The following rule of history will be a battle of semantics: History can be exceptional but not virtuous. Before you write me off as a zealot or Marxist (depending on whatever end of the political spectrum you find yourself), hear me out. The careful wording of exceptionalism seems to befuddle many scholars, myself included. Merriam Webster has two definitions for the word. The first is "the condition of being different from the norm." The second definition" is a theory expounding the exceptionalism, especially of a nation or region.
I believe you can be the first, but not the second.
Let's start with the prominent case study of the United States. American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is inherently different from other nations. Its proponents argue that the US's values, political system, and historical development are unique in human history, often implying that the country is both destined and entitled to play a distinct and positive role on the world stage. There were and still are many examples of how America's past makes it unique in its formation. I take issue with the entitlement that comes along with it.
Where does this line of thinking begin? One can trace the origins of American exceptionalism to the American Revolution. The US emerged as "the first new nation" with a distinct body of ideas. This ideology is based on liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy, and laissez-faire economics; these principles are sometimes collectively referred to as "American exceptionalism" and entail the US being perceived both domestically and internationally as superior to other nations or having a unique mission to transform the world.
The theory of exceptionalism in the US developed over time and can be traced to many sources. French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" following his travels in 1831. The earliest documented use of the specific term "American exceptionalism" is American communists in intra-communist disputes in the late 1920s. The thing is, the idea of a unique microcosm of creation does have some merit.
The United States did not form like most of the western powers. Colonial America lacked feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates, and a hereditary nobility. As a result, American politics developed around a tradition of liberalism. Although some European practices of feudal origin, such as the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, were transmitted to America, their abolition during the American Revolution only confirmed the US' liberalism. Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and ordinary people's well-being came from the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a unique people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy. Those sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism. These sentiments are closely tied to republicanism, believing that sovereignty belonged to the people, not a hereditary ruling class.
Economic and social mobility (though lacking its full extent, as we have seen in recent years) is unparalleled. For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries, the United States has been known as the "land of opportunity" and in that sense prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their class and family background. The American frontier allowed individualism to flourish as pioneers adopted democracy and equality and shed centuries-old European institutions such as royalty, standing armies, established churches, and a landed gentry that owned most of the land.
The problem with all of this talk of exceptionalism is the next step is to assume that this entitles us to act as peerless interlopers that do not need to question their moral scruples. 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 particular political interests view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the law of nations. In the context of former US President Barack Obama's comment about American exceptionalism during his September 10, 2013, talk to the American people while considering military action on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Obama.
It is perilous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. American history is so morally flawed because of slavery, civil rights, and social welfare issues that it cannot exemplify virtue. Zinn argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it was not benign, especially in dealing with Native Americans. State fantasies cannot altogether conceal the inconsistencies they mask, showing how such events as the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the exposure of government incompetence after Hurricane Katrina opened fissures in the myth of exceptionalism. Though the United States has been remarkably democratic, politically stable, and free of war on its soil compared to most European countries, there have been significant exceptions, most notably the American Civil War. Even after the abolition of slavery, the federal government ignored the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause concerning African-Americans during the Jim Crow era and concerning women's suffrage until the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. The United States has also sometimes supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments to pursue other objectives, typical economic and anti-communist.
Luckily, our history is still being written. The path we take next does not need to lead to bloodshed or heartbreak. It can be a road to continued growth and prosperity and not at the expense of others.
8:06 The First YMCA
12:10 The Republic of California
18:13 California Gold Rush
25:19 Frontier Gambling
YMCA History: The Founding Years
When California (Briefly) Became Its Own Nation
The California Gold Rush
Gambling on the Frontier in 19th-Century America
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Ryan Lancaster wears many hats. Dive into his website to learn about history, sports, and more!