country to its sacred mission. … It was a hundred sects and factions, each apparently different from the others, yet all celebrating the same mission.

Our American credo is based on two complementary documents, one radical and one conservative.  The radical document is the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration proclaims that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments are instituted to protect these rights, that there is a right of revolution in defense of those rights, and that 13 British colonies are free and independent states.  The conservative document is the Constitution.  It  joins 13 free and independent states into a nation to form a more perfect union, provide for the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity.

Independence Day, our patriotic holiday, commemorates the signing of the Declaration.  The President of the United States, naturalized citizens, members of the armed forces and federal officers swear to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution.  To understand the United States, it is necessary to understand both the Declaration and the Constitution.

Like the Bible, these documents do not interpret themselves, nor do they make clear what parts are for a particular time and situation, and what parts are truths for all time.  You can pull out quotes from either document to justify many different things.

We Americans have been fighting over the meaning of these documents almost since the signing of the Declaration and the ratification of the Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were both patriots who contributed greatly to the founding of the United States.  But they hated each other, and each thought the other a traitor to the principles of the American republic as they conceived.

During the Civil War, the Union and Confederate soldiers and statesmen each thought they were fighting for the basic principles of American liberty.  They were not equally right, but they were equally sincere.

In our own time, it is no different.  The Tea Party and the American Civil Liberties Union are fighting to defend basic Constitutional rights as they conceive them.  They are not equally right, but they are equally sincere.

All through American history, different groups of people have tried to define themselves as the true Americans and their opponents as the un-Americans.  This can be, and has been, a very bad thing, but sometimes it is justified.  At least when we argue about the meaning of Americanism, our common loyalty to the Constitution and the Declaration gives us a common point of departure.  Arguing over what it means to be an American is part of our American exceptionalism.

The meaning of Memorial Day

May 30, 2011

Memorial Day is the most meaningful of our national holidays.  Maybe it is the only one that has any meaning.  The Fourth of July is no longer an occasion for listening to patriotic speeches on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence; we watch fireworks displays, but don’t necessarily remember what the displays are for.  Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and maybe for expressing gratitude for our blessings, but nobody except maybe school children remember the Pilgrims and their quest for religious freedom.  Presidents Day, combining Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, is an insult to both of our national heroes.  The only national hero to whom we pay any respect at all is Martin Luther King Jr.

But it is well that we celebrate Memorial Day, originally created to honor the Union dead in the Civil War and now to honor all who have fallen in our nation’s wars.  The men (and now women) in the uniformed services pledge to put their very lives at the service of their community.  As somebody once pointed out to me, the armed services are the only institution in which you can be ordered to do something that is almost certain to get you killed, and it is a felony to refuse to obey that order.

Even if you think a particular war is a mistake, even if you think most wars are a mistake, even if you think all wars are wrong, you have to respect that patriotism and dedication.  Soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and other troops serve at the orders of the President and Congress, who are accountable to we, the people.  The troops do not send themselves into battle.  If a war is wrong, the responsibility rests not with the troops, but with we, the people.

The American military has another virtue, and that is deference to civilian authority.  They’re not in the habit of staging military coups.  The military in many other countries, including our Latin American neighbors, regard themselves as the repository of national patriotism, with the right to take over when the civilian authority is on the wrong path.

Our American exceptionalism reflects the greatness of the first commander-in-chief, George Washington.  He always followed the orders of the Continental Congress, no matter how much he disagreed.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he was so popular he could easily have made himself king or dictator.  Some people proposed that he do so, and, given the serious disarray of the newly-independent states, there were strong arguments in favor.  The liberators of many Latin American nations did just that.  But Washington disbanded the army and went home to Mount Vernon, to await the call of a legal civilian government.   That has been the tradition of our military ever since.

The oath that the members of our armed forces swear is not personal loyalty to a dictator or king or the armed forces themselves, but to the Constitution of the United States, which they swear to support and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  Over the generations, they have kept that oath.  It is their willingness to sacrifice their lives which won independence for the United States as a nation, preserved the Union from being broken up and kept the nation free from foreign monarchs and dictators.  We the people can show our gratitude by honoring the memory of the dead, attending to the needs of living veterans and each, in our own way, supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States.