American Exceptionalism

The concept of American exceptionalism relates to the idea that the United States, in both its origins and its development, stands apart from other countries. A variety of reasons is given for those who are proponents of the idea. Many trace the concept to the U.S. inception as a new country that founded itself on a republican or democratic system, rather than having transitioned from a monarchic system. Additionally, many Americans see the country as having overtaken a vast landscape, free of the political vestiges of earlier times. In this regard, the view that the United States and its history are exceptional relates to the concept of Manifest Destiny, wherein many Americans thought that the country would inevitably come to rule a vast contiguous land stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. In that scenario, the U.S. would be viewed as a global tour de force whose global influence would be substantial. The concept continued to develop as the United States came to define itself as the world's leading democratic power -- first, in leading the Allies against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and, second, against the Soviet Union-led communist movement. The idea has been critiqued as nationalist or even ethnocentric.

The origins of the idea have been traced to the history of the United States's founding settlers, who were religious refugees from England. They, and those who came after them, found relatively open areas free of the persecution of rival Christian groups. This led to the development of a theology of salvation, wherein the new lands they settled gave them freedom both to worship and from their oppressors. This idea influenced the Founding Fathers, complemented liberal political theory, and then manifested in the formation of the United States with the goal of promoting these principles. Earlier thinkers, such as John Locke, and later American Thomas Paine are said to have been tremendously influential on American thinking. While Locke promoted individuality and freedom of thought and assembly vis-à-vis the state, Paine promoted the view that the monarchy and the rule of lords in England was tyrannical and could not morally compare to republicanism, where the people governed themselves. Alexis de Tocqueville thought Americans were found in a unique position in relation to Europe and anyone else who sought a democratic order. Their "puritanical" background and distance from Europe were said to give them the opportunity to develop a society apart and independent of Europe, making the society they formed unique. He also pointed to a virtually limitless opportunity for the society and country to expand that would inevitably have substantial influence on the country's culture.

Critics have used various arguments to undermine the idea that the United States is exceptional historically. First, regarding its pioneer opportunities dating back to the settlement by puritanical religious groups, many countries were conceived through such activity. Common examples include Canada, Australia, New Zealand, much of South America and much of Africa. More vitally, critics point out the misconception that the United States grew at the expense of no one in a mostly empty territory. Dozens of tribal federations were displaced or wiped out, similar to other areas settled by Europeans. While in the United States and Canada, many Native American tribes were displaced and their numbers drastically reduced. Australia and New Zealand saw the isolation and desolation of their own native cultures. South America experienced something similar, though there was much more cultural assimilation into Spanish and Catholic norms. South Africa presents an alternative case where white settlers came to see themselves as a unique community with uniquely religious principles, justifying their elitism over South African blacks. Later religious movements in the United States, the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints in particular, conceived of a theological history that incorporated the Americas as the scene of later revelations of Jesus and the exilic land of the Lost Tribes of Israel, making the United States the scene of religious salvation and intrigue. Additionally, the white Mormons demoted Native Americans and blacks in a theological way.

Related to this are critiques that correlate American slavery with European feudalism and Russian serfdom. This undermines the idea that America was "conceived in Liberty" according to the words of Abraham Lincoln. The republicanism and democracy in law, as exercised by the United States, subjugated people to be worth literally three-fifths of an American citizen if he or she were a slave, with any rights afforded to slaves transferred to their owners anyway. While some would say the United States is free of majoritarianism, the existence of slavery and later political issues related to women and even homosexuals might indicate otherwise.

Modern political theorists scoff at many American political practices as defining qualities of American exceptionalism. The American law allowing Congress to either strike down or accept a treaty even after it had been signed by the executive is one example; whereas, American exemptions from the League of Nations, the Kyoto Protocol, numerous international understandings on the death penalty, and the International Criminal Court promote the view that the United States is an arrogant hegemon.

American Exceptionalism: Selected full-text books and articles

Still the Exceptional Nation? By Lipset, Seymour Martin The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 2000
Foreword: On American Exceptionalism By Koh, Harold Hongju Stanford Law Review, Vol. 55, No. 5, May 2003
We the Exceptional American People By Fleming, James E Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall 1994
In the Past Lane: Historical Perspectives on American Culture By Michael Kammen Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration"
American Political Cultures By Richard J. Ellis Oxford University Press, 1996
The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations By Lawrence C. Dodd; Calvin Jillson Westview Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "American Exceptionalism Reconsidered: Culture or Institutions?"
Manufacturing Rationality: The Engineering Foundations of the Managerial Revolution By Yehouda Shenhav Oxford University, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Engineers, Labor Politics, and American Exceptionalism Before 1900"
American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period By Theodore Draper Viking Press, 1960
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "American Exceptionalism"
Why There Is A Culture War By Fonte, John Policy Review, December 2000
Thorstein Veblen's Views on American "Exceptionalism": An Interpretation By Tilman, Rick Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2005
On America's Double Standard: The Good and Bad Faces of Exceptionalism By Koh, Harold Hongju The American Prospect, Vol. 15, No. 10, October 2004
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