American Exceptionalism

By O'brien, Michael | The Journal of Southern History, August 2000 | Go to article overview

American Exceptionalism


O'brien, Michael, The Journal of Southern History


American Exceptionalism. By Deborah L. Madsen. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, c. 1998. Pp. viii, 186. Paper, $18.00, ISBN 1-57806-108-3.)

It is a curiosity that American exceptionalism has lacked a systematic scholar. It has been invoked, approved, damned, and sociologized, but no one has written a full history of the idea's strange career. This brief book is short of being such a work but is a useful sketch, which proceeds upon the presumption that "American exceptionalism permeates every period of American history and is the single most powerful agent in a series of arguments that have been fought down the centuries concerning the identity of America and Americans" (p. 1). The beginning of the story is understood to be Puritan ideology, which begat an errand into the wilderness, the redeemer nation, and the jeremiad. This worldview was secularized and encoded in the fundamental texts, ideology, and imperial practice of the new United States, which, through Manifest Destiny, redeemed many people by killing, conquering, dispossessing, and erasing them from memory. In turn, this creed became foreign policy; the world was understood to be a moral wilderness in need of salvation, an America-in-waiting, a village that might need to be destroyed in order to be saved.

This is a dispiriting narrative, softly written but fiercely argued. Many familiar texts are precised: John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, John L. O'Sullivan, Walt Whitman, and so forth, the staples of the traditional American Studies canon. What is distinctive and valuable in Madsen's book, however, is her careful attention to dissident voices--American Indian, black, Chicano--who have been among the victims and critics of this blithe expansionism but also have sometimes been coopted by the ideology. …

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