On American Exceptionalism

Here’s a good collection by Uri Friedman of major statements in the history of the USA on it’s exceptionalism.

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney contrasts his vision of American greatness with what he claims is Barack Obama’s proclivity for apologizing for it. The “president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Romney has charged. All countries have their own brand of chest-thumping nationalism, but almost none is as patently universal — even messianic — as this belief in America’s special character and role in the world. While the mission may be centuries old, the phrase only recently entered the political lexicon, after it was first uttered by none other than Joseph Stalin. Today the term is experiencing a resurgence in an age of anxiety about American decline.

As the Massachusetts Bay Company sets sail from England to the New World, Puritan lawyer John Winthropurges his fellow passengers on theArabella to “be as a city upon a hill,” alluding to a phrase from Jesus’sSermon on the Mount. The colonists must make New England a model for future settlements, he notes, as the “eyes of all people are upon us.”

In “Common Sense,” revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine describes America as a beacon of liberty for the world. “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe,” he explains. “Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

Reflecting on his travels in the United States in his seminal work, Democracy in America, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville writes that the “position of the Americans” is “quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”


“There is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name ‘American.’ That is the national devotion to ice-water.… I suppose we do stand alone in having a drink that nobody likes but ourselves.” —Mark Twain

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson infuses Paine’s notion of the United States as a bastion of freedom with missionary zeal, arguing that what makes America unique is its duty to spread liberty abroad. “I want you to take these great engines of force out onto the seas like adventurers enlisted for the elevation of the spirit of the human race,” Wilson tells U.S. Naval Academy graduates. “For that is the only distinction that America has.”

Coining a new term, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin condemnsthe “heresy of American exceptionalism” while expelling American communist leader Jay Lovestone and his followers from the Communist International for arguing that U.S. capitalism constitutes an exception to Marxism’s universal laws. Within a year, the Communist Party USA has adopted Stalin’s disparaging term. “The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism,” the party declaresgloating about the Great Depression.

Echoing Wilson, magazine publisher Henry Luce urges the United States to enter World War II and exchange isolationism for an “American century” in which it acts as the “powerhouse” of those ideals that are “especially American.”

A group of American historians — including Daniel BoorstinLouis HartzRichard Hofstadter, and David Potter — argues that the United States forged a “consensus” of liberal values over time that enabled it to sidestep movements such as fascism and socialism. But they question whether this unique national character can be reproduced elsewhere. As Boorstin writes, “nothing could be more un-American than to urge other countries to imitate America.”

President John F. Kennedy suggests that America’s distinctiveness stems from its determination to exemplify and defend freedom all over the world. He invokes Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” anddeclares: “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.”

In a National Affairs essay, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” sociologist Daniel Bell gives voice to growing skepticism in academia about the concept in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. “Today,” he writes, “the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future.”

Ronald Reagan counters President Jimmy Carter’s rhetoric about a national “crisis of confidence” with paeans to American greatness during the presidential campaign. “I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way,” Reagan later explains.

The final days of the Cold War raise the prospect that the American model could become the norm, not the exception. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War” but the “end of history as such, that is … the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously proclaims.

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.” —Ronald Reagan

In a speech justifying NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, President Bill Clinton declares that “America remains the indispensable nation” and that “there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression.”

American exceptionalism becomes a partisan talking point as future George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessan, in a Weekly Standard article, contends that there are two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the “‘global multilateralism’ of the Clinton-Gore Democrats” vs. the “‘American exceptionalism’ of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.”

“Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America.” —George W. Bush

Amid skepticism about America’s global leadership, fueled by a disastrous war in Iraq and the global financial crisis, Democrat Barack Obama runs against Bush’s muscular “Freedom Agenda” in the election to succeed him. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” Obama says, but not one based on “our military prowess or our economic dominance.” Democratic pollster Mark Penn advises Hillary Clinton to target Obama’s “lack of American roots” in the primary by “explicitly own[ing] ‘American'” in her campaign.

As critical scholarship — such as Godfrey Hodgson’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism — proliferates, Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” publicly. “I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” — a line later much quoted by Republicans eager to prove his disdain for American uniqueness.

80 percent of Americans believe the United States “has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world.” But only 58 percent think Obama agrees. —USA Today/Gallup poll

With the presidential race heating up, the phrase gets reduced to a shorthand for “who loves America more.” After making the “case for American greatness” in his 2010 book No Apology, GOP candidate Mitt Romney claims Obama believes “America’s just another nation with a flag.” The president, for his part, invokes Bill Clinton’s “indispensable nation” in his State of the Unionaddress and later declares, in response to Republican critics, “My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism.” If Stalin only knew what he started.





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  • I’m not sure what the intent of this chronology was to serve, but we should be careful not be anachronistic in our analysis of modern exceptionalism versus the 17th century version of it. I’m not even certain that American exceptionalism can even be rightly labeled upon 17th century America, given that 1630s America was pretty much a thrid world nation.

    That said, I wish we had a Christian exceptionalism in America that led with our generosity and love for each other.

  • gingoro

    Some how Kipling “The White Man’s Burden” comes to mind.
    see http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5478/
    where Uncle Sam and John Bull ride atop the oppressed, downtrodden and benighted.

    Fifty or sixty years ago one could have heard the same kind of sentiments in Churchill’s writings and look where the English are today.

  • Patrick

    That’s a good point, Brad.

    I think Winthrop at least had the excuse that he and his friends came here for the purpose of having a better spiritual life with Christ as an excuse for his seeing the new world( wasn’t the USA yet) as exceptional compared to what they felt England had become due to the Anglicans of the day.

    Today’s exceptionalism is based on anything BUT our affinity for Christ.

  • Cal


    Yes and no. Yes they wanted a better Spiritual life but by that they wanted to create a new Israel. Their problem with Anglicanism was that it was “impure” (hence Puritan), it had too much popery and was too catholick. However the model of thinking of the state and the Church being intimately interlocked was still in full swing. It is a legacy of Puritanism that led to the Patriotic Unitarianism that was a hallmark of New England from 1776 up until the 20th century where New England homogeneity slowly collapsed.

    Winthrop would’ve meant something different by “American exceptionalism”, but it was in the same context of being the “Light of the World”.

  • DRT

    I was listening to a commentator discuss this subject, and he took a different tack.

    His approach says if you look back at the history of the US you will see the Liberty front and center as the defining characteristic of our nation. The Liberty bell, give me liberty or death, statue thereof, ….. but we are no longer the nation than provides liberty. The history books going back nearly all have liberty in the title. Now, none of them do.

    He also contends that there is no name for the system we now live under in America and will not be until history judges the our actions of today that they will likely name what we now are.

    Does anyone really believe that a man’s home is his castle anymore? That used to actually mean something.

    And all the rhetoric up through the cold war was about promoting freedom through our foreign policy. But that is not even on the radar anymore. Sure, we day that we freed Iraq from their brutal dictator, but what really happened is that we made it into a US style police state where they can’t develop weapons against us anymore. We took their liberty and freedom away.

    We can argue quite easily that we have gone from sheep liberty to wolf liberty by the words of President Lincoln. “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

  • DRT
  • Cal


    Maybe because a lot of people are starting to question that paradigm. Where was the liberty for the migrant workers stuck in woeful conditions in the Industrial era of the US? Or the liberty for black man who was oppressed north and south by Americans. Or the Indian who now wallows forgotten in pitiful reservations where suicide and alcoholism are rampant. And on and on and on.

    The commentator has not read between the lines of American history. I’m not American bashing, it’s just honest reflection. Funny he quotes Lincoln, and while I am no apologizer or sympathizer of the old South, where was the liberty in Maryland which basically became a police state because of split loyalties among its citizens. Lincoln did what he had to do in order to preserve the union and break the will of the secessionists, but we ought not to pretend he was some great friend of liberties or was much worried for the slaves.

  • Scot, have you read Andrew Bacevich’s book American Empire (Harvard)? I was his research assistant on it. Digs into the overlapping foreign policies of Bush 41 and Clinton. Very much a book about American exceptionalism post-Cold War. Good contemporary history book.

  • Mark

    Partisan equality in bias statements aside, thanks for the Twain quote. Gave me a good chuckle this beautiful Saturday morning, looking over the amber waves of cut winter wheat, looking for a much needed storm front to roll in, watching a soccer game in the park adjacent from my porch. What a great country!

  • Gary Lyn

    The fact that the belief in American exceptionalism has been around for a long time, from the very beginning of this country, and that there have been a variety of expressions of it, to me, does not make it any less dangerous. It seems to go beyond pride in our heritage and our contributions to the world to entitlement, which is very dangerous when a nation has as much power as America possesses.