Category Archives: Uncategorized

Serious arguments about U.S. exceptionalism

Serious arguments about exceptionalism will be posted and discussed on these pages, not vitriol. A comment I have received on my American exceptionalism post falls into the latter category. It reads “What an extraordinary bunch of crap! I hope you can’t reproduce.” Sorry, but I already have, long ago.

It’s true that there is a virulence to certain American exceptionalist opinion. Exceptionalism is not a condition (except maybe a psychological one) but a belief, and beliefs, like religions, don’t easily shift for rational reasons. In the case of exceptionalism, the belief is visceral, founded in everyday experience and constitutive of identity, where the individual identity is subsumed in a national identity. No facts can penetrate such a shield without doing damage to the individual.

People are entitled to their religions, whether they be reasonable ones or not. But belief is something to be analysed, not taken as “gospel”. Please excuse the pun.


Radio program on American exceptionalism


Radio program on American exceptionalism.


I’ve discovered  a radio program on American exceptionalism wherethree top historians give a really interesting and  informed discussion of this topic. So much on American exceptionalism is confused by poor thinking, illogicality, irrationality, lack of historical knowledge, avoidance of historical fact, and sheer political/ideological obfuscation. No so the  program called BackStory from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.   The  three historian-hosts–Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh of the University of Virginia and Edward Ayers of the University of Richmond— do the “story behind the headlines”  approach to reaching public audiences. (This idea reincarnates a radio program in the 1930s that I discussed in my book Historians in Public (Chicago, 2005).


The three experts take an idea in the news,  and explore  its history for the 17th/18 century, the 19th, and the 20th in turns. No concept in American history has  undergone such as sudden boom in use as  American exceptionalism. Political opponents of Barack Obama have  declared him (wrongly) an apostate on the topic of American exceptionalism.  At that point, the use of the word went viral. 


But here is sanity, reason, and interesting detail. Topics include discussion of the etymology of the term; an interview with Dr. Mark Peterson on John Winthrop’s notion of the “city on a hill”;   a talk with Dr. Katherine Meizel about the origins of the song “America the Beautiful;”  plus an interview with Prof. Paul Kramer on Empire and American Exceptionalism.


Great stuff.  You can catch it all at

Lincoln the Imperialist: A Long Bow to Draw

Lincoln the Imperialist: A Long Bow to Draw

Was Abraham Lincoln an empire builder? Was he an imperialist? Our correspondent, Christopher, thinks so. And one can easily find, on the net, Lincoln haters who argue that the aggrandisement of the American state has origins in the national consolidation of the Union in the Civil War. Certainly it is true that if the South had been allowed to secede and establish its own separate nation, then the ability of the remaining United States to project power regionally and globally would have been much more limited. Imagine trying to fight the Spanish-American War, that ended with the United States in possession of Cuba (as a protectorate till 1902 and a de facto protectorate until at least 1934), Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines with supply lines that had to skirt a possibly hostile, pro-slavery south holding New Orleans, Florida and Norfolk, Virginia. Imagine later maintaining the whole Caribbean as an American lake in the years 1898-1934. American imperialism might not have gained the foothold in the region that it did without the consolidation of the union, and the maintenance of a large, united territory that could later project power globally from a secure and unchallenged continental base.

Lacking a secure water passage for border state and Midwestern farmers to international markets via the Mississippi might also have hurt economic development. The rich resources of states such as Texas, which by the first decade of the 20th century included oil, would have belonged to another people. The growth of the American state in the 20th century would also have been difficult without the latent powers of the 14th amendment, which could not have been passed without the defeat of the Confederacy and the subsequent Reconstruction struggle.

So it’s an interesting hypothetical question. But there’s another side to this. As Lincoln understood, the secession of the states would not stop squabbles over such thorny questions as escaped slaves, and might have led to an eventual war anyway between the two separate nations. The South would have been free to pursue its own imperialist designs on Cuba and Santo Domingo, etc. It could be equally said that the rights of black people, and non-white people more generally, in the remaining United States, would have taken even longer to be protected, since the 14th amendment applied also to Northern and border states, which did not practice racial equality in 1865.

Christopher is correct that the Mexican War was an expansionist war. Some people do not want to call it imperialist because the country taken was thinly settled, but the rights of the indigenous people there and the quite substantial numbers of existing Hispanic settlers were trampled on in the process (and statehood was denied to Arizona and New Mexico for nearly seven decades!).

The occupation of the South after the Civil War was by a military force and military occupation, though provoked by the resistance of southerners to the terms of reintegration in the Union. In some ways, this could be seen as a rehearsal for 1898 and the occupation of the Philippines etc. See D. Meinig, Transcontinental America, 1850-1915 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995) But consolidation of national power in the decades after the Civil War was both contested and incomplete. The latent power of the 14th amendment to transform the relations between states and the federal government did not take full effect for a century.

Lincoln also did as much as he could possibly have done (many historians think too much) to appease the South and maintain the federal union, as it existed before 1861. See Potter, The Impending Crisis of the South (1976) and Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis (1941), new ed. 1995). So I don’t think it makes sense to call Lincoln an imperialist or the tool of imperialists. History doesn’t always turn out exactly the way you intend, in fact it never does.

The Irony of the Greenway: Bikes and the Concretization of the Cooks River Valley

The irony of the “greenway”.
The Roads and Traffic Authority’s vision of the Cooks River: cycleways. In the 1960s, the DMR, predecessor of the RTA planned a roadway for the area. After all, it was only “useless” river bank. Now the river is seen as a solution to the traffic chaos of the city by encouraging “greenway” bike paths. Fortunately, the bike paths are not heavily used, but these are shared paths, and when they are heavily used, they are a potential danger to pedestrian traffic and the dogs that people walk. In places, the degree of concreting has been excessive. The result in some areas is a further industrialization or rather “concretization” of the river environs.

Death of a Bird: Pelicans and Pollution in the Cooks River

I found this bird on the river bank at Undercliffe on June 8, 2010. Did it die from botulism or did it choke on the armada of plastic that floats on the river?

The St George Leader reported last year the following:
“Australian Seabird Rescue president Marny Bonner said the botulism toxin is produced by bacteria in decaying animal and vegetable matter. Once ingested by birds it paralyses the neck and limbs and most die within 48 hours.” [Source:

(It’s made worse by the rains and the run-off of garden fertilizer and dog excrement).

Great Teaching

“Alright” teaching is common in our Australian universities, but great teaching is becoming a rarity. The endless levels of accountability, surveys, formal feedback, mentoring and multiple levels of reporting proliferate in Australian universities, and promote “alright” teaching, but it’s hard to pin down what makes a great teacher, and bureaucracy isn’t one of the key facilitating conditions. While there are many different styles, and different ways that great teaching is manifest, it is probably born, but one can work at it too. One such teacher who has possessed both the “born” qualities of empathy toward students and true excitement about knowledge together with the acquired qualities of educational technique and masterful experience is Dr. Diane Collins. A recipient of a prestigious individual Carrick Award for Teaching, Collins has just completed two decades teaching history as a general studies requirement at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. Her students have given her many tributes, including a standing ovation at her last first-year lecture, to a packed hall on June 1, 2010. I think her achievements deserve to be widely known.

Dr Diane Collins, 1 June 2010

Cooks River Remediation?

Cooks River Remediation? Or Renovation?

The renovation of the Cooks River in the vicinity of Ewen Park, between the suburbs of Earlwood and Hurlstone Park is a classic case of attempted remediation of the river that reproduces certain faults of the earlier renovation of the river in the 1930s. In time the planting of salt marsh and other species may soften the look, but the formidable sandstone banks erected will never approximate the banks before the era of steel piles. The decaying steel pile banks prompted this action on the part of a local council, but the replacement blocks of sandstone reproduce the essential features of the canalised river. The visual pollution of this sandstone wall is complemented by the provision, presumably for the sake of bikers who might skid off the path into the river and fall over the substantial sandstone ledge, of a visually polluting steel rail along large sections of the river.

Sandstoneblocks as 'remediated' river bank, near Ewen Park

Sandstoneblocks as 'remediated' river bank, near Ewen Park