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 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.
Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
Your, Raiul Baztepo
Hello ! ^_^
My name is Piter Kokoniz. Just want to tell, that your blog is really cool
And want to ask you: will you continue to post in this blog in future?
Sorry for my bad english:)
Your Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia
Dear Prof. Tyrell:
just wanted to say thanks for this interesting discussion of American exceptionalism, something I found using Google. I’ll actually use it in the conference paper I’m writing for the agricultural history Society coming up in Little Rock in June.
Well this post was very intresting and im current researching for a debate topic for this fall and im thinking of using this as a one of my arguement both on my affirmative and my negative
Where are my manners? I also wanted to thank you for the time you obviously put into this post and i hope to see more in the future.
Beautiful summary of a complex issue.
excellent ideas on exceptionalism. mind if i use it in my debate paper? tee hee. ❤
I suggest you read Godfrey Hodgson´s book “The myth of American Exceptionalism”.
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 Hodgson’s work in article and 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 Myth(s) That Refuse to Lie Done and Die: American National Exceptionalism
(Note that this is submitted as part of an essay collection and the full paper is not available at this time for circulation or quoting).
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.
Hi–I’m interested in what you have to say here. I love America, and I do agree that we are an exceptional in many ways. I also fear the damage that the idea of American exceptionalism can impact upon our country.
I’d be very interested to read your paper, and also to see you works cited. Based upon what you’ve written here, I’m curious to see if you’ve given the French Revolution its proper place. It’s my opinion that the notion of American exceptionalism is bourne out of the French revolution–and that historians such as Ernest Gellner, Jules Michelet, and Ernest Lavisse played a critical role in developing a model of French exceptionalism that our nation might have inherited.
Any references to Eric Hobsbawm? Anthony Smith?
To what extent does our national identity still rely on the concept of American exceptionalism? How do we incorporate mulit-cultural narratives in our building of national identity? Is American Exceptionalism still the essence of the American Identity?
Here is a link to a paper that I wrote that might stir your mind. I’d like to hear your ideas and reactions.
Respectfully submitted by Paul Evans
You have an interesting idea. Europeans, perhaps especially the French, have greatly influenced images of the United States (see, e.g., Philippe Roger, The American Enemy); de Tocqueville’s comments in Democracy in America have been particularly influential, though arguably his take on American exceptionalism has been misinterpreted. He was interested in democracy as a system of government, of which the U.S. was an example, albeit the prototype. But fundamentally, I believe the English inheritance is more importance. The English viewed their own empire as superior in spreading the virtues of parliamentary government and the rule of law to the less civilised of the world. The English also bequeathed to the American colonies the tradition of Protestant dissent, and that has been a very important part of American exceptionalism—through the idea that Protestantism is superior to Catholicism, let alone other religions, in allowing the development of an individual and as a counter to autocratic and hierarchical power. This idea of Protestantism’s superiority flourished in 19th century U.S. exceptionalist ideas. Protestantism, especially evangelical Protestantism, is still a vital component in American culture and identity. Exceptionalist ideas don’t just stem from the age of the American and French revolution, but go deeper.
You can read more of my work at
“American Exceptionalism and Anti-Americanism,” in Brendon O’Connor, ed., Anti-Americanism: History, Causes, and Themes. Vol. 2: Historical Perspectives (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007), 99-117.
“American Exceptionalism and Uneven Global Integration: Pushes Away from the Global Society,” in Bruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda and Kenneth Weisbrode, eds., The Paradox of a Global USA (Stanford, CA: Stanford U.P. 2007), pp. 64-80
“American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History,” American Historical Review, 96 (October 1991), pp. 1031-55; 1068-72.
As a Canadian conservative who is very pro American, I must confess that this concept of “American Exceptionalism” is rather bemusing. America is not more democratic, more free, more enterprising, more tolerant, or more anything else than is Canada or for that matter Australia. America is just a bigger country and therefore became the leader of the free world after Great Britain became exhausted. American Exceptionalism is simply a replacement for the old phrase American Jingoism. The only thing that seems to be “exceptional” about America is that in 2008 they elected Obama on the tired old socialist policies that were in vogue elsewhere shortly after the Second World War and had long since been discredited. For America to buy into tired old socialist rehetoric while at the same time ignoring the fact that he had absolutely no record as a legislator or as an administrator is truly “exceptional.” In the 16 months it took to elect him as President, I suppose it is exceptional that your “free press” did not discover that his playbook was borrowed from the old British Labour party of Clement Attlee. Only in America … I guess.
You are correct that “big” does not equal exceptional, at least in the long run, and that the idea of American exceptionalism tends not to take bigness and its changing composition into account. However the United States was regarded by Europeans and Americans as exceptional long before the country was the largest economic, let along military power. The role of exceptionalism projected from the imagination of European, particularly western European history has a longer history going back to the discovery of the Americas, and the conception of the material abundance of both South and North America. Eventually the idea narrowed to center only on the United States by the time of the birth of the U.S. republic, when exceptionalism became associated with the liberal and individualist values that so many Americans still cherish. There is a pressing need to think more deeply about the history of the idea of exceptionalism and about the transnational context in which that idea was formed. This is yet another reason why transnational history is so important.
Dear Ian T. by my foregoing comment I did not intend to demean America or Americanism. If America is “exceptional” it is not in the fact that they are more “free”, “democratic” or affluent. What is I think “exceptional” about America is it’s very origins (in contrast to Canada) are found in constitutionalism. That is it is founded on a specific set of values which represented a consolidation of the best and brightest thinking from the Age of the Enlightenment. That constitution, as I understand it, not only made the people sovereign but enunciated certain values which could be neither expropriated from them or voluntarily given away by those citizens. The best explanation of what I’m attempting to express is by comparing Canada with the U.S. Canada is founded on the central principle of “Peace, Order, and Good Government” while America is found on the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.” In Canada I technically remain “One of Her Majesty’s Subjects” whereas in America people are “Citizens” as in any Republic. It seems to me that this makes America a very UNIQUE democracy which I hope they maintain by rejecting all this socialist nonsense currently emminating out of Washington. And surely America is justly entitled to be proud of their unique heritage complete with its separation of powers. I simply take umbrage to the connotations of “exceptionalism” because it leads to claims which are highly debatable (e.g. America is the freeist country in the world) and detracts from what is truly unique (and admirable) about America.
Well put… from a foreigner none the less! American Exceptionalism was always understood by me as follows: America is exceptional because for the FIRST time in history a government was formed with the knowledge that all humans have God given inalienable rights and that America’s exceptional Constitutional Republican government was created to protect those rights and maximize, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” The three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary) were created so that no one branch or person would have too much power and control over the American People. The three branches are not suppose to be “bipartisan” … instead they are suppose to jealous of each other’s power, thereby having the outcome protecting the sovereign power of the individual. Lately the federal government has become way too powerful. Now it’s up to the people (through the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution) to decide through their state legislatures if they will again return power to the individual citizens by bypassing Congress and amending the Constitution directly.
Dear Professor Tyrrell,
Thank you very very much for your scholarship and teaching. So many of us in the United States feel that our media has been hijacked by the right-wing and been concerned about the polarization and growing trends in our nation. I linked your article into a reply on a friend’s LiveJournal weblog where we were discussing American Exceptionalism (I hope that meets with your approval). Having just discovered you and this site yesterday, I am largely ignorant of the body of your published scholarship. Perhaps you have written relating U.S. Exceptionalism to its doctrine of Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century. I look very much forward to becoming better acquainted with your publications and again, sir, would like to thank you so very much!
Thank you for this. American exceptionalism is a big topic of great interest to Americans. You are right that you can find more about American exceptionalism by reading my major works. There are links to these books on my publications page.
The idea of transnational history that I am developing is a way to contextualize U.S. exceptionalism, by showing the close connection between the United States and other countries. A summary of many of my views on this is found in the book Transnational Nation.
I would direct you also especially to my recent Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. This book explains how the engagement of the United States with the world in the 1870s to 1890s was very great, and, from these encounters with the wider world feeding back into the United States, specific plans towards global expansionism and empire came into being, plans that increasingly relied after 1900 on the U.S. as a “moral” or “Christian” state seeking to establish a new international moral order. This touches on the theme of Manifest Destiny, which is certainly a major one in ideas of American exceptionalism.
Woman’s World/Woman’s Empire shows that the U.S. temperance reform movement (in the WCTU) had an ambivalent relationship with the rest of the world and its women. They sought Christian sisterhood with those women, not superiority, but had to export Western gender and other social concepts, thereby being implicated in hierarchical relationships.
True Gardens of the Gods shows how reform of certain environmental policies in reforestation, biological control of pests, and irrigation developed in connection with reforms going on elsewhere across the Pacific in Australia, and that just as the U.S. influenced Australia, Australia had influences on the United States.
Thank you for your interest in my work and good wishes for your future studies of U.S. and world history.
Whether circumstance or conception, American Exceptionalism attempts to define America by it’s success in constructing a free enterprise system.
That Libertarianism had it’s roots in early America -let dog eat dog, and keep the fittest as guardian- and leads to anarchy,
argurs that Exceptionalism has it’s development costs, and continuing costs, in the form of balancing the recognition of the value of Human Capital, and creating the best methods for developing it. The tendency of enterprise to, recently at least, give less weight to “labor” as a necessary component of capital, aided by human capital’s insane ability to minimize it’s value and utility through under-education and overpopulation is a problem.
American Exceptionalism only works if the underlying value system, personal risk and responsibility, free and transparent markets absent of government interference except for “community of interest” support mechanisms and direction, is allowed to energetically and continuously inculcate itself in the very fabric of society.
Absent that, and given the trend of recent generations to advance socialism at he expense of individualism, American Exceptionalism can advance only if the concept continues to attract, rather than lose, adherents.
And not just in the U.S., but in other developed countries, and in the best of worlds, by providing a path to modernity for developing nations in Africa and South America. The “babelization” of the world continues apace, and might continue to do so.
The world’s peoples, the common folk, seem to personally follow the principles of Exceptionalism, even if they never heard of them. Encouraging that resource through representative governments in far away places should be America’s top job, if only to prevent the loss of what America has achieved.
It may be that American Exceptionalism only works for America. It would be better for the world at large if there were 216 countries all developing their individual version of Exceptionalism.
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Wow, did I really find a thoughtful explanation devoid of meanness and contempt for the US? I join other respondents in thanking you for this thoughtful and unshrill unpacking of some ways to think about what exceptionalism means.
Here’s a ps. I am seeking a thorough understanding of how exceptionalism may apply outside the political context. I heard it used in a way that seemed apologetic for thinking anything is better than anything else. How interesting that some individuals who do not hesitate to take strong positions on what is the better coffee, car, clothing style, music, political theory, lifestyle even, are critical of those who believe that certain behaviors or life philosophies are superior to others (what we expose children to, for just one micro-example). Your article above is a good foundation for this exploration. Thank you again.
Thank you Prof. Tyrrell, for elucidating a balanced view of this topic (and thus eliciting sane and reasonable replies?). Reasoned debate on this aspect of current US rhetoric and behaviours is, alas! uncommon enough.
All peoples, nations, blow their own trumpets (the Scots have their whisky, the Welsh have their speech?). We in the rest of the world, the ‘unexceptional’ (?) can live with that part of the play.
What bothers me is what someone called ‘exemptionalism’, a meme in the exceptionalist US mindset, that justifies all the crudities, the wars and interventions of more than a century, at home and abroad.
What upsets me is the cynical and hypocritical abuse of seemingly all the laws and covenants that supposedly govern the conduct of any civlised society, let alone that of the nation-state who would be ‘a beacon on the hill’ to all others.
Some of the fundamental rights and freedoms we all assume in the ‘Common Law’ we’ve inherited from the English system (I live in Australia btw) that form the basis of ‘the Law’ in all the English-speaking countries at least, the right of presentment before the ‘twelve good men and true’ under the aegis of the ‘shire-reeve’, for example, originated in the Danelaw of the 8th and 9th centuries, later refined into the jury system, habeus corpus, the shared heritage of precedent.
Now the modus operandi of the US includes extra-judicial assassinations/murders, prison without charge or trial, borderless undeclared wars, remote-controlled killing machines sent against whole populations demonised by media and by politicians…
The movers and shakers of Amerikan Empire seem to favour the idea of blood-feud, crusade versus jihad (?) over the rule of law, the only explanation offered being “…because of who we are…” with frequent references to ‘Guard’ under whom they are one nation apparently, and speaks often to exceptional beings, most of whom live coincidently in the continental USA.
I have been there incidentally, and of course one meets many fine ordinary people, black, white and brindle, as we say on OZ. My distaste for the excesses of American Imperialism have nothing to do with the masses, and I feel nothing but compassion for those who willing or witting or neither are reduced in their basic humanity to serving the beast this exceptional nation has become.
Pacem in Terres, Mir, Shanti, Salaam, Eh-Wah.
Peace IS possible… Just Dave
interesting point of view. i too am researching american ‘exceptionalism’ and I tend to agree with many of your points. i am going another direction but, I fully support your efforts.
Prof. Erin l. Scholnick
I’M A AMERICAN NOT A LIAR AND WILL NOT SAY THAT AMERICA IS THE GREATEST
There are very good moral principals that are written into the “Constitution”. There are bills that were past like the “Civil Right Bill” that is very good on paper! There are “welfare program” in place for Americans that fall on hard times. There is now a “Healthcare Plan” that 32 uninsured American now have a opportunity to receive because of President Obama. There is a military that is strong and able to protect America. This is the “problem”! When Republican Tea Party lays claim to American exceptionalism! That is when Christian should part from the lie of American Exceptionlism! American exceptionalism refers to the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries. In this view, America’s exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming “the first new nation,” and developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire.
This observation can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the United States as “exceptional” in 1831 and 1840. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, “Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy! This belief of American exceptionlism is a insult to minority and to the past and present history of America! Lets take American “Constitution” it was written while men and women were enslave and being beating and murder and treated less then human! Did that evil make America exceptional to other country? Fast forward to the days of “Jim Crow” did that evil make America exceptional to other country?
The Kent State shootings—also known as the May 4 massacre or the Kent State massacre occurred at Kent State University in the city of Kent, Ohio, and involved the shooting of unarmed American college students by members of the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4, 1970. The America guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four unarmed students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis. Some of the students who were shot had been protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Richard Nixon announced in a television address on April 30. Other students who were shot had been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance! Did this make America exceptional to other country!
The Waco siege began on February 28, 1993, and ended violently 50 days later on April 19. The siege began when the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel, a property located 9 miles (14 km) east-northeast of Waco, Texas. On February 28, shortly after the attempt to the warrant, an intense gun battle erupted, lasting nearly 2 hours. In this armed exchange, four agents and six Branch Davidians were killed. Upon the ATF’s failure to execute the search warrant, a siege was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The siege ended 50 days later when a second assault on the compound was made and a fire destroyed the compound. 76 people many just a day old (24 of them British nationals) died in the fire, including more than 20 children, two pregnant women, and the sect leader David Koresh. Did this make America exceptional to other country!
Bottom line “we” American have a record a past of American on American violent and pure hatred! So far the “Constitution” nor the :Civil Right Bill’ has been able to STOP the evil! There is know American exceptionalism! There is the gift of the earth from GOD to all mankind! Man all over the earth has disrespect the gift. American have done horrible things to Americans in America!
AMERICAN ARE UNCERTAIN NOT THE RICH AND THE SUPER RICH
Uncertainty is a word that Republican have been throwing out constantly about American businesses ! Republican state that the main reason American businesses that are sitting on 4 trillion dollars in profits! And not hiring is because American businesses are uncertain about the economy! TOTAL LIE! Republican really are helping American businesses keep their profits and invest their money oversea! Many Republican are getting big money from American businesses! American Businesses could careless about America nor American or the American economy! THEY CARE ABOUT MONEY……KEEPING THEIR MONEY!
Now the real Americans that have a right to be uncertain are Americans receiving “Social Security” “Welfare” “Unemployment” “Military Pay”. Or any American working for the “Government” or the “Private Sector”! American businesses have worked 16 hour day and the next day without notice shut their doors! Leaving American workers unemployed and or in needs of government assistance! Then Republican like Newt Gingrich criticize those American demonize those American claiming it’s their fault. Or that their children will now be prostitute and pimps or some kind of criminals!
The fact is Republican policy of the past and present has allowed many American go from middle-class to dirt poor in need of Government Assistance! It’s no wonder the Republican ex-Senator Phil Gramm from Texas once called us “a nation of whiners”. Maybe he’s right. Every time I hear these rich Republicans bitch and moan and groan and whine, I always feel obligated to post a “counter-whine” in my post. Democrats in Congress have scored plenty of political points with attacks on the wealthy. And now some Republicans are going after government benefits for rich people, too, though a lot more gently, Politico reports.“We need to quit providing quite so many benefits to people who don’t need them,” Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the news service.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., have introduced bills to prevent millionaires from receiving unemployment insurance. Coburn also wants to reduce farm subsidies for the wealthy. Coburn says government data show that that millionaires garnered more than $18.6 million in unemployment benefits in 2008, and rich farmers took home $49 million in subsidies. Now don’t think Republican are now more understanding of fairness! When they introduce a bill to get rid of subsidies . It is attach with garbage they know WILL NOT past!
Members of Congress had a collective net worth of more than $2 billion in 2010, a nearly 25 percent increase over the 2008 total, according to a Roll Call analysis of Members’ financial disclosure forms. Nearly 90 percent of that increase is concentrated in the 50 richest Members of Congress. Two years ago, Roll Call that the minimum net worth of House Members was slightly more than $1 billion; Senators had a combined minimum worth of $651 million for a Congressional total of $1.65 billion. Roll Call calculates minimum net worth by adding the minimum values of all reported assets and subtracting the minimum values of all reported liabilities.
According to financial disclosure forms filed by Members of Congress this year, the minimum net worth in the House has jumped to $1.26 billion, and Senate net worth has climbed to at least $784 million, for a Congressional total of $2.04 billion. CONGRESS IS NOT UNCERTAIN THEY ARE GETTING PAID……..LEAVING THE MIDDLE-CLASS AND THE POOR TO FIGHT EACH OTHER!!!!!!
I do not understand why the separation of church and state is not included in the definition of American Exceptionalism. The United States was the first nation to require government to take a neutral position on religion. Other countries, such as Holland, had already experimented with liberty. Certainly Laissez Faire was alive and well in other countries. Really, the most unique characteristic of the Unitied States is its wall of separation between church and state, so why is it excluded? Is it because of the Christian super-majority bias?
I agree- I neglected the separation of church and state in the original post. I did mention religious heritage, and also freedom of religion in the discussion, but you are absolutely right. The idea does have to be balanced by awareness of how Protestantism reacted to the separation of church and state to seek a more ‘moral’ nation. This is a major theme in the history of American reform movements. Church and state are indeed separate, but the practice of religion and observance of religiosity have been considered important in the “religious heritage.” And that practice has impinged upon the separation of church and state. When questions arise as to whether the American people have been “more religious” than other people, this is an exceptionalist position in which the distinction between religious observance and practices of Christian doctrine has been lost, and the separation of Church and State neglected.
Indeed, the erosion of the wall of separation was due to neglect of its maintenance. When “In God We Trust (IGWT)” was added to coins in 1864 and Ulyssus S. Grant made Christmas a federal holiday in 1870, there was no Freedom From Religion Foundation to maintain separation of church and state. When McCarthyism lead to IGWT being added to our paper money and made our nation’s motto, Americans United Against Church and State was not there to fight against these unconstitutional acts. However, we now have these organizations who are fighting mightily to build the wall back up but the Supreme Court had already legitimized IGWT, calling it “ceremonial diesm.”
Now, our government has incorporated Christianity into government so much that Tea Partiers have enough material to say we are a Christian nation, as if being a Christian nation was something new and different that made our country great, when in fact, getting religion out of government was what enabled our nation to form. The Articles of Confederation, which included religion did not work. It was only when “God” was eliminated and the Constitution was written without religion did the religious bickering evaporate and our country was able to form.
History is filled with horrible consequences of mixing government and religion, but our populace is under-educated in history so they believe the lies about the U.S. being a Christian nation. I appreciate your admitting that you omitted the church/state separation from American Exceptionalism, but I think it is time for all people, like you, in positions of influence to shed the fear of the Christian super-majority’s reactions and tell the American people *all* of the reasons America is great, not just the politically correct reasons.
It would be nice to think that my web site is influential! I agree with you that church and state have not been kept completely separate, but the very act of your writing, and the agitation to keep religion separate shows the resilience of American exceptionalism, and importance of the contest over public values carried out on the terrain of the U.S. constitution.
I find it interesting that the very process of the separation of church and state, essentially complete on a state by state basis by 1817 encouraged the disestablished Protestant churches to engage in religiously motivated reform, in part to cement their influence on American society, and the world. The religion propagated is less interested in doctrine or the inner religion of the spirit than in formal compliance with certain moral codes, e.g on gambling, drinking etc.
So, do you think that separating church and state actually encouraged the growth of religion in the U.S.? I know that most of the nonreligious European countries like in Scandinavia all have national religions whereas secular America is the most religious industrialized nation in the world. Having a national religion makes church so boring and such a target of anti-authoritarianism that religion dies a slow death.
I realize that 1) Europeans have a long history of religious violence, 2) The populace actually is aware of this history and 3) This is a major factor in their non-religiousness However, the national religion does appear to be a factor in their lack of religion also. I am not saying that the U.S. should establish a religion so that religion will fade away, but I am hoping that there is a lesson learned from Europe that could be applied in the U.S.
I appreciate your comment above. I am an American, from Richmond, Virginia in the United States. My family came to the Virginia in 1648 in Gloucester at Ware neck. Eventually, we moved further inland to Saluda, where my great grandfather Lewis B. Puller (U.S.M.C) was born. He is a decorated war hero. I love the values that this country began with, and I do think that they still have merit today.
However, thankfully, we are moving into a post-ideological era in America. We are moving out of ideologies and more towards Kant’s “perpetual peace.” We are electing politicians who embrace the notion that it its possible to govern a society without religion–in America we have come to understand the potential of liberty without religion– and I believe that this should be celebrated. I’m 29. My friends and I are confident that we can lead a moral and meaningful life adhering to principles that are consistent with, but not determined by Judeo-Christian values.
I challenge someone to “out American” me and support the notion that America is a Christian nation, and that we have strayed from the values that “made us so great.”
Yes, it seems perverse but the disestablishment actually encouraged religion by encouraging religious competition, and spurred innovation in the tactics used to garner converts in the 19th century. The quick movement from established churches after 1776 unsettled those churches, encouraging new waves of revivalism within them. Also, competition between faiths proved openings for new religions to emerge and previously subordinate denominations to thrive by making mass democratic appeals.
I am not sufficiently knowledgeable on all of the European countries to say if there is a tight correlation, and it’s important not to homogenise ‘Europe’. Catholicism, in Poland, for example gained an important role as a bulwark against state communism. That could not be a factor in, say, France, or Britain.
I agree that America’s culture comes from Christianity. Our founding fathers came from a Christian Europe and so our tradition is primarily Christian. I agree that some of the Judeo-Christian values are good, even though most of those value the Jews adopted from other cultures such as that of Babylonia and Egypt.
However, many of the Christian values, such as homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-science stances, prevent our country from expressing its true unique nature of being a melting pot. Christianity is just another “me too” American characteristic with which the U. S. was born. What is truly *exceptional* about the U.S. is that we are a melting pot of cultures. We welcomed all of the afflicted of the world into our country.
What allowed the U.S. to be a melting pot more than any other country is the tolerance which was facilitated by our 1st amendment two prong rights to freedom of religion and freedom from government getting involved with religion. Many European countries would not allow Jews or Muslim across their borders, but the U.S. Constitution would not allow us to discriminate against Jews, Muslims or any religion.
Here are some examples of how Christian values prevent the U.S. from expressing our unique tolerant nature. Slavery was solidly supported by the Bible. For example, the Bible says that it is okay to beat your slaves, as long as they can get up after two days (Exodus 21:20).
Another example is homophobia. In the same chapter that the bible says that eating shell fish is an abomination, it says that homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus 20:9). Christian politicians use this verse to introduce laws that allow discrimination against gays, e.g. DOMA.
Mostly in the South, Christians continue to try to introduce creationism into the science curriculum in spite of their multiple legal defeats. Christians fight the woman’s right to her own reproductive system. They fight stem cell research that could have save lives. They fight sex education that could have prevented millions of unwanted births. The list goes on and on.
What the U.S. needs is not a return to Christian values, but the adoption of secular humanist values that promote reason, compassion, and hope based on reality (science), not scriptures written by men of the Bronze Age.
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Obviously, after reading these comments, the first amendment IS in force! With seven billion people on the earth, I’m convinced there are seven billion different world views… And what a pleasant surprise to be in such harmony with a northern CANADIAN neighbor! I do not consider myself to be anybody’s subject. I’m an individual, sovereign citizen of, first – the State of Texas and second – the United States of America. I also share my Canadian cousins concern about our slide toward socialism. I agree also with one of my Australian cousins who said, “We are all worse off if America loses her way.” Any “exceptionalism” we might have is trampled upon when the Constitution is ignored or obstructed.
I am currently writing an essay for a course, Religion and Society, in which I am discussing American Exceptionalism and “Why the United States is apparently the only vibrantly religious ‘first-world’ country”. Your article has really helped me although I admit it is still a little bit over my head. As a Canadian I have limited previous knowledge of United States religious history or even current trends. Through my research I have seen some very interesting ideas of why the United States is so religious. I have come across data with trends indicating that with a country’s overall wealth rising, religious beliefs tend to decline, with the United States being the exception. I guess I am having difficulty wrapping my head around American Exceptionalism, is it just the idea that the US/Americans are the exception to many rules and trends due to their unique history and character?
Religion is indeed important to ideas of American exceptionalism.
And Yes I believe you are on the right track– technically to be exceptional means outside the laws or rules or path of other nations. Technically other nations need to be shown to follow such a uniform path. The problem is that it is impossible to show that all other nations follow such a path. The point of comparison is important, E.g., Britain is different from Canada, which is different from the US, which is different from etc. Thus it can be argued all nations are exceptional, which means that any single nation is not exceptional because there is no rule against which nations can be measured.
One of the things that makes US exceptionalism plausible is that currently the United States is still the world’s most powerful century (largest military, largest economy etc). But this will not last.
Exceptionalism is sometimes equated with unique, but again, all nations are unique just as all individuals are unique, too. That does not stop us generalising!
My point was not that the U.S. has any exception to rules. We should abide by international law. It is just that we are exceptional in that we were the first. We were the first to set up a secular nation based on liberty. No other country in the world had ever made such an attempt.
My beef is with the David Barton followers who claim that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. Yes, many of the founding fathers were members of Christian churches, but the main impetus of the Revolution was from the secularists such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. These men were of the Enlightenment. They saw how theocracies lead to endless wars. They saw how reason could possibly lead to a better world. Their faith was in the humanity of their day, not in some dogma from centuries ago. They believed in the scientific method for determining the natural laws of the universe. They believed that humans could discuss and argue and come up with rational solutions based on reality rather than dogma. They are the people who made America exceptional.
By rules I meant what historians call “laws” of historical development, not international law.
You are right about the Founding Fathers in that the US federal constitution of 1787 (ratified 1788) provided for no religious tests in Article 6, and freedom of religion was achieved in the First Amendment, ratified by a majority of states in 1790-91. Other expressions of the Enlightenment did likewise, such as the French Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man 1789 and the French Constitution of 1791, and US state constitutions followed the Enlightenment doctrine, but not fully in the case of Massachusetts until 1833, though partial church disestablishment was achieved in 1817.
Separation of church and state worried the leaders of the dominant (Protestant) churches who faced disestablishment (loss of prestige and status as well as finances through state taxes); they promoted Christian intervention in both the state and civil society to promote morality. Freedom of religion set up a competition of denominations that encouraged interference in the state. For this reason, religion has remained extremely important politically and there has been since the 1820s the objective of creating a Christian nation precisely because of the church/state separation experience. The state is heavily lobbied for Christian legislation under this approach. This is not a new thing, but one running back to aspirations of Protestants in the 1820s to 1830s “Benevolent Empire” project.
We significant evidence to show that many founders of the United States were men of faith and indeed prayed for wisdom as the Declaration was considered and, later, the Constitution was written (to replace the too-weak first constitution. “..endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” Secular humanists rewrite history to make it seem otherwise — but then rewriting history has risen to a core competence among secular humanists — including the rewriting of current events. Deep commitment to individual liberty underlined for our founders the danger to liberty of government-sponsored religion. Separation of church and state protected individuals from the state in that area. George Washington’s deep humility — to me, a foundation stone of his greatness — was humility before his Maker, not other men; and this influenced (according to his own account) his strong view that self-aggrandizement was antithetical to statesmanship. Don’t accept that people of faith necessarily eschew objective science. I am, and I don’t. Given the terrible destruction brought upon our higher education system by deconstructionism, worshiped by a great majority of college professors (yes, they have that god while mocking those of us who do not worship ourselves), I hope deeply that our fine young students, with the open and well-meaning inquiry about American Exceptionalism, for example, go to our Constitution, our Declaration, and the Federalist papers to understand the roots of thought that truly loves individual liberty. It is that commitment that opens the possibility of everyone being the best they can be. And that is exceptional. (The current Hillsdale College online Constitution 101 course, being offered free of charge, is one avenue to this study.)
Yes, many of the founding fathers were Christian, but if you take a look at some quotes by the *leaders* of the founding fathers, you will not find much Christian thought.
For example, Thomas Jefferson was a deist. He cut out all of the magic out of the Gospels and wrote his own version of the gospels, known as The Jefferson Bible. Here is my favorite quote from him: “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”
Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense which catapulted the Colonies from indecision to decision. with regard to independence. He also wrote The Age of Reason, which eviscerated Christianity. Many historian assert that Paine’s important role in history was downplayed because of his anti-Christian position. My favorite quote from Paine is, “What is it the New Testament teaches us? To believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married; and the belief of this debauchery is called faith.”
Benjamin Franklin: “. . . Some books against Deism fell into my hands. . . It happened that they wrought an effect on my quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.”
John Adams: “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?” -letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816
James Madison: “What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.” – “A Memorial and Remonstrance”, 1785
George Washingington was more discreet about his anti-Christian sentiment than the others; but, from the scant evidence he did leave, he did not appear to be a Christian. Historian Barry Schwartz writes: “George Washington’s practice of Christianity was limited and superficial because he was not himself a Christian… He repeatedly declined the church’s sacraments. Never did he take communion, and when his wife, Martha, did, he waited for her outside the sanctuary… Even on his deathbed, Washington asked for no ritual, uttered no prayer to Christ, and expressed no wish to be attended by His representative.” [New York Press, 1987, pp. 174-175] http://freethought.mbdojo.com/foundingfathers.html#washington
As for rewriting history, you do not back your claim with any evidence, so I do remain unconvinced. David Barton was quite obviously rewriting history when he claimed that the men I quoted above were Christian.
Here is a video written by a devout Christian, Christian Pinto. In it he describes just how non-Christian the leaders of the founding fathers were. For example, most of them were Freemasons which is a group that allows all beliefs except atheism. They believe in justification by works, not faith, the underpinning of Christianity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU24fJ4NQxo&list=HL1332092407&feature=mh_lolz
I agree with your comment, except, “Freedom of religion set up a competition of denominations that encouraged interference in the state.” The competition among religions, in my view, is exactly why the state must not interfere in religion. Maybe it was tempting for government to interfere, but government was aware that as soon as they get involved, they risk taking sides and favoring one sect over another, thereby causing an “entanglement” with religion and failing that important element of the Supreme Court’s “Lemon Test” (1971). The Establishment Clause is thus a supporter of religious freedom, not a detractor.
Thank you Rudy Ruddel! The fed. gov’t. needs to keeps it hands of, nose out of, however you want to say it … religious observances unless they allow physical abuse of creatures human or animal.
I agree. Of course that begs the question of whether government should allow the cutting off the tips of baby penises for religious reasons and without compelling medical reasons or consent of the victim. Tradition and religion are the main justifications for such atrocities.
Here is another example of a free pass for religion. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the unusual step of issuing a permit allowing an American Indian tribe to kill two bald eagles for religious purposes.”
Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/native-american-tribe-gets-rare-permit-to-kill-bald-eagles.html#ixzz1pVlCyW6r
If you are referring to my post, I’m not clear where you read the word “Christian.” I said “men of faith.” Christians have a wide array of beliefs, some quite incompatible. Not all Christians believe physical sacraments (bread and wine) nor physical symbols are at all important; not all Christians believe that Jesus was God, but rather the son of God, as he himself said. Many people of deep faith do not consider themselves Christians, and some who do, accept gospel teachings but reject the materialistic practices that have grown up around the catholic church and other mainline churches. A simple trust in Deity may have characterized the faith of many founders. It was to that humility and that kind of faith that I referred.
If you refer to the word Christian in the United States, you most certainly will conjure up the following definition from the super-majority of citizens: Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, performed miracles, was crucified, rose from the dead, died for your sins, and will return again for his believers. These are the basic tenants of the major Christian denominations, representing well over 90% of Christians. So, for you to include some minority sects that do not believe in the deity of Jesus, it would be important for you to specify that you are including minority sects.
By a liberal definition, you could say that Jefferson was a man of faith, even though he believed god created the universe and left the premises or otherwise has no involvement in humankind. Jefferson agreed with many of the moral teachings of Jesus, so technically, he could be called a Christian, however, very few people would say he was a Christian if they knew his beliefs. Using a liberal definition of faith, even I, an atheist, could be considered a person of faith because I have faith in humanity. If you are going to use an uncommon definition of a word, it would enhance your clarity if you would define your terms.
Perhaps it would enhance your wisdom if you stopped confining the word faith to Christians.
Actually, I wish I had said that differently. Given the great degree of knowledge that you apparently believe you have, it does seem VERY odd to me — and quite annoying, and belittling to yourself and humanity — that you quickly, casually, and given your obvious contempt of traditional Christians, gratuitously, define faith as traditional Christianity. Also, we are talking about the founders — how on earth would you assume yourself conversant with their beliefs? These were thinking people, not puppets that you can put in some convenient intellectual box. If you choose to limit your sense of life and truth to what your five physical senses tell you, that is your business and your right. To go from there to having faith in humanity, I guess you must see goodness somewhere. How does that quality emerge from material observation? To me, goodness is s spiritual quality, as are love, intelligence, compassion, right activity, selflessness, accountability, humility, courage, individual responsibility, patience, kindness, joy, generosity, contribution, and liberty. Especially liberty. Such qualities are expressed in our human lives, but their essence is undetectable by the physical senses. Anyone who values anything on that list, or other such qualities, is to me on a spiritual journey, because our spiritual senses are active with such qualities. I endeavor to respect others’ spiritual journeys even though they may be very different from my own. I don’t respect many aspects of many people’s religions (including the religion of secular humanism), but I try to respect any truly spiritual aspect of the journeys because spiritual qualities (are you reading religiosity in here anywhere?) draw us away from materialism. Materialism limits, weighs down, convinces there is not enough to go around, leads to collectivism, and destroys liberty. Spirituality (again, not religiosity) frees, sees the good and talent in all, opens unlimited opportunities, lets our better selves be expressed. I hope you will consider broadening your definition of faith beyond Nicean Christianity. Some of us reject the findings of the Council of Nicea. A bunch of guys met to define religious dogma in a way that solidified their political power, and the result was dogma, litmus tests, hierarchy, material rites (which usually stamp on legitimate rights) and symbols, a deification of Jesus that completely defied his own instruction and teaching, and an anchoring in personal preachers and power instead of the direct, private, humble, individual relationships with God. Liberty is a deeply spiritual quality. Our founders referred to a Maker who endowed us with certain inalienable rights. That perhaps they (and I) had rejected the concept of god that you have rejected doesn’t mean they didn’t, each one, unmeddled with by the others, have a concept of Maker that fed and inspired their extraordinary work to establish liberty. Even the dreadful compromise about slavery, which we are still paying for, enabled the establishment of a nation that in the end would not countenance slavery. For these and other reasons, I ask you to consider expanding your definition of faith beyond Nicean Christianity.
What I said was, “If you refer to the word Christian in the United States, you most certainly will conjure up the following definition from the super-majority of citizens: ” I did not say that that faith is defined as believing in the Nicean creed. For the purposes of this discussion, I used the orthodox Christian beliefs because such faith represented the lion’s share of beliefs in the founding era. Faith, in general, is the belief in things for which there is a lack of evidence.
I base by assertions on evidence. I am not able to get into the minds of the founding fathers, so the best I can do is to look at their words and actions. Based on their words and actions, the leaders of the founding fathers were deists. They believed in an impersonal god who does not hear prayers or intervene in the world. I have more to say on your other comments later.
RudyR, that is precisely why I did NOT use the word Christian in that earlier post. I used the term “faith,” as it encompasses a significantly larger and more diverse group. I am accustomed to mainstream Christians making that assumption, just as I am accustomed to Catholics reading “Christian” to mean “Catholic” which I find equally annoying and exclusionary. But I had hoped a secular humanist might respond to the nuance more readily. Clearly I was mistaken.
Your point is well taken, but, based on the quotes at the website I referenced, the leaders of the founding fathers were not just anti-Christian and anti-religion, they were anti-supernatural, as evidenced by Thomas Jefferson’s cutting out of all supernatural events of the Gospel in order to create his own version of the gospels. Benjamin Franklin is a self-proclaimed deist and deists have no basis for faith in god or prayer since they do not think the creator intervenes in the universe. The men that I quoted were of the Enlightenment, which promoted the replacement of superstition with reason and science.
Supernatural, superstition — in the eye of the beholder I guess, and that’s fine. I see neither of those in the gospels. And to some of us prayer is not about convincing God of something. But I digress, and truly, I have no desire to debate your beliefs. Just to defend your liberty to hold them.
Which gets us back to the point most important: Our founders stated we are endowed by our Maker with certain inalienable rights — not by our president, by Nancy Pelosi, by 600 elected people in Washington, nor by an enormous bureaucracy (can I even spell that word?) that has become a fourth branch of government with unelected executive, legislative, and judicial powers. Yikes! Government is by the people, and the bigger the federal government, the less power remains at the state and local levels where people can more clearly assess and decide what should be done together and what individually. Rights are within each one of us, along with potential, responsibility, talent, choice. When I worked this through years ago I saw the mesmeric, indeed hypnotic despotism of collectivism and walked away from it. Many of us see the shadow of tyranny looming in our country, disguised as do-goodism, the few knowing what’s best for the many, and on and on. I don’t want the origin of inalienable rights to subtly slip under the discretion of a few arrogant know-it-alls. Within that context, the fact that our founders referenced an endowing Maker — that is an anchor to me.
“Supernatural, superstition — in the eye of the beholder I guess, and that’s fine. I see neither of those in the gospels”
If you don’t consider walking on water, healing the blind, raising Lazereth from the dead, turning water into wine, transferring demons into swine, arranging for donkeys to talk, and rising from the dead *not* to be supernatural, I guess the gospels contains nothing supernatural.
Part of the confusion around “exceptualism” seems a semantic blurring. “An exception from” means outside a normal/usual rule or grouping, as similarly “an exception to”
“Exceptional” can also mean outstanding in a strongly positive way, connoting “better than the rest.” Different equating to special equating to better. Is America different to other countries? Of course. Are other countries/cultures different to each other, unique to themelves? Of course. Presumable the meaning behind President Obama’s comment about the Brits, (my original nationality),and the Grreks seeing themselves as exceptional.
The Romans spread the Pax Romana to the unruly warring tribes. The British took up the “White man’s burden” to “civilize the natives and the pagans. America now justfies it’s empire with “spreading Democracy.” Plus ca change.
In actuality, the creation of Democracy in Afghanistan, a country mostly still in a state of semi-feudalism, is so divorced from reality as to be ludicrous. Unfortunately a sad huge loss of life and limb, apart from cost in treasure, in its attempted execution. Hypnohotshot.
But the idea that Americans are somehow better than others, have some better character or inherent extra something
Continued from my previous post:
But the idea that Americans are somehow better than others, have some better character or inherent extra something is a contradiction to their founding belief that “All men are created equal.”
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I’d like to add my two cents to the remarks of “Just Dave” and “Hypnosis Hypnotherapy” above:
The current promotion of the idea of “American Exceptionalism,” by US Republicans and others, has next to nothing to do with the historical discussions–from Alexis de Tocqueville to Seymour Martin Lipset and beyond–of why it is that the US is how it is, as interesting as this question might be to historians. The idea isn’t even about whether the US is the greatest nation in the universe, or just here on earth.
The current promotion of the idea of American Exceptionalism is about whether the US, by its history, innate virtue, and appointment by God, entitled to make its own rules of international conduct, applying only to itself, and to except itself from the common Law of Nations and common decency. (The fact that the US has historically promoted its own interest–or, more precisely, that of its rulers–shows that all that stuff about virtuous intentions and “promoting freedom” is pure cant, for the self-delusion of the suckers.)
If I were to proclaim that, because of my unique genetics, innate virtue, and appointment by God, I am superior to my fellow citizens and have a natural right to push them around, I would be considered a deluded nut. If I were to act on these ideas, I would be considered a *dangerous* deluded nut. I don’t see that it works any differently for nations.
As Americans we believe we are exceptional. But look at the facts. We are exceptionally ineffective in education and our healthcare system is the costliest with less quality overall. Look at the facts. We can yell louder and puff ourselves up but the facts speak for themselves. When the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people too, that’s very exceptional.
With the continuation of the patriot act and the continual snooping into the lives of American, I’d say that is exceptional too. Out politicians are bought and paid for by corporations and Americans citizens and workers be damned. More exceptionalism.
We are a great country but exceptional is a bit grandiose. We can look in the mirror all we want but are we able to see what we’re looking at.
I’d rather take care of my own health care, thank you very much, than have a collective version shoved down my throat. I guess you are fine with unions being people but not corporations — really? The liberty possible for citizens of this country is unmatched in history. Some people prefer collectivism to liberty. Watch out. If we let the perfect be the enemy of the good we will have this socialist president for four more years; the golden goose, now badly injured, will be dead; and it will be very, very difficult to get out from under the gulag we are becomint. Wake up. Or we’ll find out just how exceptional we were before the propagandists on the left mesmerized this population into thinking secular humanism is not tyranny. It is.
Well, I don’t see that this has much to do with American exceptionalism, but:
–“The liberty possible for citizens of this country [presumably the US?] is unmatched in history”–to paraphrase Anatole France, I guess that this means that both rich and poor are free to sleep under bridges. Actually, it also sounds a bit ironic given that the current administration and the previous one claim the right to subject anyone around the world, including US citizens, to extrajudicial assassination if judged to be inconsistent with US interests. I’d appreciate it if you could detail the ways Americans have more liberty than, say, Canadians, and why these are good.
–“I’d rather take care of my own health care, thank you very much, than have a collective version shoved down my throat” What does this mean–that the Gestapo is coming to take your temperature and remove your appendix? I think you have a lot to learn about health-care systems in advanced countries outside the US. None of them are perfect, but most are superior to the US “system.”
–“…the propagandists on the left mesmerized this population into thinking secular humanism is not tyranny. It is.” I guess that you also have a lot to learn about secular humanism. Or deism (the ideology that the US Founding Fathers seemed to favour), or tyranny, or life in other countries–if fact, just about everything, it seems.
Its really nice posting. I think it would be helpful for all. Thank you for sharing with us.
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I’m Rihab from tunisia I just wanted to thank you for sharing this information of “exceptionalism” with us,I really needed it for my study at the university.please keep posting other concepts like this 🙂
The idea of American exceptionalism can be summed up in a quote by Ben Franklin “Those who prefer security over liberty deserve neither” In other words a true American prefers the dangers of self reliance over the security of state dominance.
The very idea of American exceptionalism makes me laugh out loud. Another country thought they were exceptional back in the 1930’s and 40’s. It didn’t end well.
America isn’t any better than Australia, Canada or Britain (or plenty of other countries for that matter). The idea that America is so insular is disturbing and they believe their own rhetoric. Wake up and stop being so arrogant and conceited America. Imagine if your brother thought he was exceptional and tried vocalising that all the time – how impressed would you be?
America stop acting like a goose and pull your head in. Have some humility and learn geography. World news is not what happened in South Dakota.
I agree. Syria is a good case in point; if Obama had not announced his “red line” because of the idea that we are exceptional and do not have to follow international protocol, he would not have boxed himself into a corner that he ultimately he had to back out of. He should have, instead, announced that he was going to request a special meeting of U.N. Security Council, even though he knew Russia and China would have vetoed military action. We might have ended up where we are right now without being seen again as the arrogant U.S. I doubt that we had to threaten military action to get negotiation going like they are now.
First of all I am impressed you have kept this blog thread alive for so long. It sure came in handy for me as part of my personal research spurred by President Putin’s comments.
Al Jazeera English version has an opinion article about the illusion of American Exceptionalism that might be of interest to you. Part of it states different origins than your original article. One of the comments in this thread talk about French concept of exceptionalism that might relate to Al Jazeera’s stated origins of American exceptionalism. My understanding of the relationships of this era is weak so I don’t know so could you comment on the article’s origins of American exceptionalism
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Quoi qu’on dise et quelles que soient les faiblesses que peut afficher l’Amérique tout au long de son parcours en tant que ETAT et en tant que Nation, cela ne lui enlève nullement sa grandeur et son caractère exceptionnel en tout point de vue. Les ennemis de l’Amérique sont les ennemis du monde libre tout entier et tous les hommes épris de paix et de liberté devraient se sentir directement touchés par ces incantations des communistes qui n’ont rien donné au monde à part qu’ils ont échoué à developper leur propres pays. Pour nous Africains, je veux dire la nouvelle generation des leaders africains, le salut est dans le model américain, le rêve de grandeur pour faire de l’Afrique une nation prospere à l’image de l’Amérique. Le monde doit beaucoup à l’Amérique dans tous les domaines. La RD Congo particulierement est reconnaissante pour tout et nous nous employons à retablir la verité historique sur la grande contribution de l’Amerique au Congo democratique dès les origines. Nous le savons et nous remercions l’Amerique. Godefroid BILEFO, étudiant candidat MBA à l’université chrétienne internationale.
America is exceptional , because is the First Nation , that started without any King, is democracy that prevails along with the freedom giving by our creator to do as we should , not what is force to us by the ruler, but what we know is good for our selfs . We can rule, and know what is best for us and our love ones, we don’t need to be told what is best for us, that will be tyranny .
Freedom is the opposite of tyranny , that is why we are special, cause we understand free from the day we born, is our choice, whether we fail or we succeed, if we fall we can always get up and try again, but we are following instead of leading then we will be tide down to do others people wishes, that is totalitarian regime , like communist Country do , when they control their people and slave multitude . That’s why this is the best of the best. There is no comparison, everybody wants to come here and fulfill the ultimate dream . Please do not judge my English or the way I express myself . Am not even a citizen yet , but working on it.
American exceptionalism is a concept that was shared by observers throughout the Western world, not just Americans. The Founders certainly believed that they were creating something of extraordinary significance. That’s why the motto on the Great Seal of the United States is novus ordo seclorum—‘a new order of the ages.’ But it was foreigners who took the lead in describing the United States and Americans as being unlike all other countries and peoples.
American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History, Charles Murray
Absurd and completely incorrect. Where on earth did you get your information. America is not democratic in it’s ideals. DO you know how I know? Democratic rule is mob rule, majority rules. America was founded upon republican ideals where the individual is as important as the majority.
In case you did not notice the word Democratic or Democracy is not in the Declaration of Independence.
In a Republic, the sovereignty resides in the people themselves, whether one or many. In a Republic, one may act on his own or through his representatives as he chooses to solve a problem. Further, the people have no obligation to the government; instead, the government being hired by the people, is obliged to its owner, the people.
The people have natural rights endowed by their Creator. The People created the states and the federal government instead of civil rights. The people are protected by the Bill of Rights from the majority. One vote in a jury can stop all of the majority from depriving any one of the people of his rights; this would not be so if the United States were a democracy. However you will note that their are two kinds of human beings in the United States of America. US Citizens and People. The People are citizens of their respective state not by national recognition as being a US Citizen. US Citizens do not have Rights. They have privileges. The People do not have restrictions on their coming and going, nor even in their everyday affairs, as the government is there to serve them, unlike the 14th Amendment Citizen, that the government takes care of. A citizen votes, the People are the Electors,
In the Pledge of Allegiance we all pledge allegiance to our Republic, not to a democracy. “Republic” is the proper description of our government, not “democracy.”
A republic and a democracy are identical in every aspect except one. In a republic the sovereignty is in each individual person. In a democracy the sovereignty is in the group.
The Constitution guarantees to every state a Republican form of government (Art. 4, Sec. 4). No state may join the United States unless it is a Republic. Our Republic is one dedicated to “liberty and justice for all.”
The people did “ordain and establish this Constitution,” not for themselves, but “for the United States of America.” In delegating powers to the government agencies the people gave up none of their own. (See Preamble of U.S. Constitution). This adoption of this concept is why the U.S. has been called the “Great Experiment in self government.” The People govern themselves, while their agents (government agencies) perform tasks listed in the Preamble for the benefit of the People. The experiment is to answer the question, “Can self-governing people coexist and prevail over government agencies that have no authority over the People?”
In California, the Government Code Sections 11120 and 54950 both say, “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” The preambles of the U.S. and California Constitutions also affirm this.
While we are on the subject, the People do not have Constitutional Rights. The US Constitution was written to show the very limited authority that the federal government was allowed to exercise. Their scope of authority was very limited and well defined. That is why they must take an oath of office before they enter into that scope of work. If they venture outside of the limited and defined authority they are permitted to exercise, the people can at once demand they step down and be forever barred from serving in any capacity of the state or federal government, elected or appointed. They would like you to think they have immunity for any act they commit while serving in their capacity as elected or appointed government servant, but it simply is just a lie. And we all know if you repeat a lie long enough the people will believe it.
I’m placing this last comment in the interests of free speech, not out of support for what it says. I have made it a practice in my blog not to reply (usually) to comments but in this case let me say that I will take this statement into account in writing my book on American Exceptionalism. The tone, however, does not suggest rational debate over the facts of American Exceptionalism, nor over American Exceptionalism’s role as an ideology that perpetuates elements of 18th century thought in the midst of a world crisis. No wonder the US is having trouble confronting the turbulent world in which we live.
This posting and your essay in the Bouchard volume have been especially helpful in distinguishing different traditions in the scholarly study of “American exceptionalism” as I work on an essay on 19th century US travel writers. It seems the traditions can be divided between otherwise widely varied approaches that all have in common an attempt to identify, document or explain ways that the USA is materially distinct from other nations, and one that is concerned with the claims of difference (including some of the scholarly ones) as ideology. Looking forward to the book. Thanks!
I should, but will not, resist the urge to note that the last sentence of Debra’s comment can be applied ironically. . .
You should find interesting and useful Global West, American Frontier : Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression by David M. Wrobel. University of New Mexico Press
Thanks. I cite his 2006 article “Exceptionalism and Globalism: Travel Writers and the Nineteenth-Century American West”, from The Historian, but will get my hands/eyes on the book as well.
I find it troubling you/others haven’t credited De Tocqueville for introducing the term ‘exceptionalism’ in ‘Democracy in America’ predating all your references. He claimed America was exceptional in its focus on work and wealth with little regard for science, art, literature. Yes, he supported this belief by describing equality and democracy as the focus, not other more intellectual pursuits.
Thank you for this comment.
You are not quite right, however. Tocqueville did not use the actual term “exceptionalism”, which needs to be understood as an ideology. The closest he comes to stating such a thesis is the following: Democracy in America Vol. 1, Chapter XI, concerning the application to practicality and utility compared to the more highly cultured “Europe”: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.”
He viewed democracy as the general principle, and the United States as a specific social formation: “Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features.”
In case this be misunderstood, however, note that Tocqueville wrote immediately before this the following that indicates how he saw the American colonies as inseparable from Europe. “At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly identified one to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. [Britain] Among this people they found distinguished men of science, able artists, writers of eminence; and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without laboring to amass them. In spite of the ocean that intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.” [my emphasis]
I find this all very interesting. I wonder, Mr. Tyrrell, if you have read the book “The 5,000 Year Leap,” and, if so, I’d love to know what you think about it. In my opinion, the roots of American Exceptionalism were put down (quite by accident) by the Great Charter of 1618 at Jamestown. This established the origins of American self-governance, and the proverbial fuse was hence lit. As that blueprint was followed, improved upon, and implemented all over the colonies, the overwhelming intellectual, creative, and entrepreneurial powers of mankind were unleashed across the masses for the first time in human history. This gave rise to astounding leaps in science, medicine, technology, wealth creation, the rise of the middle class, etc. In a brief few hundred years we went from horse-drawn carriage to walking on the moon. In my mind, it was this proliferation of individual liberty (brought on by adherence to the ideas of minimal government, self-determination, representative government, eradication of royalty, and the like) that brought on all of these advancements. To me, this is the embodiment of American Exceptionalism. Your thoughts?
That’s a fascinating point– it’s helpful in understanding a strand of American exceptionalist thought that differs from the Winthopian one.
Democracy now had a very interesting interview with Noam Chomsky about American exceptionalism yesterday at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/32934-noam-chomsky-on-george-orwell-the-suppression-of-ideas-and-the-myth-of-american-exceptionalism
My understanding of American exceptionalism has changed dramatically since I made my first comment here years ago. I thought American exceptionalism meant that the US was an experiment in republican democracy and therefore America was unique and exceptional. Now I realize it means that the US can do whatever it wants in the world and get away with it because of its power, militarily and otherwise. I see this playout on the international stage regularly, with our contradictory policies; for example we made Cuba a pariah because of human rights yet the US is allies with monarchies that have some other worst human rights records, e.g. Saudi Arabia and Israel. This is not to mention our own poor human rights record in Guantanamo and the record gathering of the NSA.
A very interesting post. It shows the flexibility of the term American exceptionalism.
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I find this work extremely interesting, particularly because my dissertation is based upon the idea of American exceptionalism. My work is based on how ideals of American exceptionalism are represented and reinforced in American media – including chapters on Hollywood, Music, and the mediation of American sports.
Overall, the underlying aspect I found was that capitalism is rooted in American culture. Whether the US are adimant that socialism/communism is an international threat, or if it is the simple desire for economic growth and dominance, it is clear that the exceptionalist myth of capitalism plays an important role in the reinforcing of American culture.
From this, Mr. Tyrrell, I was wondering what you think of my argument. Is there anything more than capitalism? Have I missed key ideologies? It would be amazing to hear some feedback (and maybe some help?). If you have any work that may help, or know of any other scholars/authors that have useful work, it would be much appreciated and would be really helpful in supporting/challenging my work.
Very interesting ideas I appreciate your views and opinions on American exceptionalism I hope we will get more information about it will see your most important debates on it
Very important debate
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The first sentence of this comment forgets about Australia and other “white” settler societies. That’s classic piece of historical amnesia and is common in exceptionalist narratives.
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Can you please give me a list of works you have published?
I find this notion more myth than fact!
We as a country love to say we are better than other countries, but in Education, Health Care, truth, justice, separation of church and state,
Freedom of the press, gun laws, honesty, reasons for war, we could not
stray from the truth of the matter any further!
I suggests all citizens of this mythical land read, ” A People’s History of the
United State of America”, by Howard Zinn.
His extensive research backed by thousands of footnotes of proof of truth from early documentation and publications, tells the real story of our not very honest, usually revises history!
We broke scores of treaties with the Native Americans! Read “Trail of Tears” and how the Cherokee nation after helping Andrew Jackson defeat the British in the war of 1812, was rewarded! Their Land stolen and marched to Oklahoma to a reservation. Thousands died on the march, and the boorish Andrew Jackson thumbed his nose at the Supreme Court who ordered the land be returned. However it never was! These and many more fables will disapprear once people know the real truth behind “weapons of Mass Destruction” by our exceptional intellegence community. See what the Signal corp.
In the Gulf of Tonkin reported for the escalation of the war in Vietnam, All quiet, no attack? Huh? Pentagon paper, anyone know anything about that?
How about Watergate? A hearing of that magnitude will never happen again although it should happen on the Sept. attacks where the forensic scientific evidence is thick and exceptional yet never truly grand jury investigated!
Ask yourself why?
But no need to report the facts in this exceptional place on earth!
How about the Iran Contra scandal? Cocaine runs in our govt’ planes,
Look it up!
As you see lying to the people continuously is really the exceptionism we are speaking of unless our freedom influenced by an Oz behind the curtain,
is really the myth sown by propaganda. Your beliefs are not facts and if you had all the facts behaps your beliefs would change?
So in conclusion is ignorance really bliss? For the majority regardless of party, I truly believe it is!
Since I have tons of facts not spin, yarns, myths, FACTS, man, Facts!
Clearly, the United States, from its inception, has never been a perfect nation, for a variety of reasons. However, it, has also, in many ways, been an exceptional nation. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who spoke of this exceptionalism in his work On Democracy in America, which he attributed to our spiritual strength as exhibited in our churches, hardly a phrase coined by Marists.
Tocqueville never used the term “exceptionalism”. He did on one occasion refer to the United States as “exceptional” when noting that North Americans concentrated on practical matters, not culture or science. He argued that Americans at that time could draw upon European expertise or cultural achievements. This is hardly the same as “exceptionalism.” Tocqueville was an exceptionally gifted thinker, and far more subtle than those who have applied his ideas to different circumstances.
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The US has lost its role as being exceptional and its the result of American Corp greed and its control over government.The US government under the control of corp America since the Reagan administration has walked further and further away from the constitutional requirements to operate for the benefit of all its citizens and now uses the middle class as a cash cow.(( both parties)) I am saying this as a generality and there are many American corporations that do not fall into this but as a whole it is weighted in favor of big money verse the needs of citizens.Cases in point. Even Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia have Universal healthcare and ((all)) major industrialized nations have reached this level of evolution and many nations that are not wealthy have universal healthcare and some relatively high quality such as Cuba . In addition, over and over both parties pass laws shrinking the estate inheritance taxes on the super rich which in my opinion is acceptable its not their money however, when I retire with my meager 401K Uncle Sam will grab a big chunk of it “so” it is clear, in Washington, they just take care of the number ones.Us simple citizens are irrelevant which is unconstitutional and screwing the middle class falls way short of traditional Conservative principles.
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Dear Professor Tyrell:
Do you happen to know when you wrote this article like the exact date, month, and year because I’m making a bibliography for an essay and I need the date in order to use it?
I published this first in 2009; it’s been modified since then, several times. I couldn’t say exactly when for the additional.
I suggest you might also be able to use “The Myth(s) That Will Not Die: American National Exceptionalism,” in Gérard Bouchard, ed., Constructed Pasts, Contested Presents (New York: Routledge, 2013), pp. 46-64. ISBN 9780415521321
I’m glad that you wish to cite this. I hope you don’t mind me asking you to spell my name correctly: Tyrrell, not Tyrell.
Best of luck with you work,
I’m so sorry about mispelling your name incorrectly, and thank you for the info.