In its classic forms, American exceptionalism refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. Sometimes this special character is inferred from the nature of American political institutions founded in the 1776-89 period–the declaration of independence (1776), revolution (1776-83), constitution (1787) etc. Thus the “revolution” and its aftermath freeing the US from British control are important in ideas of American exceptionalism. But often the political differences are said to be underpinned by material differences brought about by the wealth/resources of the United States, sometimes seen as a direct product of the freedom of the American people, but by others as the product of the inheritance of the North American continent’s abundant resources. This is the frontier version of the theory, and this and the ideas of social mobility and immigrant assimilation are closely tied to this set of ideas of American material prosperity. Many aspects of American history may be left out or distorted in the traditional narratives–particularly the histories of Amerindian peoples and the contribution of other ethnic groups that preceded the Anglo-Americans, e.g. Hispanics. Race and slavery are seen as tragic exceptions, and the abolition of the latter was viewed as a partial resolution, encompassed in Lincoln’s idea of a “new birth of freedom” in the Gettysburg Address.
It is also important to realise that there is a “negative” version of exceptionalism, i.e. that the US has been exceptionally bad, racist, violent. While this is less a part of the common myths about American history, the attempt to compensate for American exceptionalism by emphasising unique American evils is equally distorting. We need to think more about this matter, especially when we deal with racial divisions and gender prejudice. Is the US experience a variant on wider racial and gender patterns? While social history has provided new perspectives on the role of women, African Americans, and ethnics in the making of American history, has that new history discredited or qualified ideas of American exceptionalism?
The actual term “American exceptionalism” was originally coined by German Marxists who wished to explain why the US seemed to have by-passed the rise of socialism and Marxism. (Actually the US had much class conflict, some Marxist parties and theorists, and a lively socialist movement, though the latter was not on the scale of, say, France and Germany.) But exceptionalism is much more than about class conflict.
Some historians prefer the terms “differences” or “uniqueness?” Are these suitable substitutes? Whatever the terminology, the implications of American difference/uniqueness have long been debated. Some have said the difference was temporary, and eventually the US would be like other countries. Others have argued that American “specialness” stems from its political, intellectual, and even religious heritage, and is enduring.
The United States is often said to be a model which should be emulated by the rest of the world, but at other times it has been argued instead that the conditions which gave birth to the United States could not be reproduced elsewhere. Thus other countries are generally seen as trying to follow or catch up, but never do.
You can see that American exceptionalism contains a complicated and often contradictory set of assumptions. Do these assumptions stand up to the test of logical and empirical analysis? I do not think that they do, but one must face that fact that exceptionalism is an idea that has thrived in American society, though with many ups and downs in its levels of support. Ideas do influence human society, so in this sense American exceptionalism may be important in explanations of how Americans think and how they have acted. But thought is not everything. One must not neglect material circumstances that limit and shape what any society can do–the actual social history of the American people and the concrete political institutions that have shaped American life.
More on exceptionalism
In the last year or so, I have done a great deal of work on American exceptionalism in revisiting these arguments I first made some twenty years ago, before the current increased interest in American exceptionalism (a phenomenon that is clearly related to the uneasy state of the nation in regard to its slipping global power position). I have read Godfrey Hodgson’s work in conference paper form, and find nothing much that required me to rethink my position. In fact I read it as an endorsement or parallel view in so many ways. If you disagree, you should say explicitly why. Because my recent work is part of a collection aimed at publication in print, I am not in a position to elaborate exactly on how I would extend or revise these views, other than to say that Obama’s foray into American exceptionalism and the critique of it has stirred a hornet’s nest that shows how criticism of exceptionalism cuts deep into American identity
I am elaborating my position in the following paper, and here is the abstract:
“The Myth(s) That Refuse to Lie Down and Die: American National Exceptionalism”
“The national “myth” of American Exceptionalism does not rest on one particular creation story or narrative derived from a specific series of events. It is more akin to a cluster of stories that provides buttresses for pseudo-analytical judgments about American national identity. Because of its composite nature, American Exceptionalism can accommodate much academic research within its flexible contours as well as obtain popular consent, through its series of subsidiary national “myths”. This paper historicizes those expressions of the myth of American exceptionalism and shows their continuing relevance to contemporary American debates over the nation’s values, traditions, and political practice.