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Exploring American Exceptionalism (Part I)

Has the concept of American exceptionalism served as a guiding principle throughout U.S. history?

July 17, 2007

Has the concept of American exceptionalism served as a guiding principle throughout U.S. history?

The notion of American exceptionalism was present at the creation of the United States and has been carefully nurtured ever since. I speak of American exceptionalism as a cultural matter, which is the foundation for other forms, such as legal exceptionalism.

The Puritans brought with them to New England a sense of special, divinely inspired destiny, as evidenced by John Winthrop preaching about the New World as a moral city on a hill.

This same sense of divinely blessed uniqueness was also adopted by the southern planter class, personified by Thomas Jefferson, whose own sense of religion — not to mention personal behavior — was quite distant from that of the Puritans.

More strangely still, someone like Benjamin Franklin, who had left Boston because of the confining culture of Puritanism, and whose personal life was hardly Puritanical, came around at the end of his life to the belief that the great American political experience was divinely blessed.

Even the realist George Washington, whose religion was more pro forma than devout, from the very beginning saw a westward expanding country. It was manifest destiny before that term gained currency.

A precise accounting of how this sense of American destiny has been translated across generations is a worthy subject for historians and sociologists. For present purposes, it suffices to note that certain presidents made their special contribution to this core American sense of self.

When President William McKinley disclosed that the U.S. move into colonial status through the "liberation" of the Philippines and Cuba from the Spanish Empire had been divinely blessed, he placed himself squarely in the mainstream of American exceptionalism: expansion of American power and control in the name of freedom and religion.

Contemporary versions of this strain of American exceptionalism are sometimes associated with the Republican Party victory in the 1994 congressional elections.

In fact, it was the Ronald Reagan victory in the 1980 presidential election that, building on the Barry Goldwater candidacy in 1964, ushered in the modern resurgence of a traditional American exceptionalism centered on a crusading political morality.

It was Reagan, especially in his campaign and first term, who quoted unabashedly from Winthrop's city on a hill speech. It was Reagan who launched attacks on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), despite their reflection of U.S. power and policy, as unnecessarily confining for U.S. independence.

And it was Reagan who successfully sank U.S. support for the Law of the Sea Treaty, despite its support by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and other realist, pragmatic, nondoctrinaire Republicans.

Thus, it was Reagan's victory in 1980 that more than any other event restored a moralistic American exceptionalism to dominance, featuring a doctrinaire or ideological unilateralism at its core.

While Lyndon B. Johnson and others were able to paint Goldwater as a right-wing extremist, the more genial Reagan made many of Goldwater's views seem acceptable and firmly embedded in centrist views of American history.

As a result, American political discourse generally shifted to the right, blocking President Bill Clinton's liberal inclinations (he had to present himself as a "New Democrat" to get elected) and ultimately benefiting George W. Bush.

Precisely since America was a divinely blessed nation with much to teach the world about personal freedom, it could hardly be expected to place great weight on the opinion and preferences of others — who often comprised the weak, the tired and the jaded, not to mention those with inferior records on freedom.

American imperfections, even major violations of personal civil and political rights, have never applied much of a brake on enthusiasm for American exceptionalism.

Most nationalisms, especially those tending toward chauvinism, place great emphasis on that which is patently untrue.

U.S. history records numerous blemishes on the city on a hill, despite rhetoric about an exceptionally good nation. These transgressions include long support for slavery — followed by legally sanctioned racial discrimination — and ethnic cleansing or forced displacement of Native Americans.

Even when compared to other liberal democracies, U.S. imperfections are seen in its high homicide rates, high rates of those without medical insurance, and high levels of poverty, among others.

And despite lofty intentions dating back further than President McKinley, in its foreign policy the United States has never responded appropriately to genocide, has supported brutally repressive regimes (in places like Argentina, Chile and Guatemala), has long supported other regimes ranked at the bottom of Freedom House's scale of civil and political freedom (in places like Saudi Arabia and Zaire) — and more.

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is adapted from “Power and Superpower: Global Leadership and Exceptionalism in the 21st Century,” copyright 2007 The Century Foundation Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Read Part II here.