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American exceptionalism

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

The phrase is thought to have originated by Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous book Democracy in America. 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 to the above view claim "American exceptionalism" is little more than crude propaganda, that in essence is a justification for a chauvinistic America-centered view of the world.

Table of contents
1 In historical context
2 Protestantism
3 The American Revolution
4 Arguments for American exceptionalism
5 Arguments against American exceptionalism
6 Comparisons with other "exceptional" nations
7 Marxist theory of American exceptionalism
8 External links

In historical context

The factual accuracy of this article is disputed.
"Exceptionalism" is simply a popularized explanation for why and how American society succeded, one that remains at best the collective subjective reflections of a number of 19th century scholars. Other explanations have arisen since, which attempt to answer this question or ones related to it; these range from scientific and historical explanations, to polemic or ethnocentrist diatribes. In essence, "exceptionalism" claims that a 'proper choice' of 'freedom over tyranny,' was made deliberately, and this was the central reason for why American society developed "successfully."

"Exceptionalism" attempts to assert a philosophical basis for why development occured, in contrast to theoretical opposites. By claiming that "privatization" and "property rights" are largely due the credit, exceptionalism carreis the implication that communist-style "socialization" and "public property" were material options debated within the new United States. "Democratic rule" (for the priveliged) simply meant a civil system by which the new American aristocracy could maintain order amongst themselves through their representatives. There was very little disagreement at all on the issue of private property as a fundamental right of (priveliged) citizens. While public ownership ideas were raised, they were not taken seriously, hence "exceptionalism's" basic principle rests on an assumption of a choice that did not in fact exist originally.

But to avoid or take for granted for example the factor of land incentivization (material rewards for citizen service) reflects a disconnect from practical explanations, such to make "exceptionalism" an abstract idea at best. The real estate-based incentive system remains, though many other material incentives have similar collective influence. (See Materialism). 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 philosophizing) are simply focusing on the subjective and ideological factors, while avoiding the material ones which may be generally assumed particularly obtrusive for theory.

There are a number of events that one can point to which would contradict "exceptionalism," particulary 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 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 abolision 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."

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 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 destinty to a large degree.

The controlled, incentivised, distribution of the land's ownnership would be the single material driving force behind America's development, overshadowing any moralistic or ideaological 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 preffered economic and legal methods.

Hence, America's development into a European-based society could not have happened any other way than it did. And because America's development could not likely have happened otherwise, the claim that America's growth is due to the wisdom and carefully chosen steps seems rather thin. Careful steps were needed at times to quell dissent, but the basic goals remain the original ones outlined by the British. Thus many look skeptically upon the use of such neologisms like "American exceptionalism" as simply another example of the tendency of 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 delopment. Centuries later, a Cold War would flare up, between a democratic and aristocratic alliance against communist and socialist revolutionary governments. The idealist or propagandist notion of "American exceptionalism" would be used in the mass-media to contrast "American idealism" versus communism; casting them as nationalist personifications of liberty and tyranny, respectively.


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; most observers admit both the idealistic and the self-interested motivations, to varying degrees.

America's polity has been characterized since its 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 prevents America 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 goverments 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 U.S. 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.

Religious tolerance

One claim is that while much of European history was wracked with religious wars and conflicts, with tension between Protestants and Catholics ran high, and often erupted into bloody conflicts like the French Wars of Religion, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Protestants under Mary I of England, and the Thirty Years War, the United States has been a religiously pluralistic country since its founding, with no experience of large-scale religious wars. This argument is weakened by its reliance on comparing events from 16th and 17th century European history with later events in American history, and by a history of small-scale religious persecution including attacks on the followers of Anne Hutchinson by the Puritans, the witchprocesses of Salem to the Utah War of the late 19th century, but it does reflect an important aspect of America's ethos that is not shared by many nations outside of the Western world.

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 aren't especially American features anymore, as all modern Western countries have such rights presently, and that these civil rights have been granted unequally during America's history (for instance, some US states had Jim Crow laws that prevented suffrage among African-Americans until the 1960s).

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 than 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 ghettoisation of millions of citizens, the unequal quality of health care and education, 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 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.

Canadian and American politics compared explores this issue by contrast to the most similar nation, on the same continent, with a quite different history.

Comparisons with other "exceptional" nations

Opponents of American exceptionalism point out that there are many nations in the world that have considered themselves "exceptional." Many proponents do not consider this relevant, as it is the way in which America is exceptional that is relevant, not the mere fact that it is exceptional in some way.


Throughout history there are countless examples of "invincible" and "unique" nations that can be considered to have failed, assuming time is a sort of test. Here is a table showing their relative longevity, alongside the USA for comparison:

Nation Longevity (Years) Maximum Extension (SI) Total Population Controlled Notes
Ancient Egypt 2800     (Old Kingdom - 343 BC)
Persian Empire 2281     (559BC to 1722AD)
French Kingdom 1381     (from 481 to 1792);
Holy Roman Empire 963      
Babylonian Empire 717      
Ottoman Empire 642   40 million  
Roman Empire 507      
Ancient Greece 454     (776BC to 323BC)
Russian Empire 370      
Macedonian Empire 168     (334BC to 168BC)
British Empire 156 30,000,000 kmò 500 million (1763 to 1919)
USA "exceptionalism" 106 9,639,810 kmò 293,027,571 (As of 2004) Treaty of Paris (1898) to 2004
Soviet Union 74 22,402,200 kmò 293,047,571 (1917 to 1991)
Mongol Empire 54 35,000,000 kmò almost 50% of the world population  
German Empire 47      
Second French Empire 18      
French Union 12      
Third Reich 12     (1933 to 1945)
First French Empire 9     (plus 100 days in 1815)

Oldest institutions

As a corollary to its exceptionalism and longevity in the modern world, as of 2004, the US is the oldest democratic republic in the world, with the oldest unaltered federal constitution (except for amendments within the framework of that constitution) and the oldest political parties.

Paradoxically, it also has the oldest components of socialist central planning and the welfare state (oldest decimal currency system, oldest national minimum wage system, oldest explicit deposit insurance scheme, oldest national accreditation system, oldest national regulatory body for securities, oldest domestic trade agreements for international trade, oldest legislation on food safety and hygiene, oldest formal anti-monopoly policy, oldest national park system, oldest national coastal management and planning program, etc.) oldest Space Agency, oldest Radio station, oldest TV station, oldest Submarines warship, oldest Metal-Plated warship, oldest Nuclear Weapon, oldest DeathRays Weapon (HAARP), oldest Automatic Weapon (Gatling), oldest Nuclear civil use, oldest Alternating Current production and civil use (City of Buffalo), oldest Telephone direct wiring system, oldest Telephone commuted wiring system, oldest Analog Electronics Computer, oldest Digital Electronics Computer, oldest scientifical temptative of time travel (Philadelphia Experiment)

Marxist theory of American exceptionalism

In Marxist theory, American exceptionalism refers to the proposition that there is something unique about American society that makes it especially resistant to socialism and attempts to explain why the labor movement in the United States is weaker than in other industrialized states and why a mass labour or social democratic party never developed. Explanations for why the US has been exceptional in this regard usually focus on geography, history or sociological explanations. One common explanation is that the in the United States the democratization of government and manhood suffrage occurred before the Industrial Revolution while in Europe, it occurred afterwords. As a result, it is argued that division between labor and capital in the United States did not map itself onto preexisting class structures, making class struggle less pronounced in the United States than in Europe.

In Marxist theory, the claim denotes an attempt to explain why socialist movements never became a mass phenomenon in the United States which, alone in the western world, does not have a major Labour Party. Proponents of the American exceptionalist theory such as former Communist Party USA leader Jay Lovestone argue that capitalism is more firmly established in the United States for various reasons and that the class struggle is at a lower intensity. Therefore socialists in the US must pursue more moderate methods such as collaborating with bourgeois forces and institutions, in order to put forward a progressive agenda.

External links