American exceptionalism

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Amercentrism redirects here. For the generalised topic, see Ethnocentrism

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.

Some interpret the term to indicate a moral superiority of Americans, while others use it to refer to the American concept as itself an exceptional ideal, which may or may not always be upheld by the actual people and government of the nation. Dissenters claim "American exceptionalism" is little more than crude propaganda, that in essence is a justification for a America-centered view of the world that is inherently chauvinistic and jingoistic in nature. Historians may use the term to simply refer to some case of American uniqueness without implying that an innate superiority of Americans resulted in the development of that uniqueness.


In historical context


In the wider historical view, American exceptionalism is the term for a popularized cultural mythos that delivers a benevolent explanation for why and how American society succeeded. It replaces the original phrase "Manifest Destiny" which was commonly employed at a time when it became apparent that the absolute destruction of the native American Indian was unstoppable. "Manifest Destiny" cast an esoteric righteousness over the reality of ethnic cleansing that was being enacted on the ground. In one way or another, exceptionalism (and ideas like it) attempt to assert either a "divine destiny" of American history (see US nationalism) or are otherwise (for sake of discussion) simply focusing on subjective and ideological factors, while avoiding the material ones; particularly if they seem too obtrusive or general.

Since the 19th century, the claim of American exceptionalism has been widely espoused; from scientific and historical explanations to polemic or even racialist diatribes. In essence it claims that a 'deliberate choice' of 'freedom over tyranny,' was properly made, and this was the central reason for why American society developed 'successfully.' Fundamental differences exist between exceptionalism as it was originally described in the 19th century, and how it is used today. Shifts in the both general concept and its common use can be seen in relation to the stages of American development; from colonial outpost to an established nation with institutional wealth and power. Perhaps the most telling landmarks for this change are the points where imposed practical and race-based limitations on immigration to America; signalling the country's change from the world symbol of welcoming and opportunity, to one of established power and protectionism.

As it is used today, American exceptionalism refers to claims that the earlier welcoming symbolism of America has a direct relationship and virtuous lineage to its current policies and ideologies, regardless of any conflicts and differences between past and present. In the differences between the US government policy and its culture, glaring paradoxes are often seen. And because the United States is relatively new, its culture has largely grown to conform to its government. Modern exceptionalism can be viewed a perpetuation of this link in the form of both a state-academic assertion and the common layman understandings of patriotism and nationalism. Note that in societies where a culture is much older and richer than its current government and the mythologies which it sustains, these assertions tend to be rejected as uncultured and unsophisticated propaganda.

What began as the collective reflections of a number of 19th century academics and writers on American culture, grew into an cornerstone of the USA's internal self-image, its propaganda, and its collective social views. While more objective analysis for the apparent success of the United States have arisen, "exceptionalism" and its related views are often unburdened by facts and logical arguments, and are hence quite resonant among layman Americans as a more formalized version of the collective American idealism. Proponents of an exceptionalism doctrine tend to be less concerned with historical details, emphasising instead the positivism continuity of a positive social ideology. Maintaining a positive, forward-looking ideology is considered by a number of influential thinkers as an important component of social doctrine and propaganda. In this light, exceptionalism can be viewed as the academic parallel to the common cultural mythos; the two very different syntaxes interface with a more abstract common language wherin Americans discuss issues their collective point of view. In the current age of global communications, a great many localized doctrines are losing the contextual bounds for their existence, and hence are dying. The degree to which American nationalism has the power to crush or overwhelm other forms of nationalism is widely seen as being American cultural and economic imperialism.

Exceptionalism attempts to assert a philosophical basis for why development occurred, contrasting a number of theoretical choices. Some of which were not yet in existence during earlier stages of America's development, and thus not at all in question. For example, there was very little disagreement at all on the issue of private property as a fundamental right of (privileged) citizens. While public ownership ideas were raised, they were not taken seriously, hence the premise of "exceptionalism," as an alternative to later incarnations of socialism, rests on an assumption of a choice that did not in fact exist at the time. By claiming that privatization and property rights are largely due the credit, exceptionalism wields the implication that communist-style "socialization" and "public property" were in fact material options debated within the new United States, when in fact they were not. "Democratic rule" (originally, for the privileged) simply meant a civil system by which the new American aristocracy could maintain order amongst themselves through their representatives. At the time, the issue was avoiding the problems inherent to feudalism.

There are a number of events that one can point to which would contradict "exceptionalism," particularly the calamities and near-calamities of Wars, civil unrest, and political fracturization that exposed very dissenting views to the happy picture that "exceptionalism" attempts to describe. Aside from events, the exceptionalist view is contradicted by ideological exceptions and differences among its various claimed ideological components. The American Civil War represents a refutation of the "exceptionalism" explanation, both for the basic fact that it threatened to destroy the country, and its causes did not fall along the ideological lines that "exceptionalism" explains. In fact, the Civil War represented a division between two largely agreeing camps; the important difference being over the finite boundaries of federalism, to supersede national authority, and the question of slavery; the abolition of which would fundamentally alter the Southern economic system. Because federalism is simply the governmental philosophy of apportionment (land division), both sides were at least in complete agreement that land and its ownership should lean toward the private; without slaves, private land ownership in the South was thought to lose its "self-sustainability."


The prime factor in American development from Native nation-feudalism to European-based culture and society was, in a nutshell land incentivization (material rewards for citizenship and service), of which newer incarnations continue; American consumer capitalism being largely geared toward the artificial creation of new material incentives.

Because American existence as an influential and powerful society is due to its vast resources, the story of how common American ethos is itself due to its vast resources; the current state of development being the culmination of an opportunity for 15th to 20th-century Europeans upon the discovery of the New World. Even long before the United States ever came into being, the very discovery of the New World brought a stir to the Old, that sparked renaissance of ideas regarding wealth, society, government, liberty, and even God. After the dissolution of Britain's corporate rulership, the War of Independence, and numerous territorial disputes, treaties, and purchases, (Spain, France, Russia, Mexico, etc.), the basic design for what was to be the United States' territory was outlined.

Because the existing powers needed the services of (and preferred the company of) Europeans, preexisting Old World restrictions on social class and status were overlooked. The peasant class was abolished in the United States of America, replaced at first by an indentured servant class; the Industrial revolution would allow for a more broad definition of classes by their functions. The advent of Labor unions would be the culmination of the cultural mythos of freedom, with the practical reality that labor can, in a new and limited society, control their destiny to a large degree.

The controlled, incentivised, distribution of the land's ownership would be the single material driving force behind the development of the United States, overshadowing any moralistic or ideological claims of influence. Regardless of the ideology, the reality of colonialism dictated that there be a shift in culture values, leaning toward the practical and the simple. Because the origin (and continuing) goal of American European-based colonial society was to develop the new "found" land in accordance with its established customs for property ownership and sale, the elevation of social status of European peasants over others was simply a necessary change for the society to become established. By strictly controlling the division of this new land, the American state could maintain a greater degree of security, and hence offer to its subjects greater freedoms, provided they conformed to the preferred economic and legal methods.

America's development into a European-based society may not have happened any other way than it did, and any exceptions would appear to be outside of human control. So the claim that America's growth is certainly due to the wisdom and carefully chosen steps seems a rather thin claim. Careful steps were needed at times to quell public dissent, but the basic goals continue to remain; based on those outlined by British colonial rule. Thus many look skeptically upon the use of such neologisms like American exceptionalism as simply another example of a tendency within local societies to develop their own natural national folklore. When the facts are either absent or beyond the ability of most people to understand in context, the lore tends to be quite resonant.

The incentives of land, wealth, "opportunity," and "freedom" that the New World offered were unprecedented, and offered Europeans at least the new hope that they could escape the cruelties of aristocratic rule and to begin developing new concepts of self and society that had previously been unimagined or inhibited. Populist proposals for dismantling the existing aristocratic societies emerged, based on the new humanist idealism and philosophy that developing reports from the New World had inspired. Called communism and socialism, the emergence of these radical new ideas led to disastrously costly conflicts, in the aftermath of which opportunistic figures would construct totalitarian regimes, rather than the egalitarian ones proposed in ideology. Meanwhile, the new "freedoms" that its vast and untapped resources afforded, had sparked in America a new renaissance and enlightenment with regard to ideas about personal freedom, democracy, and economic development. Centuries later, a Cold War would flare up, between a democratic and aristocratic alliance against communist and socialist revolutionary governments. American exceptionalism would find new life of the 20th century as propaganda for the mass-media, casting American idealism and communism, as a battle between the cultural personifications of liberty and tyranny.


The earliest ideologies of English colonists in the country were the protestants of the Pilgrim and Puritan settlers of New England. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict predestination and looser theology. They believed God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to lead the other nations of the earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, expressed this idea with the metaphor of a "City on a Hill" - that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world.

Although the Protestant worldview of the United State's New England ancestors were later mixed with those of the Middle Colonies and the South, their deep moralistic and paternalistic values remained part of the national identity for centuries and arguably remain so today. Although American exceptionalism is now secular in nature, a portion of it stems from America's Protestant roots.

The American Revolution

Another event often cited as a milestone in the history of American Exceptionalism is the American Revolutionary War. The intellectuals of the Revolution (Thomas Paine's Common Sense is the best example) for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land, a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that was being abused by the British mother country they had outgrown. Although few common Americans would have agreed with them at the time, they laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism.

Arguments for American exceptionalism

Those who believe in American exceptionalism argue that there are many ways that the United States clearly differs from the European world that it emerged from.

Political ethos and ideas about nationhood

Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the U.S. is unique in that it was founded on a set of ideals, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruler. In the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". In this view, being American is inextricably connected with loving and defending freedom and equal opportunity. As such, America has often acted to promote these ideals abroad, most notably in the First and Second World Wars and in the Cold War. Critics argue that the U.S. Government's policy in these conflicts was more motivated by economic or military self-interest (see Zimmerman telegram and Pearl Harbor); most observers admit both the idealistic and the self-interested motivations, to varying degrees.

The United States's polity have been characterized since their inception by system of federalism and checks and balances, which were designed to prevent any person, faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some American exceptionalists argue that this system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority", and also that it allows citizens to live in a locality whose laws reflect that citizen's values. A consequence of this political system is that laws can vary greatly across the country, with some states' laws being more progressive and other states' laws being more conservative than the values of the nation as a whole. For instance, the rather libertarian state of Vermont legalized homosexual civil unions, a rather progressive move, before homosexual sex was decriminalized (by judicial, not legislative action) in several other more conservative states. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that this system merely replaces a tyranny by the national majority over states with a tyranny by states over local minorities, e.g. the state governments of some more conservative states retaining laws criminalizing the sexual behavior of a minority. On balance, the American political system arguably allows more local oppression of minorities but prevents more national oppression of minorities than does a more unitary system.

Opportunity and meritocracy

The United States of America is nicknamed the "Land of Opportunity". It has traditionally had less rigid social classes than other nations, and has no system of nobility. Americans have tended to believe that a strong work ethic and personal fortitude is the key to success, rather than being born to the right family or making the right friends. Critics argue that while America may have no formal aristocracy, one does exist in practice, and while it may have as part of its national character a myth of meritocracy, privilege and social stratification are just as strong there as anywhere else.

Political rights

A common claim is that the United States is unique in that it has from its founding guaranteed political civil rights to its citizens – such as freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the presumption of innocence, and that respect for these rights is a uniquely strong component of American political culture. Critics of this position argue that these rights are not especially American features anymore, as all modern Western countries have such rights presently, and that some of these civil rights have been granted unequally or late during America's history (for instance, some US states had Jim Crow laws that prevented suffrage among African-Americans until the 1960s; the Comstock Law criminalized speech dealing with contraception).

Frontier spirit

Proponents of American exceptionalism often claim that the "American spirit" or the "American identity" was created at the frontier (following Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis), where rugged and untamed conditions gave birth to American national vitality. However, critics of this view believe that American expansion westwards in some ways was more a conquest of Native Americans than a cultivation of wilderness.

The American Revolution

The American Revolutionary War is the claimed ideological territory of "exceptionalists". The intellectuals of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine, arguably shaped America into a nation fundamentally different from its European ancestry, creating modern democracy as we know it.

Arguments against American exceptionalism

Opponents of the notion of American exceptionalism argue that, while all societies differ in their history and social structures, the notion that the United States is uniquely virtuous overstates the importance of differences between American and other present-day First World countries. It ignores aspects of American history and society that contradict ideals of freedom and equality, such as slavery, segregation of schools in the South, the annexation by force of the Hawaiian islands, McCarthyism, the poverty and sometimes ghettoization of millions of citizens, the inequality of health care and education between rich and poor, and the genocide and displacement of the Native American population. Proponents of American exceptionalism counter that these examples indeed show the failure of America to live up to its putative ideals. But actions such as these are hardly unique to American history, and that on the strength of those ideals, later generations of Americans have admitted these errors and have made attempts to redress them, through programs such as affirmative action.

A typical argument against the American exceptionalist position is to identify positive qualities in specific other countries that correspond to allegedly unique qualities of the United States. These arguments are seldom convincing to proponents, who reply that the historical uniqueness of the United States is the result of a combination of many factors and not captured by particular aspects of the national character.

A further argument which can support an exceptionalist view, but not an innate exceptionalist view, is that accidents of geography (limited borders and a growing internal market), history (avoidance of the worst effects of 19th- and 20th-century warfare) and natural resources (for example, gold, oil, arable land, and fish stocks) have given the US an economic boost in the short term. This advantage can now be seen diminishing slightly but increasingly due to the effects of globalization, which has a mitigating influence on geographic differences.

The Wikipedia article "Canadian and American politics compared" explores this issue by contrasting a nation often considered similar to the United States that has had a quite different history.

See also

External links

  • "The American Creed: Does It Matter? Should It Change?" ( "Summary: Seymour Martin Lipset explains why the United States is exceptional. Michael J. Sandel blames its individualistic tradition for the country's ills and says America should return to the New England town square. But it isn't exceptional, and it shouldn't return." [1] (

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