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The Tension within American Exceptionalism

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The concept of American exceptionalism is a key foundation of American freedom and militarism, individualism and imperialism. The meaning of the term seems to be elastic, changing through time and depending upon the purpose of each speaker. It has suffered a fate similar to the word “liberalism” in drifting far from its historical roots.

What is American exceptionalism?

One of the idea’s current and most common uses is in foreign policy. American exceptionalism is a key assumption driving the U.S. military’s global presence, even in nations that pose no threat to U.S. security. American exceptionalism claims there is something qualitatively different and better about the United States as compared to any other nation; it is socially and politically superior. This means Americans are inherently better than individuals born elsewhere. Thus, Americans have a duty to spread their form of liberty and democracy — that is, their character — around the globe.

In his article “Exceptionalism in American Foreign Policy: Is It Exceptional?” Kalevi J. Holsti (Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia) lists some of the factors that define an exceptionalist foreign policy. They include “a presumed duty to liberate other societies; nonconformity from the standards set in place and followed by non-exceptionalist states; presence in a believed-to-be hostile world; [and] the belief that the exceptionalist country is both a victim and a constant target.”

America’s assumed duty to liberate other societies — or segments thereof, such as women in Afghanistan — can be expressed in various ways. They include diplomacy, foreign aid, and political or economic pressure through tactics like embargoes. If “persuasion” does not work, then direct military intervention is an option.

The mission of American exceptionalism in foreign policy is similar to the “white man’s burden” assumed by the British Empire in past centuries. This “burden” was the responsibility that many whites believed they shouldered to bring Western civilization to non-whites, by force of arms if necessary.

Genesis of the idea

The idea of American exceptionalism was not always a justification for military action, however.

The concept (but not the term) goes back as far as 1630, to Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While still aboard a ship bound for the colony, Winthrop preached a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.” He referred to the community the colonists would be building as a “city on a hill.” This was a reference to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus said of his audience, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). The colonists were to build a New Jerusalem. The New World would be a unique experiment in purity.

Although the term “American exceptionalism” was not coined by the French social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, it is often traced back to his two-volume work Democracy in America (1835, 1840). In trying to understand why the American character differed so deeply from that of Europeans, Tocqueville wrote, “The position of the Americans is … quite exceptional.” Their singular individualism and class equality sprang, he said, from many sources, including “their strictly Puritan origin” and “their … commercial habits.”

What was an American? Tocqueville concluded that an American was an individualist bent on commerce, who believed he was the equal of anyone else in society. This led the American to be unusually active and vocal about building a vibrant civil society.

Nevertheless, Tocqueville was also critical of American culture.  The American was an intensely practical man who looked “earthward,” with “his religion alone” bidding him to “turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.” Tocqueville believed Americans could afford to neglect the pursuits of “science, literature, and the arts” without “relapsing into barbarism” only because of “the proximity of Europe.” Thus, he advised, “Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.” The American experience, he claimed, was indeed “exceptional.”

This view of American exceptionalism was not a portrait of inherent superiority. Tocqueville did not ascribe any special qualities to the American character except for those that originated from the American social and political context. A child born in Boston was no more free or equality-oriented than one born in Brussels. An American child was not more intelligent or skilled, nor was he in possession of more rights.

The word “exceptional” may suggest superiority, but Tocqueville referred only to the unique political circumstances of America, including the fact that it was both independent from Europe and able to draw on that continent’s resources. The result was a freedom and equality that produced a lively civil and commercial society. In turn, the society allowed the American character to develop fully.

In short, Tocqueville provided a window into the character of human beings in a free society, not merely into Americans.

Manifest destiny

At the same time Tocqueville wrote, another idea was creeping into American’s sense of themselves. In the early 1800s, the concept of American exceptionalism became entangled with a doctrine now known as “manifest destiny.” This doctrine claimed that white Americans had a divine mission to expand across the continent in order to civilize it. The term “manifest destiny” itself was coined in the summer of 1845 by the editor John Louis O’Sullivan, who wrote to encourage the U.S. annexation of Texas. A second article of his in the New York Morning News (December 27, 1845) invoked the doctrine once more to promote the annexation of territory in Oregon. O’Sullivan believed the United States had a claim there “by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Thus, the belief in the uniqueness of American character became distanced from Tocqueville’s emphasis on civil society, equality, and commerce. It became entangled with a belief in the God-given superiority of American politics and white civilization; it acquired a missionary, military zeal. Under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, for example, the idea of a grand American territorial destiny was used to justify the Indian Removal Act of 1830, by which entire tribes were forced from their lands, which were then redistributed to whites. Manifest destiny was also invoked to promote the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), through which America acquired vast amounts of territory from Mexico, including Texas and California.

Thus, American exceptionalism was rebranded to embrace an evangelical mission to spread “civilization” through militarism. How Americans saw themselves — how they answered “What is an American?” — was changing. And the role they played in the world was changing too.

Coining the term “American exceptionalism”

The actual term “American exceptionalism” seems to derive from a translation of words from the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In an Atlantic article entitled “How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism,’” Terrence M. McCoy explains,

In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” And just like that, this expression was born.

Needless to say, Stalin was not ascribing superiority to the alleged exceptionalism.

In the mainstream of discussion, however, the concept’s origins have largely been forgotten. American exceptionalism has maintained the sense of a moral crusade, but it has lost much of its direct appeal to religion. By 1961, President John F. Kennedy exemplified the evolving idea of American exceptionalism. At the 100th anniversary of the University of Washington, Kennedy told the audience, “More than any other people on earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free.” Through American exceptionalism, manifest destiny had acquired a global message: America was the leader and custodian of the free world.

But America’s global role in the ensuing decades was constrained by the Cold War and by failure in Vietnam.

The idea of American exceptionalism was revived in the 1980s. McCoy writes that, “the New York Times was the first mainstream outlet to revive ‘American exceptionalism.’” In an article on June 24, 1980, the Wall Street Journal veteran Richard J. Tofel addressed then-president Jimmy Carter. Tofel declared, “As our unquestioned supremacy recedes, we need to decide what ‘America’ means to us, and what it means to the world.”

The questions are still being asked.

American exceptionalism is no less politically relevant today than it was in the past. During the last presidential run-up, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney went on the attack. “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” he told a cheering crowd. Although President Obama rarely engaged Romney or his remarks, this time Obama countered by declaring, “It’s worth noting that I first arrived on the national stage with a speech at the Democratic Convention that was entirely about American exceptionalism and that my entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.”

And yet, the real question remains: What is it? Is American exceptionalism a recognition of the harmony and prosperity created by a society of legal equality and individual freedom? Or is it a mission to impose a specific set of values upon the world? If we embrace the former, then America will extend a hand of goodwill and free trade to the world. If we embrace the latter, then America will preach its superiority while pointing a gun at others to prove it.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).