Thursday, January 27, 2011

American Exceptionalism

Bruce Mazlish

Today's post comes from Bruce Mazlish, professor emeritus of history at MIT. A distinguished historian, he is the author or editor of a variety of books and articles, including: The Global History Reader (Routledge, 2005), ed. by Mazlish and Akira Iriye; The New Global History (Routledge, 2006); and The Uncertain Sciences (Yale, 1998; paper Transaction Press, 2007) .

All peoples think of themselves as special, their way of life as exceptional. The USA certainly thinks of itself as exceptional, elevating the claim to a national shibboleth. This claim guides the country in its thinking and behavior in international affairs. Though all are exceptional, America sees itself as more exceptional than others. The implications of this conviction are profound and fundamental. Inquiry into this belief system, given the power, economic and military of the country, appears necessary.1

Its roots are deep and tangled. In Ian Tyrrell's definition, "The idea of the United States as a unique and indeed superior civilization outside the normal historically determined path of human history lies at the heart of American exceptionalism."2 With this provisional definition, we can proceed to examine the origins of the experience and its phases.

Apparently, one of the earliest formulations comes from a Marxist analysis claiming that America is exceptional in not having a true class system. Hence socialism does not flourish in America as it does elsewhere. This was a theory advanced by Werner Sombart, a Marxist influenced historian. However, before Sombart, Alexis de Tocqueville had used the term "exceptional" in his Democracy in America. One aspect of America for him was that as a nation it had been born in the light of day i.e., its origins not lost in the forests of the past but visible to contemporary observers. Even before the Frenchman's classic analysis, a general European view of the continent stressed both the unparalleled possibility of abundance in the New World as well as its dark barbarianism, seeing them as exceptional. The encounter with the Indians seemed to be unique (very different from that in South America).

The original colonists of New England had faith that the New World was liberated from the dead hand of the past and no longer subject to the strictures of what we would now call historical determinism. It had a special mission, to spread its creed of freedom to the rest of the world (a latent contradiction to exceptionalism?) In the process, the carriers of this creed were experiencing a rebirth. In the view of Richard Slotkin, this belief had a dark side. "The first colonists," he writes, "saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience."3

In his article on American exceptionalism, Seymour Martin Lipset quotes G.K. Chesterton to the effect that "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed."4 That creed was to be a light to the world; the nation had a divine mission to spread the blessings of freedom and liberty to the rest of the world (even by violence, if necessary).

Clearly, the concept is a fundamental part of the American belief system. Its implications are extremely important. I want to argue that we must see the concept historically, as a dynamic part of the American experience. In doing so, we can discern two major phases. The first is a more or less benign expression. It has led the US into seeking to support freedom of dissent and human rights in many parts of the world. Alas, the country has been hypocritical in the way it does this. All too often, it says one thing and does another. For example, it proclaims freedom and democracy and then supports autocratic countries such as Saudi Arabia. It behaves occasionally according to a double standard. Opposing torture elsewhere, it has practiced it within its own borders. This becomes increasingly clear as we look at more recent history.

I want to suggest that there are variants on American exceptionalism: benign and malignant. The benign is most marked in the 18th and 19th centuries as America sought to fulfill Winthrop's prophesy of its being a city on a hill that would serve as a light for the rest of mankind. With all its deep-rooted faults at home—slavery being the “blackest”—ranging from its treatment of the Indians to its continental and then overseas imperialism, America, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, the port through which so many of its immigrants arrived, seemed to beckon all peoples to the freedom and liberty of the country. Abroad, it strove to spread its message as widely as possible.

Though proclaiming the Monroe Doctrine, thus announcing its dominion over both the North and South continents, along with its existing appropriation of the name "America" for itself, the nation exhibited a mix of isolationism and participation in international affairs. The benign aspect would appear especially after WW II, when America was in the foremost rank of those seeking to establish institutions and codes that would seek to punish not only war crimes but also crimes against humanity. The UN, with America providing a home for it in New York City, in 1948 issued a Declaration of Human Rights. A few years earlier in the Nuremberg trials the US was among the foremost in seeking justice on an international scale. The Yugoslav and Rwanda trials following confirmed this trend, culminating in the International Criminal Court. Elsewhere I have called this a "Judicial Revolution."5 Here was reached the sticking point for the US. It became increasingly clear, especially in the Bush administration, that America was not prepared to be held to the same justice and laws that it had so prominently helped establish.

Now emerged the malignant side of American exceptionalism. It served as one of the banners under which the US felt that it was exempt from conforming to international law except where and when it suited its own purposes. President Obama rightly takes exception to this assertion—America is a nation like all others, and subject to the same laws of history and judgment—and has been roundly criticized by Tea Party members for this statement of equality. Frequently invoked in the present, Republicans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are reported as "denouncing Obama for denying 'American exceptionalism.'"6

There are many founding myths in America. In its malignant form, that of American exceptionalism is one of the most potently damaging, to America itself and to the world. It is time that it is dug up by the roots and placed in the trash bin. We can do this easily on the computer; it is time that we matched this action in our minds as well.


1. The literature on "American exceptionalism" is extremely full. Rather than trying to list various titles, I refer the reader to that rubric in Google, where numerous examples are given.

2. Ian Tyrrell, "American Exceptionalism and Uneven Global Integration: Resistance to the Global Society," in The Paradox of a Global USA, ed. by Bruce Mazlish, Nayan Chanda, and Kenneth Weisbrode (Stanford, 2007).

3. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Wesleyan, 1973), 5.

4. Quoted in Seymour Martin Lipset, "American Exceptionalism," Washington Post, 1991.

5 . See Bruce Mazlish, The Idea of Humanity in a Global Era (Palgrave, 2009), especially Chapter 4.

6. Quoted in Thomas Friedman, "From WikiChina," New York Times, November 30, 2010.


Randall said...

Bruce: Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I think it is something that would work well in the classroom. I can imagine using it in any of my American survey courses.

One could ask students how Americans have, over the decades and centuries, come to understand whatever counts as a national calling or national mission. That would look rather different in a decade like the 1960s as compared to the 1890s.

Unknown said...

From a slightly different perspective (though, like Randall, I'm thinking of talking to students or writing to the general public), I think I see what you might call a sort of inevitable exceptionalism in the fact that we tell "our" stories and in the way we frame and periodize those stories. Seems like there's a balance we have to maintain between producing the stories the market wants to hear, and combatting parochialism. There are certainly a lot of ways that American history unfolded differently from that of other places. Is the trick about somehow embracing these differences without magnifying them into virtues that "we" alone possess?

Maybe I'm shooting off onto a tangent, but this also makes me wonder about the status of unique personal experience in our stories. Have social historians gone too far in averaging and finding "representative" characters, at the expense of variety and specificity?

Joel said...

Great post.

The most interesting part for me, a historian of Latin America, is about the proselytizing component of American exceptionalism. Many nations see themselves as unique and sometimes as far superior to others. Brazilians long believed they lived in a "racial democracy" and so had far superior race relations to those in the U.S. (This myth has only recently been rejected in policy by successive Brazilian governments.)

But, Brazilians never spoke of promoting racial democracy abroad, they simply remained smug about their reality. Indeed, a Brazilian friend of mine summed up the difference between her country and the U.S. in this regard when she said, "Brazilians say, 'Brazil is great, you should come visit and see.' Americans say, 'America is great, you should be just like us.'"