The Full Wiki

American exceptionalism: Map


Wikipedia article:

Map showing all locations mentioned on Wikipedia article:

American exceptionalism (def. "exceptionalism") refers to the theory that the United Statesmarker occupies a special niche among the nations of the world in terms of its national credo, historical evolution, political and religious institutions and unique origins. The roots of the term are attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, who claimed that the then-50-year-old United States held a special place among nations, because it was a country of immigrants and the first modern democracy. The term itself did not emerge until after World War II when it was embraced by neoconservative pundits in what was described in the International Herald Tribune as "an ugly twist of late".

The theory of American exceptionalism has a number of opponents, especially from the Left. Where proponents see, by the force of the doctrine itself, an American nation with a special world-historical role to play, opponents contend that the belief is "self-serving and jingoistic" (see slavery and civil rights issues, Western betrayal, a lack of standard social welfare policies, and the failure to aid Jews fleeing the Nazis), that it is based on a myth, and that "[t]here is a growing refusal to accept" the idea of exceptionalism both nationally and internationally. See also the section Opposing viewpoints.


Dorothy Ross, in Origins of American Social Science (1991), argued that there are three generic varieties of American exceptionalism:
  1. Supernaturalist explanations which emphasize the causal potency of God in selecting America to serve as an example for the rest of the world; for example, see the speech of Reverend John Winthrop to the Puritan colonists of Massachusetts Baymarker: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken... we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world." Indeed, scholars such as Robert Bellah believe there are religious overtones embedded into American history and society itself - a civil religion with its own temples and civic gods.
  2. Genetic interpretations which emphasize racial traits, ethnicity, or gender; for example, Adolf Hitler claimed that because of America's tolerant, multiracial, multiethnic polity, it was exceptional in its racial inferiority, once saying in a speech to his headquarters staff: "I don't see much future for the's a decayed feelings against Americanism are feelings of hatred and deep repugnance...everything about the behavior of American society reveals that it's half Judaized, and the other half Negrified. How can one expect a State like that to hold together?"
  3. Environmental explanations such as geography, climate, availability of natural resources, social structure, and type of political economy; for example, Frederick Jackson Turner's seminal work, The Frontier in American History (commonly known as the Turner Thesis) theorized that the presence of a frontier played a fundamental role in the development of American society: "But the larger part of what has been distinctive and valuable in America's contribution to the history of the human spirit has been due to this nation's peculiar experience in extending its type of frontier into new regions; and in creating peaceful societies with new ideals in the successive vast and differing geographic provinces which together make up the United States. Directly or indirectly these experiences shaped the life of the Eastern as well as the Western States, and even reacted upon the Old World and influenced the direction of its thought and its progress. This experience has been fundamental in the economic, political and social characteristics of the American people and in their conceptions of their destiny."

The concept was first used in respect of the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 in his work Democracy in America:

American exceptionalism is close to the idea of Manifest Destiny, a term used by Jacksonian Democrats in the 1840s to promote the purchase of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territorymarker, the Texas Annexation, the Gadsden Purchase, and the Mexican Cession). The concept of "manifest destiny" was later used in the 1890s by members of the Republican Party as a theoretical justification for the seizure and retention of former Spanish foreign colonies as the colonies and protectorates of the United States during the Spanish-American War of 1898. This short-lived phenomenon of classical colonial imperialism, was an arguably aberrational episode of US history that involved the occupation of the Philippinesmarker, as well as Puerto Rico, in addition to the establishment of a protectorate over Cubamarker, and an imperial adventure in Panamamarker prior to the construction of the Panama Canalmarker. This took place during a period from around 1898 to 1913 in the U.S. expansion outside of North America.

However, it must be noted that this colonialist phenomenon was quite limited in time and scope compared to practically all of the classical imperial powers, such as Francemarker, Imperial Japanmarker, the United Kingdommarker, etc, who had extensive foreign empires lasting for centuries. On the contrary, the United States moved rapidly to grant home rule to and liquidate its acquisitions over the next several decades. At least in the case of Puerto Rico, she requested and received home rule in 1927, and changed her form of government in 1948 to that of a freely-associated Commonwealth retaining complete, unilateral, and popular self-determination over her own future. Since that point, Puerto Rico's people have voted in numerous referenda on free association - including the options of independence from the United States, statehood in the United States (as a sovereign and equal State thereof), as well as to remain freely associated with the United States; thus far, all votes have been in favor of free association with the United States (usually around 50% of votes), although a significant minority has always favored formalizing her association with the United States by becoming a full State thereof (between 35% to 45% of votes); those in favor of ending Puerto Rico's free association and declaring complete independence usually receive a small part of the vote (between 5% to 15% of votes). The Philippinesmarker requested and received home rule in 1935, and subsequently declared independence in 1946, following the Second World War. The removal of the Cuban protectorate took place in phases stretching from the mid-1930s until the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by Fidel Castro, who subsequently made Cuba a protectorate of the USSRmarker from 1959 to the end of the Cold War. Decolonization of the Panama Canal Zonemarker took place over a period of some 30 years, ending in 2000 with the return of the American-built canal to the people of the Republic of Panamamarker.

The basis most commonly cited for American exceptionalism is the idea that the United Statesmarker and its people differ from other nations, at least on a historical basis, as an association of people who came from numerous places throughout the world but who hold a common bond in standing for certain self-evident truths, like freedom, inalienable natural and human rights, democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, civil liberty, civic virtue, the common good, fair play, private property, and Constitutional government . The term is also used by United Statesmarker citizens to indicate that America and Americans have different states of mind, different surroundings, and different political cultures than other nations, and still others use it to refer to the American dream and the slow yet continuous journey of the people of the United States , sharing a nation and a destiny, to build a more perfect union, to live up to the dreams, hopes, and ideals of its founders, so that "these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this Earth."

Researchers and academics, however, generally use the term "American exceptionalism" to strictly mean sharp and measurable differences in public opinion and political behavior between Americans and their counterparts in other developed democracies.

Persons who are not supporters of the theory of American exceptionalism often argue that it is equivalent to jingoism and nationalist propaganda. In their arguments, they often compare the US to other countries that have claimed an exceptional nature or destiny. Examples in more recent times include the UKmarker at the height of the British Empire, as well the USSRmarker, Francemarker and Nazi Germany; while many historic empires such as Ancient Rome, Chinamarker, the Spanish Empire and a wide range of minor kingdoms and tribes have also embraced exceptionalism. In each case, a basis was presented as to why the country was exceptional compared to all other countries, drawing upon circumstance, cultural background and mythos, and self-perceived national aims.

Causes in their historical context

In essence, it characterizes the course of American history as a "deliberate choice" of "freedom over tyranny" which was properly made. With this in mind, American exceptionalism is just one of many national exceptionalist movements.

Puritan roots

Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. 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, metaphorically expressed this idea as a "City upon a Hill" — that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world. This metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism.

Although the world-view of New Englandmarker Puritans changed dramatically, and despite the strong influence of other Protestant traditions in the Middle Colonies and the South, the Puritans' deep moralistic values remained part of the national identity of the United States for centuries, remaining influential to the present day. Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots. This theory does, however, ignore the fact that the earliest British colonies in North America (such as Virginia, which predates the colonization of New England) were not at all Puritan, and that most of the colonies and citizens thereof that were later absorbed in to the United States were essentially Roman Catholic. It also tends to overlook the fact that the original Puritan colony all-but failed in its first two years, and was forced to admit mass numbers of colonists who were not motivated by any strong religious feelings whatsoever. But, despite their comparative statistical importance, the 'Puritan Roots' of America have become an important, unquestionable, almost sacrosanct part of the American Myth.

American Revolution and Republicanism

The ideas that created the American Revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. Thomas Paine's Common Sense 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 had outgrown the British mother country. These sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class.

Alexis de Tocqueville stressed the advanced nature of democracy in America, arguing that it infused every aspect of society and culture, at a time (1830s) when democracy was not in fashion anywhere else.


One of Alexis de Toqueville's original arguments for American exceptionalism still stands; America remains particularly attractive to immigrants because economic and political opportunities remain high and there is a high degree of social mobility. Since its founding, many immigrants, such as Andrew Carnegie and Carl Schurz have risen to the top layers of the economic and political system. The "American Dream" describes the perceived abundance of opportunities in the American system.

The United States has the largest population of immigrants in the world - over 38.5 million people living in the United States are first-generation immigrants. On an annual basis, the United States naturalizes approximately 898 thousand immigrants as new citizens, the most of any country in the world. From 1960 to 2005, on a 5-year period basis, the United States was ranked first in the world for every five year period but one for the total number of immigrants admitted - and overall, since 1995, the United States has admitted over 1 million immigrants per year. Of the top ten countries accepting resettled refugees in 2006, the United States accepted more than twice as many as the next nine countries combined, approximately 50,000 refugees; in addition, on average, over 100,000 refugees per year were resettled annually between 1990 - 2000; further, over 85,000 asylum seekers annually come to the United States in search of sanctuary, of which approximately 45% are successful in obtaining.

Critics point out that America is now hardly unique in its appeal to immigrants, and that many countries like Australia, Canadamarker and New Zealandmarker are at least as popular and welcoming to immigrants.

Cold War

American exceptionalism during the Cold War was often cast by the mass media as the American Way of Life engaged in a battle with totalitarianism. These attributions made use of the residual sentiment that had originally formed to differentiate the United States from the 19th century European powers and had been applied multiple times in multiple contexts before it was used to distinguish democracies (with the United States primus inter pares of the democracies) from authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorship.

Aspects of arguments

Republican ethos and ideas about nationhood

Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation 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, America is inextricably connected with liberty and equality.

The United States' policies have been characterized since their inception by a system of federalism and checks and balances, which were designed to prevent any person, faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some Proponents of the theory of American exceptionalism argue that this system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority", are preservative a free republican democrat, 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. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that this system merely replaces the power of the national majority over states with power by the states over local entities. On balance, the American political system arguably allows more local dominance but prevents more national dominance than does a more unitary system.

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, this 'frontier spirit' was not unique to the United States - other nations such as New Zealandmarker, Canadamarker, South Africa, Brazilmarker, Argentinamarker and Australia had long frontiers that were similarly settled by pioneers, shaping their national psyches. In fact, all of the British Imperial domains involved pioneering work. Although each nation had slightly different frontier experiences (for example, in Australia "mateship" and working together was valued more than individualism was in the United States), the characteristics arising from British attempting to "tame" a wild and often hostile landscape against the will of the original population remained common to many such nations. Of course, at the limit, all of mankind has been involved, at one time or another, in extending the boundaries of their territory.


For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, the United States was exceptional in its occupational and physical mobility. America is known as the "land of opportunity", and in this sense, it prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their class and family background. Examples of this social mobility include:
  • Occupational - children could easily choose careers which were not based upon their parents' choices.
  • Physical - that geographical location was not seen as static, and citizens often relocated freely over long distances without barrier.
  • Status - As in most countries, family standing and riches were often a means to remain in a higher social circle. America was notably unusual due to an accepted wisdom that anyone - from impoverished immigrants upwards - who worked hard, could aspire to similar standing, regardless of circumstances of birth. This aspiration is commonly called living the American dream. Birth circumstances were not taken as a social barrier to the upper echelons or to high political status in American culture. This stood in contrast to other countries where many higher offices were socially determined, and usually hard to enter without being born into the suitable social group.

It is disputed whether Americans statistically have greater or lesser economic mobility.

American Revolution

The American Revolutionary War is the claimed ideological territory of "exceptionalists". The intellectuals of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, arguably shaped America into a nation fundamentally different from its European ancestry, creating modern constitutional republicanism, with a limit on ecclesiastical powers. Others counter that there is nothing unique about the revolution — the English "Glorious Revolution" was nearly a century prior to the American Revolution and led to constitutional monarchy. The French Revolution also led to a form of modern democracy and has been credited as the process that forged most contemporary ideals of government and democracy.

Opposing viewpoints

During the George W. Bush administration, the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests, and Americans subscribing to the political theory of neoconservativism, among others, view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the Law of Nations. (This phenomenon might be called a priori exceptionalism or "neoexceptionalism," since it is less concerned with justifying American uniqueness than with asserting its immunity to international law.) This new use of the term has served to confuse the topic and muddy the waters, since its unilateralist emphasis and ahistorical orientation diverge somewhat from older uses of the term. A certain number of those who subscribe to "old-style" or "traditional American exceptionalism" (or, in keeping with the distinction suggested above, a posteriori exceptionalism)—the idea that America is a more unique nation than are others, that it differs qualitatively from the rest of the world and has a special role to play in world history—also agree that the United States is and ought to be fully subject to and bound by the public international law. Indeed, recent research shows that "there is some indication for American exceptionalism among the [U.S.] public, but very little evidence of unilateral attitudes."

In April 2009, President Barack Obama responded to a journalist's question in Strasbourg with the statement, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Such an answer, as some commentators have noted, effectively robs the doctrine of American exceptionalism of meaning, recreating it as a rather innocuous form of patriotism (if patriotism is indeed innocuous). In this regard, it would seem that President Obama was participating-maybe even intervening-in an ongoing shift in the meaning of the term; that trend, however, runs in some ways counter to the approach taken by direct advocates and critics of the older meaning of the term, many of whom continue to actively negotiate this older sense in their scholarship.

Ignorance of aspects

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 the U.S. and other 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 and the American Southwest formerly Mexican territory, McCarthyism, the poverty and sometimes ghetto-ization 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 the United States of America to live up to its putative ideals, but that later generations of Americans have attempted to redress some of these injustices, through programs such as affirmative action. Opponents of American exceptionalism counter that the US was neither the first nor the only nation to attempt to rectify past and present injustices with such efforts.

A common 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, and that there are in fact none of the qualities associated to U.S. exceptionalism are exclusive to it.

Proponents 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. Opponents, however, argue that the national character-resulting from all of its components-of each and every nation on earth is unique.

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

Double standards

U.S. historians like Thomas Bender "try and put an end to the recent revival of American exceptionalism, a defect he esteems to be inherited from the Cold War". Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson argue "how the development of the United States has always depended on its transactions with other nations for commodities, cultural values and populations", while Joseph Lepgold and Timothy McKeown "demonstrate that there is little or no basis to the claims that US foreign policy has differed greatly from that of other large nations". Roger Cohen asks, "How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?" Harold Koh distinguishes "distinctive rights, different labels, the 'flying buttress' mentality, and double standards. (...) [T]he fourth face - double standards - presents the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism." Godfrey Hodgson also concludes that "the US national myth is dangerous." Samantha Power asserts that "we’re neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It’s going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism."

Dissemination in popular culture

Critics point out that the idea of American exceptionalism is not so much manifested in an actual difference between the US and other countries in terms of outward behavior, but more in terms of a ‘truth’ about the mental and moral superiority of Americans being actively reiterated by American popular culture to the American public via movies, television and political rhetoric. To generalize, all Americans are told every day in the media that only they know how the world really works, and only they know how it should work. In this way, the myth is kept alive.


Chicano studies and African diaspora scholars have long documented transnational movements, identities, and processes, although their work was often ignored by white historians. Had their vision been taken seriously a century ago, Robin D. G. Kelley notes, “It could have overthrown American nationalist, jingoistic historiography once and for all.” The framework, however, has attracted new champions in recent years. American studies scholars, alarmed by renewed U.S. jingoism, have taken aim against American exceptionalism. Transnational perspectives, they hope, will free citizens from the political trap of “with us or against us” as well as the intellectual delusion that the United States is the alpha and omega of history.

The Americanist heresy

Pope Leo XIII, who denounced what he deemed to be the heresy of americanism in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, was probably referring to American exceptionalism in the ecclesiastical domain, when it is specifically applied to the teachings of Christianity and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. At the end of the 19th century, there was definitely a tendency among the Roman Catholic clergy in the United States to view American society as inherently different from other Christian nations and societies, and to argue that the entire understanding of Church doctrine had to be redrawn in order to meet the requirements of what is known as the American experience, which supposedly included greater individualism, civil rights, the inheritance of the American revolution, Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions, Anglo-American analytical philosophy, economic liberalism, political reformism and egalitarianism, and Church-State separation.

Pre-emptive declinism

New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff calls America "an empire enthralled with its own power and unaware that it is fading." Former Clinton administration official Charles Kupchan concludes that "American primacy is already past its peak." According to Joseph Nye, who served under Presidents Carter and Clinton, America's "soft power -- its ability to attract others by the legitimacy of U.S. policies and the values that underlie them -- is in decline."

Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, asserts that "in some deep fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed." Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute warns that America's military "overextension could hasten the decline of the United States as a superpower."Matthew Parris of the London Sunday Times reports that the United States is "overstretched," romantically recalling the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral suasion rather than force to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribune's Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent Chinamarker.

CEPA Director of Research Wess Mitchell says: "With a declining United States, struggling Europe, and resurgent Russia, the unfolding Euro-Atlantic power triangle is a microcosm of the multipolar order ahead."

Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria refers to a "Post-American world", saying "it's not a world that's going to be dominated by the United States".In 2004, Pat Buchanan lamented "the decline and fall of the greatest industrial republic the world had ever seen." In 2005, The Guardian's Polly Toynbee concluded that Hurricane Katrina exposed "a hollow superpower". In 2007, Pierre Hassner of the Paris-based National Foundation for Political Science declared, "It will not be the New American Century." In 1988, Flora Lewis sighed that "Talk of U.S. decline is real in the sense that the U.S. can no longer pull all the levers of command or pay all the bills." Even in trying to deflect the declinists, James Schlesinger conceded in 1988 that the U.S. was "no longer economically the preponderant power... no longer militarily the dominant power... no longer can achieve more or less whatever it desires." "The signs of decline are evident to those who care to see them," declared Peter Passell in 1990, noting that the U.S. had lost its competitive edge and was losing its battle with the Japanesemarker juggernaut. "Europeans and Asians," wrote Anthony Lewis in 1990, "are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline." Citing America's dependence on foreign sources for energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult -- nearly impossible -- for the United States."

See also


  9. Foreword: on American Exceptionalism; Symposium on Treaties, Enforcement, and U.S. Sovereignty, Stanford Law Review, May 1, 2003, Pg. 1479
  10. February 15, 2007, NYT Manifest Destiny: A New Direction
  11. Some in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, such as Fidel Castro's government in Cuba, as well as certain members of the Non-Aligned Movement, especially following its swing towards the Soviet Bloc in the late 1970s and early 1980s, have taken issue with the choice of Puerto Rico's people to remain freely associated with the United States and forced hearings before the United Nations, claiming that she is still a colony of the United States; however, this argument is laid to rest by the fact that colonies are distinctive in that they exist without the consent of the people living there; on the contrary, Puerto Rico has regular, free and fair elections, based on universal suffrage, and pro-independence forces there usually never win more than 10-15% of the vote of her sovereign people, meaning that this argument is rejected by most Puerto Ricans themselves.
  15. Reichard, Gary W.; Ted Dickson. America on the World Stage, University of Illinois Press, 2008, back cover. ISBN 0252075528

Further reading

  • Glickstein, Jonathan A. American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor In The Antebellum United States (2002)
  • Ferrie, Joseph P. The End of American Exceptionalism: Mobility in the US Since 1850, Journal of Economic Perspectives (Summer, 2005)
  • online version
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. "The First New Nation." Basic Books, 1955.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. "Still the Exceptional Nation?." The Wilson Quarterly. 24#1 (2000) pp 31+ online version
  • Lloyd, Brian. Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Ross, Dorothy. Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Ross, Dorothy. "American Exceptionalism" in A Companion to American Thought. Richard W. Fox and James T. Kloppenberg, eds. London: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1995: 22-23.
  • Shafer, Byron E. Is America Different?: A New Look at American Exceptionalism (1991)
  • Rick Tilman. "Thorstein Veblen's Views on American 'Exceptionalism': An Interpretation." Journal of Economic Issues. 39#1 2005. pp 177+. online version
  • Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (1993) online version
  • Wilentz, Sean. Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790-1820, 26 Int'l Lab. & Working Class History 1 (1984)

External links

Embed code:

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address