The 225 year journey of ‘American Exceptionalism: 1789 to 2014
I have searched for a way to close out the blogs I have written for six weeks on whether ‘American Exceptionalism’ still exists. I realize the best way to do it is discuss how the notion of the U.S. being an exceptional nation first got started. So, please excuse the rather academic nature of this blog.
I read a very short book on this matter American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History” by Charles Murray that was published in 2013 by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and I found it to be quite enlightening on the subject.
The question addressed by Murray is: “Is the United States unlike any other nation in history?” The idea of exceptionalism, Murray argues, once enjoyed a broad consensus and helped unite Americans around what Lincoln called their “political religion.”
Alexis de Tocqueville was an aristocratic Frenchman who came to the U.S. in 1831 -- when he was only 25 years old -- and later wrote Democracy in America, a two-volume study of the American people and their political institutions that stands as a classic look inside the soul of the new nation. He witnessed America’s unprecedented achievements and through his books reinforced the young nation’s powerful self-conception.
But recently that faith in “exceptionalism has eroded,” and Murray calls on its champions to defend it from its critics at home and abroad (i.e., Russian President Putin’s recent attack on that concept). A creed that was once nearly universally embraced has become a minority affirmation. Murray ends by asking his readers to decide if they are happy with what has happened to exceptionalism and to reflect seriously on their duty to America and their vision for the nation’s future. His hope seems to be that a reclaimed exceptionalism is critical to national self-knowledge and right conduct.
Richard Gamble on reason.com does an excellent analysis of the origins of ‘American Exceptionalism’ so I borrow from his work to explain Murray’s version of exceptionalism. According to Gamble, “The Founders laid out a blueprint for the American experiment, including republicanism, a chief executive elected for a limited term, a written constitution, and the transformation of ‘an ideology of individual liberty into a governing creed.’
Gamble identifies the years following 1789 as the genesis of exceptionalism. He points to a number of blessings that guided the way including “America’s geographic remoteness from Europe’s turmoil; her abundance of land; her commitment to natural rights and individualism; her citizens’ “industriousness, egalitarianism, [and] religiosity, and an amalgam of philanthropy and volunteerism” in their communities; and the nineteenth century’s doctrines of economic and political liberalism, which Murray identifies as his own tradition and as “the founding ideology of the nation.” America in 1789 was “an experiment in governance unlike any in the history of the world,” he writes, and the Founders “invented a new nation from scratch.”
Gamble writes following about de Tocqueville:
“Reflecting on what Alexis de Tocqueville might find in the 21st century on a return visit to America, de Tocqueville would find 21st century Americans seek flattery from others and flatter themselves. This appetite for praise was not a credit to the American character in the 1830s. Nor is it now. Our preoccupation with being exceptional, with figuring out just how exceptional we are, and then constantly reminding ourselves and insisting to the world on the indubitable truth of that exceptionalism is not attractive. Like all vanity, it impedes self-knowledge. And it forgets its indebtedness to the past.”
Gamble concludes that Murray’s version of American exceptionalism is more cautious than most and his claims fairly circumspect compared to others. But they are still part of an odd national pastime, one, he believes America might have outgrown by now, much as adults learn somewhere along the way not to talk about themselves and their achievements. A modest America would work hard to protect and perpetuate its achievements, but it would talk about something else. [Editor: How about our role in the 21st century and whether we have the resources and political will to carry it out?].
I can’t help but compare Murray’s book, Gamble’s analysis, and insights into the mind of de Tocqueville with my own analysis of ‘American Exceptionalism’ expressed in the past six blogs I have written on the topic. America’s (and Americans) need for praise and self-flattery should be an attribute of the past replaced by modesty and engaging in a discussion of more important ideals to a maturing nation. A modest America would regain the work ethic that made it a great nation and look to the future to ensure it remains a symbol of what is possible.
The erosion of exceptionalism creates a challenge to re-create it through right conduct. Right conduct, which has been missing these past few decades, must become the mantra for our very being supported by a work ethic to live up to the ideals of the Founders. We cannot continue to condone or look the other way while fraud infects our systems of government; violence reigns in our schools, public places, and the workplace; more and more systems fail or do not work properly because of incompetence; our education system further declines leaving American youngsters a step of two behind their international counterparts in achievement; and a broken immigration system continues to threaten the very safety of our citizens that it is supposed to protect thereby creating an avenue for terrorism and other acts that further erode our ‘exceptionalism.’
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 17, 2013