American Exceptionalism

By Friedman, Uri | Foreign Policy, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview

American Exceptionalism


Friedman, Uri, Foreign Policy


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

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1630 As the Massachusetts Bay Company sets sail from England to the New World, Puritan lawyer John Winthrop urges his fellow passengers on the Arabella to "be as a city upon a hill," alluding to a phrase from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. The colonists must make New England a model for future settlements, he notes, as the "eyes of all people are upon us."

1776 In "Common Sense," revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine describes America as a beacon of liberty for the world. "Freedom hath been hunted round the globe," he explains. "Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."

1840 Reflecting on his travels in the United States in his seminal work, Democracy in America, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville writes that the "position of the Americans" is "quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."

1914 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson infuses Paine's notion of the United States as a bastion of freedom with missionary zeal, arguing that what makes America unique is its duty to spread liberty abroad. "I want you to take these great engines of force out onto the seas like adventurers enlisted for the elevation of the spirit of the human race," Wilson tells U.S. Naval Academy graduates. "For that is the only distinction that America has."

1929-1930 Coining a new term, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin condemns the "heresy of American exceptionalism" while expelling American communist leader Jay Lovestone and his followers from the Communist International for arguing that U.S. capitalism constitutes an exception to Marxism's universal laws. Within a year, the Communist Party USA has adopted Stalin's disparaging term. "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism," the party declares, gloating about the Great Depression.

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1941 Echoing Wilson, magazine publisher Henry Luce urges the United States to enter World War II and exchange isolationism for an "American century" in which it acts as the "powerhouse" of those ideals that are "especially American."

1950s A group of American historians--including Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and David Potter--argues that the United States forged a "consensus" of liberal values over time that enabled it to sidestep movements such as fascism and socialism. But they question whether this unique national character can be reproduced elsewhere. As Boorstin writes, "nothing could be more un-American than to urge other countries to imitate America."

1961 President John F. Kennedy suggests that America's distinctiveness stems from its determination to exemplify and defend freedom all over the world. He invokes Winthrop's "city upon a hill" and declares: "More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. …

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