Exceptionalism in History

Posted on December 15, 2013


In American history, observers, both here and abroad, have called attention since the era of the Revolution to the “exceptional” nature of this nation, chosen to lead if you will.

Even earlier, the Puritans who settled New England thought they were building a “city upon a hill,” the new Jerusalem, in the wilderness of North America, thereby kicking off a fresh start for man, away from the decadence and feuding world of Europe they left behind.

Is the American nation singularly blessed by God and/or Godly circumstances to stand out from all other peoples and nations of the modern world? And, if so, what is the evidence?

Curiously, it was not an American who first applied the term exceptional to the new nation and its people in the early nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who traveled through America in the 1830s, recorded his impressions in a famous book, Democracy in America where he identified and analyzed how this experiment in a republican form of democracy was evolving.

He observed that something new was at work here. Democracy and liberty were operating together in an exceptional manner to produce a republic of liberty.

After de Tocqueville, the concept continued to develop in the American consciousness. It had numerous manifestations.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Americans thought it was their “manifest destiny” to extend the physical boundaries of the new nation all the way to the Pacific coast of North America.

It was our manifest destiny—a divine mandate many thought– to extend the democratic and republican experiment–kicked off by the American Revolution–across the American continent.

This was the new republic of freedom, liberty, and enterprise, an “exceptional” and pioneering departure from monarchy or rule by the elites and oligarchies that marked governments across the world.

That slavery still marked Southern society and the franchise (or the right to vote) did not extend to women did not detract markedly from the novelty of the republican experiment. Those two failures were corrected within one hundred years of de Tocqueville’s first observations.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Americans were competing successfully against their European rivals for the economic, commercial, and even strategic-political dominance of the world. The American brand of near unbridled capitalism led by the Fords, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers gave a huge charge to the economy that roared to lead the world, especially after the Second World War.

The exceptional nature of American culture was defined both politically and economically. Politically, it was a life marked by an adherence to law within the boundaries of a Constitution where no one sector could rise to dominate all.

Economically, free enterprise was the key to success, but a free enterprise guided and sometimes controlled by government to curb excesses and gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power. The introduction, at the federal level, of the graduated income tax in 1914 was but one expression of this “progressive” principle.

The combination of political freedom and economic prosperity left little doubt that this was the country where dreams could come true in a land of peace and order. Why else would millions come here as immigrants, often poor, sometimes persecuted, and lacking a chance for fulfillment in their homelands?

Other nations and empires have of course had their claims to exceptionality. The Roman Empire was certainly an exceptional political and military colossus in its time.

But, one could argue, none have captured the imagination of the world.

To be an “American,” for example has little to do with race or ethnicity. Anyone can be an American. To illustrate the point, not anyone can be Chinese or French or Russian or Japanese or Nigerian. You have to be born into those races or national groups. But not so Americans.

We are all immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, except for the American Indians, and we draw strength from our diversity, of being united in freedom and liberty, not race or ethnicity. Few, if any, nations can make that claim. It is exceptional.

The arguments against American exceptionalism are often well made, but they draw upon the premise that all men are basically the same rather than each person being distinct from one another.

Sameness goes against the grain of American exceptionalism which celebrates the individual, protects her with the Bill of Rights, fosters ingenuity and inventiveness, and rewards him for stepping out from the pack.

Are we still exceptional?

Are you satisfied with being part of the pack, satisfied with the norm, safe and secure?

Or do we still have the “right stuff” that distinguished the first seven astronauts?

Now extrapolate your answer to all 320,000,000 of us, and you’ll have the answer. That is our future.

Published Sunday December 15, 2013 in my blog The Port Rail as Exceptionalism in U.S. Lies in Unique Unities in The Tuscaloosa News.

Posted in: History