updated 4/25/03

AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM

(1) Introductory Note

This is a work in progress. However, there are now in place numerous links, enough to keep anyone busy for quite a long time. In creating hyperlinks for the people, terms, books, and so forth, below, to save time, I did not always search out the best scholarly sources. I have adapted much from Sean Wilentz, "American Exceptionalism" Encyclopedia of the American Left (Garland, 1990), pp. 20-22; Seymour Lipset; Richard P. Horwitz."America Studies: Approaches and Concepts" . This piece is arranged in order of (2) source of concept, (3) defining American exceptionalism, (4) AE as "double-edged sword", (5) scholarship, historical and contemporary, (6) relationships, e.g., "culture", "American civic religion" and (7) conclusion.

(2) the concept "American Exceptionalism" was coined by the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America

"Exceptional" in this context is to be interpreted as "...qualitatively different from all other countries." Seymour Martin Lipset. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, (W.W.Norton & Company, New York, 1996), pp.18.

in Democracy in America, Tocqueville identified five values crucial to America's success as a democratic republic: (1) liberty (2) egalitarianism, (3) individualism, (4)populism and (5) laissez-faire

These concepts constitue what is known as the American Creed. Tocqueville understood these values as being reflective of the absence of feudal and hierarchical structures such as monarchies and aristocracies.

(3) defining American exceptionalism

at bottom, AE refers to the apparent departure of the United States from certain assumed historical norms or laws of development

The notion of American exceptionalism is an old one with many meanings. ... For one reason or another, so the notion goes, the United States has failed to produce eversharper antagonisms between capital and labor (as measured, most commonly, by the rise of a viable socialist movement). Hence, it appears that America is an exceptional historical case, quite different from other capitalist nations.

observers have often diluted the concept of American exceptionalism to mean something closer to American distinctiveness

The search for reasons why this is so has taken scholars and pundits in numerous directions, searching for the flaws (or, depending on the writer, the strengths) that are unique to American politics, culture, and social relations. As a result of these searches, scholars and other investigators, or just the curious, focus on the ways the United States is different from other countries.

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(4) but AE definitely is a double-edged sword

David Gergen engages Seymour Martin Lipset, professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, about the dynamics of the American national character.

Lipset writes that the idea of American Exceptionalism reveals America to be both the worst and the best nation. As he says, is is "...a double-edged sword."

on the one hand, the "good" side of the double edged sword promotes, "Egalitarianism," ie, equality of opportunity, the idea that in America, anyone can become president

The U.S is reputed as valueing meritocracy, of being a free society open to the most efficient and most competent. Though Franklin directly addresses this notion in his "Work Ethic", the precedent was set by early Puritan settlers. The religious tradition set by them, which emphasises individualism and personal rights, proved to be foundational to the rise of capitalism in America. Lipset writes:

"Americans do not feel obligations, other than familial, if these conflict with the requirements of efficiency or income. They are more disposed than other people to expect individuals to do their best for themselves, not for others." (238)

The puritan emphasis on the individual's rights can be seen as the origins for the value of laissez-faire. Although such things as this and the Bill of Rights are progressive, they are also the cause of the excessive litigousness which now prevails in America.

As well as the work ethic, the education ethic (which promotes widespread public education) has its origins in puritan ideology. The puritans perceived knowledge to be a form of protection against the temptation of sin. Lipset quotes a passage from the "Code of 1650, Being a Complilation of the Earliest Law and Orders of the General Court of Conecticut" (Hartford, CT:S Andrus & Son, c.1822, pp.90 - 91, Lipset. p 61)):

"It being one chiefe project of that old deluder, Sathan, to keepe men from the knowledge of the scriptures, as in former times, keeping them in an unknowne tongue, so in these latter times, by perswading them from the use of tongues, so that at least, the true sence and meaning of the originall might bee clouded with false glosses of saint seeming deceivers; and that learning may not bee buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our indeavors..."

The puritans set an example which was influential upon the social, political and economical spheres of contemporary American society. Values the Puritans initiated are still prevalent today, Lipset writes:

"America began and continues as the most anti-statist, legalist, and rights-oriented nation." (20)

In documenting that distinctiveness scholars cite much evidence: Here is Horwitz' list: God's grace, Puritan theocracy or the separation of church and state, early colonists' military might or their resistance to diseases that they spread, the timing and composition of particular waves of immigration, the "availability" of arable land, continental abundance or regional shortages of resources, free enterprise or slavery, the spirit of science or unfettered individualism, political liberty or the suppression of dissent, technological prowess or omnivorous consumerism, mobility, individualism or conformity, pragmatism or idealism, relative peace and prosperity or racism and violence. Whatever the explanation, at issue has been less whether there is anything distinctly "American" -- a way of life uniquely associated with a population, a setting, and a nation-state -- than the best way to describe and evaluate it.

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on the other hand, the "dark" side of the double edged sword promotes, violence, brutality, hatred, cruelty

From alternet, this recent posting by Ira Leonard, Violence is the American Way, April 16, 2003, goes a long way in demonstrating with evidence the fact that, in the US, American Exceptionalism definitely has a dark side. (Ira M. Leonard, a professor of history at Southern Connecticut State University, gave this address to the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, January 2003.)

"Increasingly, Americans are a people without history, with only memory, which means a people poorly prepared for what is inevitable about life -- tragedy, sadness, moral ambiguity -- and therefore a people reluctant to engage difficult ethical issues."

Elliot Gorn, "Professing History: Distinguishing Between Memory and Past," Chronicle of Higher Education (April 28, 2000).

In August 2002, President George Bush began to drum up a war fever in America with a view to toppling Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein, alleged to be the possessor of weapons of mass destruction. Bush did so without providing the evidence, the costs, the "why now" explanation, or long-term implications of such a war.

And by October 2002, The United States Congress not only granted the president a virtual declaration of war for an historically unprecedented "pre-emptive war," but did so without raising any questions about the whys, the evidence, the costs, or long term implications for the nation -- and for the world -- of such an unprovoked invasion.

Only a democratic society accustomed to war -- and predisposed to the use of war and violence -- would accept war so quickly, without asking any questions or demanding any answers from its leaders about the war.

And only the opposition of the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese finally forced some Americans to raise questions about what was actually being planned. This, coupled with the anti-war demonstrations on February 15th, 2003 by millions of people in 350 cities around the globe, delayed President Bush from actually launching this war against Iraq by mid-February 2003.

I encourage you to read the entire piece, as posted by Alternet, because the information Leonard has assembled about violence and its related cognates in America is both shocking and depressing, in the true sense of each of these over-used terms.

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(5) scholarship, historical and contemporary

Adapted from Richard P. Horwitz and Sean Wilentz

Historical For centuries, proponents of American exceptionalism can be found throughout scholarly literature Claims about American exceptionalism date back to the earliest days of European settlement on these shores -- at least as far back as John Winthrop's famous remark to his fellow Puritans in 1630, that they would establish a "city upon a hill," a clear break from the corrupt world they had left behind. Through the age of revolution, travelers, colonists, and home-grown philosophes explored what was special about the North American continent and its inhabitants-inquiries that culminated in Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer and Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. By the nineteenth century, America had come to loom large in the imaginations of European thinkers as different as Hegel and Tocqueville, as some sort of exceptional image of the future. Americans, for their part, proudly proclaimed theirs a unique political society, freed from the shackles of Old World superstition and tyranny.

With the emergence of the United States as an industrialist nation, comingling with other social and intellectual forces such as a labor movement, from the 1820s to the 1890s, and the demise of slavery, Wilentz argues that observers began to rethink some of these assumptions. One question, and it is an enduring one, still discussed today, is "Why didn't the US engender a socialist tradition?" For example, T. Roosevelt, "The Trusts, the People, and the Square Deal," Outlook 99 (18 Nov. 1911), pp. 649-656; T. Roosevelt, ". . . Where We Cannot Work with Socialists," and "Where We Can Work with Socialists," Outlook 91 (20, 27 March 1909), pp. 619-623, 662-664. Whether these Roosevelt texts are digitized and available on the Web is not clear. Check the extensive bibliography in Sklar, below, especially the "Coda" section, larded with quotes to writers contemporary the latter part of the era noted above, ie, 1820-1890.)

Other scholarly observers, like Henry Adams (The Education of Henry Adams) and Frederick Jackson Turner (Significance of the Frontier in American History) in the early 1890s, Constance Rourke (e.g., Corn Cobs in Your Hair) , Vernon Parrington (Main Currents in American Thought) and Charles Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) [can't find digitized full text for preceding or the following] , in the 1920s and 1930s, and Henry Steel Commager (The American Mind) and Richard Hofstadter (The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life), in the 1950s, published theories of America's exceptionalism distinctiveness. [Check the Univ of Virginia for Parrington's Maincurrents -- the UV has it digistized, but the set-up is confusing.]

While the roots of the term, then, date back to Tocqueville's famous sojourn in the mid-nineteenth century, American exceptionalism, as a term, did not emerge until after WW II. As a "inter-disciplinary" discipline, American Studies emerged sort of episodically, from around the WW II era. According to Horwitz, "For most of the history of 'American Studies', most Americanists, like most non-academics, have assumed that most senses of the word "America" actually do or ought to converge. They suppose that the U.S. terrain, its government, and the ways of life of its people comprise a single, even if conflicted, whole -- a "culture" -- that is distinguishable from the contributions of annexed territories, populations, and polities." It is in this sense, then, that "America is supposed to be unique."

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since the 1930s, what had once been a debating point for left-wing intellectuals has entered the mainstream of academic controversy

Young liberal historians and sociologists who had been influenced by the 1930s Leftwing scholars, claims Sean Wilntz, (notably Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin, and Seymour Martin Lipset) -- [Lipset later became a neoconservative] "refashioned the exceptionalism idea in the 1950s, in their explanations for the apparent overriding consensus in American political life. The more celebratory strain in this scholarship lives on today in the writings of historians like Daniel Boorstin, as one of the animating concepts behind academic neoconservativism."

As Horwitz notes, "In the 1950s and early 1960s U.S. scholars from a broad range of humanities and social sciences lent this notion -- 'American exceptionalism' -- academic credibility." Distinguished contributors, for a range of reasons, include scholars, public intellectuals, journalists, and other critics: Ethel Albert, Gabriel Almond, Daniel Bell, Ray Allen Billington, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager, Cora Du Bois, W E B DuBois, Erik Erikson, Richard Hofstadter, Francis Hsu, Horace M. Kallen, Orin Klapp, Florence Kluckhohn, Clyde Klukhohn, John Kouwenhoven, Harold Laski, Max Lerner, Seymour Lipset, Alain Locke, F. O. Mattheisson, Margaret Mead, Perry Miller, Gunnar Myrdal, H Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Vance Packard, David Potter, David Riesman, Arthur Schlesinger, Henry Nash Smith, and William H. Whyte.

From here to the end, the material is from other sources, and still needs editing: U.S. Americanists have consistently explored such questions through history and the humanities, but from the 1950s through the 1980s, they also turned to the social sciences for help in integrating the two. A key resource was the concept of "culture" that Western psychological, social, and market scientists developed (struggling to find a substitute for "race") in the first decades of the twentieth century. Governments advanced the concept during World War I and canonized it during World War II. Combatants employed the best of their countries' scholars to monitor and manipulate morale. In treating the will to fight as resource of the state, they rendered people's culture their "national character." Whatever the particulars of each analysis (e.g., the alleged role of parenting styles, wealth, or social structure, and hence the efficacy of propaganda -- for Japanese versus Americans), analysts generally looked for cultural differences between nations and consistency within them. Hence, although this work is often remembered for its emphasis on "consensus," it is worth remembering that conflict (albeit inter- rather than intra-national) was its inspiration.

After World War II, especially in the U.S., scholars elaborated and refined theories attending this work. At issue was how better to identify and explain social patterns, particularly the relations between group experience (say, as a nationality or historical cohort) and individual thought. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Americanists aimed to integrate this theory with their knowledge of U.S. history and the arts. In alliance with semioticians and cognitivists (especially psychologists, linguists, and anthropologists), they began exploring new ways to understand particular societies in light of mounting evidence both (1) that all people are, in important respects, remarkably alike and (2) that compatriots often profoundly differ. Largely through the leadership of the American Civilization Program at the University of Pennsylvania (e.g., Murray Murphey, Gordon Kelley, John Caughey, Jay Mechling, Richard Horwitz, Janis Radway), these epistemological questions and the social and psychological dimensions of "the culture concept" became central to American Studies.

Culture thereby was understood as the key arena for the "the social construction of reality," the process whereby illusory notions like "national character" or "America" were posited and perpetuated. Under the influence of diverse philosophers such as Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, Hilary Putman, Willard Quine, or Richard Rorty and social scientists such as Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Herbert Blumer, Arlie Russell Hochschild, George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, or Harold Garfinkel, Americanists began rethinking how, in the absence of any privileged starting point ("foundationalism") anyone might make credible generalizations about America.

Homegrown "American radicals," as one example, measured some of the new industrial realities against the legacy of the American Revolution, and found that the nation had departed in decisive ways from its highest ideals of personal independence. "European radicals", as a second example, "tended to respond ambiguously to American events: while none could deny the liveliness of American labor movements, they also tended to believe that American workers were far more attached to bourgeois political and social ideals than their European counterparts were-and therefore proved an "exceptional" kind of working class." Martin J. Sklar, "Capitalism and Socialism in the Emergence of Modern America: The Formative Era, 1890's-1916 Also check out William A. Williams, The Contours of American History (Cleveland: World, 1961); W. A. Williams, The Great Evasion (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968) and Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1955). [As I get time, I'll flesh these examples out with quotes from actual texts.]

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in the 20th century, the notion of American exceptionalism has gathered enormous strength from writings all across the political spectrum

Conservative writers, sometimes mingling nostalgia with analysis, have kindled the ideal of America as a providential nation, set apart from the rest of the world as a bastion of freedom.

[statement by Quaker writer against AE as a tool of american foreign policy, recommended by hawks]

mostly, however, the modern discussion of exceptionalism has revolved around issues first raised on the Left

Liberal writers have preferred to focus on economic growth and cultural pluralism as the keys to understanding American distinctiveness. Lately, too, liberal writers have been focusing more on on the darker sides of American Exceptionalism, as we saw above, in Violence is the American Way.

The German socialist Werner Sombart's Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (1906) became a classic statement of the problem. Sombart's answer to the question he posed -- that American class-consciousness had been wrecked on "shoals of roast beef and apple pie" -- reflected both the economism of the Second International and the German ascendancy within the international socialist movement. (sombart's text doesn't seem to be available on the Web in digitized format.) Lipset, in another work, posits his reasons. Nonetheless, others have interpreted the matter of "socialism" in America in an entirely differing perspective, as you'll see in these two examples: (1) (2) The emigre , a product of the Russian social revolutionary movement, restated matters somewhat in A Theory of the Labor Movement (1928). Perlman stressed both the importance of political citizenship and the power of "pure-and-simple," "bread-and-butter" unionism as major factors undermining American working-class radicalism and assuring American exceptionalism. Somewhat later, the question reappeared in various dissident corners. Of special note were the writings of Leon Sampson, which argued that "Americanism" had become a kind of substitutive socialism for American workers. In a rather different vein, writers grouped around the anti-Stalin Bukharinite opposition of the 1930s -- including Bertram Wolfe and Lewis Corey -- wrote explicitly of "American exceptionalism" while drawing on Bukharin's general theory of exceptionalism.

The New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s, while arguing against the so-called consensus school, carried on with its own versions of the exceptionalism argument. While insisting that class divisions are central to American life, New Leftists also contended that one or another social or cultural factor (ethnicity, racism, party politics, mass culture) has effectively muffled working-class consciousness. Explanations for what various scholars called "the historical incorporation of the American working class" remained very much a part of New Left historical and sociological writing, whether couched in the Gramscian vocabulary of "hegemony," in borrowings from the Frankfurt School, or in some other idiom.

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more recently, the entire concept has come under further scrutiny -- and considerable attack.

At the core of the exceptionalism problem, some scholars have argued, is a fallacious, teleological assumption that the past and present ought to judged against some preconceived notion of what ought to have happened. Continuing events in Europe and elsewhere have made the United States seem far less "exceptional" than ever before. The criteria for assessing normality-what C. Wright Mills once called a "labor metaphysic," which quickly turned into a socialist metaphysic-no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. Discarding their blinders, several historians have located a powerful, recurrent strain of American working-class consciousness, rooted in the very concepts of democratic equality that older historians misconstrued as "bourgeois." Without denying the obvious differences between the United States and other industrial capitalist countries-the heritage of slavery, the impact of mass immigration, the changing structure of American politics-historians, literary critics, and social scientists have begun looking at class relations and social development without judging them against some predetermined model of supposedly normative results.

Contemporary Professor Sean Wilentz , who introduces us some of the striking ambivalence that comes as part of the baggage of American Exceptionalism, gives these references for further investigation: Wilentz, Sean. "Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790-1920," with critiques by Nick Salvatore and Michael Hanagan and reply by Wilentz. International Labor and Working Class 26-27 (1984-85); Foner, Eric. "Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?" History Workshop Journal, no. 17 (Spring, 1984); Daniel T. Rodgers, "Exceptionalism," in Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood, eds., Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret Their Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 21-40; Michael Kammen, "The Problem of American Exceptionalism: A Reconsideration,"American Quarterly 45 (1993): 1-43; and Michael McGerr, "The Price of the 'New Transnational History',"American Historical Review 96 (1991): 1056-1067. Social science defenses of American distinctiveness include Byron E. Shafer, ed., Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

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(6) relationships, e.g., "culture", "American civic religion"

The mention of culture introduces the topic, culture war: add Steven Yates and John Fonte EJ Dionne (1) (2)

The mention of culture introduces the topic, culture war: add <a href="file:///F:/american%20exceptionalism/steven_yates_understanding_the_culture_war.html">Steven Yates</a> and <a href="(EmptyReference!)">John Fonte </a>EJ Dionne (<a href="file:///F:/american%20exceptionalism/ej_dionne_on_mckinley_rove_connction1.html">1</a>) (<a href="file:///F:/american%20exceptionalism/ej_dionne_on_mckinley_rove_connction2.html">2</a>)</font></p>

(7) conclusion

The picture of America as a shining city on a hill, standing virtually outside of history, still retains a powerful cultural appeal, but in this era of globization, powered by American corporate might, this positive impression increasingly has it's mirror oppositie, fueled by a wide perception that if there is an American exceptionalism, it definitely has a darker side as well. Especially in the era of the Bush Adminstration's Pre-emptive Strike Doctrine, and the sorting out of the aftermath if the Iraq War, scholars will inevitably consider the question of an American exceptionalism a useful entryway into larger problems of United States and world history. At the moment, concludes, Sean Wilentz, "the whole matter would seem to be more important as a myth that needs analysis than as a fixed historical reality requiring some global explanatory theory."