The Complexity of American Exceptionalism

June 4, 2016

American exceptionalism is a term frequently used during presidential election seasons. It is almost a requirement for candidates to embrace American exceptionalism in order to be seriously considered for the office of president.

But election seasons are not the only times we are faced with the idea of American exceptionalism. Americans have always believed that they were exceptional. So are we? A simple answer to this question is elusive.

First, what is American exceptionalism? James W. Ceaser, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, divides the concept into a distinction between America as “different” and “special.” Ceaser’s distinction can be summarized in a statement George H. W. Bush made in his 1988 GOP nomination acceptance speech. Bush was making a dig at his Democratic opponent, then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts when he said, “He sees America as another pleasant country on the UN roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. I see America as the leader—a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

Ronald Reagan, the oft-referenced patron saint of today’s GOP, saw America this way. He was fond of adapting Lincoln’s 1862 description of America, calling it “the last best hope of mankind.” He also used a version of John Winthrop’s descriptor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, saying that America was “a shining city on a hill.” American exceptionalism is a potent patriotic concept and both Republicans and Democrats have been consistently employing it, especially since 9/11.

Last September, David Brooks of the New York Times expressed perplexity about the fact that GOP figures like Donald Trump, Ann Coulter, and Ben Carson seem to be betraying exceptionalism with their oft-made exclusionary statements aimed at immigrants and Muslims.

For Brooks, the spirit of exceptionalism is oriented to the future, not the past. But as Brooks explains, “The GOP is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future.” He laments that exceptionalism, that is, “this hopeful nationalism is being supplanted in the GOP by an anguished cry for a receding America.”

But while there is much to commend about Brooks’ piece, he is right about exceptionalism—and his critique of those who would undermine its meaning—only from a certain point of view.

Brooks considers exceptionalism through a set of specific contextual lenses, namely immigration and religious pluralism. Understood in these contexts, Brooks is undoubtedly right. The GOP figures he critiques are, without doubt, exclusivist in their pining for a bleached and Protestant American past.

But the problem is that exceptionalism is a painfully ambiguous term, and cannot be defined with certainty in a narrow context. If we think historically about exceptionalism—that is, how it has been articulated since the colonial period—we find that the concept is much more complex.

Brooks rightly notes that many in the GOP are exclusionary and oriented to the past. He is also quite correct that exceptionalism should be understood in inclusive and future-oriented. But this represents only one form of exceptionalism, and it is not the one to which Americans historically default. Inclusive exceptionalism is the ideal, and if Americans have ever secured this form of exceptionalism, they have had to fight hard for it.

Consider Abraham Lincoln as an example of inclusive exceptionalism. Throughout his public career, he knew that emancipation of the slaves was consistent with the Declaration of Independence, the document he thought was foundational to the American idea. He had little patience with those, like his 1858 opponent in the US Senate race Stephen A. Douglas, who thought that the phrase “all men are created equal” only meant white men. Speaking to Douglas’ position in the fifth debate in Galesburg, Illinois, Lincoln said, “I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence.”

But it took a great civil war, three amendments to the Constitution, and another hundred years thereafter for white Americans to legally acknowledge the equal humanity of African Americans. And in practice, many white Americans still aren’t there.

The point is that exclusivist American exceptionalism has historically been the normal patriotic understanding since colonial times. Inclusive exceptionalism is the form truest to the American canonical documents, like the Declaration, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. But inclusive exceptionalism requires struggle. It does not come naturally.

During the nineteenth century, the term commonly in use to describe American patriotism was “manifest destiny.” The idea was that God had destined America to overspread the North American continent, extending the rule of the United States south into Mexico and north into Canada. By the end of the century, and into World War I, manifest destiny had a global reach. Speaking in 1920 on what he saw as America’s God given responsibility to bring Christian civilization to the world, Woodrow Wilson said, “This is the time of all others when Democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

But manifest destiny was a concept that was based on exclusivism. Slavery, nativism, Jim Crow, the extermination of Native Americans, and colonialism were all logically necessary to manifest destiny, an exclusivist brand of American exceptionalism.

Exclusive articulations of exceptionalism are nothing new, and they are not limited to the GOP. When making reference to exceptionalism, it’s necessary to understand the power of context in locating its meaning. Americans have always believed that theirs was an exceptional nation. But their definitions of “exceptionalism” have taken many forms in their short national history.

About the Author
  • John D. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This year, he is the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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