Essay: What is meant by ‘American Exceptionalism’ and can America maintain the idea of its own exceptionalism in the 21st Century?

American Exceptionalism is the belief that America is in some way unique and special in the world, often in such a way that America is elevated above other nations. It’s a mind-set that originated from the first Puritan settlers which has gone through evolutions of political independence, economic dominance and the conflict of the Cold War. Regardless of the legitimacy of America’s claim to being exceptional, the attitude is well entrenched into the American psyche and will continue to be for the foreseeable future for a plethora of reasons. The primary reason of these is that the term has such elasticity that it can be contorted to support arguments, counter arguments and the political races of any candidate. Hence America can maintain the idea of its own exceptionalism; partly due to the past, which saw it be fortified into American culture, and partly due to the present, where exceptionalism can be seen flowing from all aspects of the American culture, especially politics.

America’s exceptionalism is based in three principals according to Bon Tempo (2011, p.150). The first principal is that they have always had inherent advantages which made them exceptional due to geographical makeup of the country. This was firstly through abundant natural resources, an advantage which meant the country was relatively easy to inhabit in the first instance and secondly provided ample resources to revolutionise during the early 20th century. The second geographical advantage is that America was created an ocean away from the politics of the Europe meaning occupants were absolved from the often barbaric histories (and indeed presents) of European nations giving them some sense of social supremacy. This was a theory which Alexis de Tocqueville developed (Ceaser 2012, p.6-7), making him the first theorist to tie the idea of exceptionalism (although without using the actual word) to tangible features of America. He wrote that the lack of a feudal past meant that America was exceptional, although without specifying for better or worse.

A group who certainly concurred with the idea that America was positively exceptional due to it not being in Europe were some of America’s earliest permanent inhabitants: Puritans. It is the belief of many that the ideals that led Puritans away from Europe were the very same ideals upon which exceptionalism was born. Hilfrich (2012, p.78) is one of these individuals, stating that, “The act of emigration symbolized the desire of successive waves of migrants to leave the Old World behind and to start over, unencumbered by despotism and social strife.”. The religious spin that the Puritans added to this idea of leaving the, “Old World” was that they were searching for “the ““New Zion” in the New World” (Hilfrich, 78, p.78) imparting exceptionalist qualities to America the second they left port from Leiden. America was the “Zion” that would save them from Europe’s shortcomings; elevating it above the land they departed which, lest we forget, was the most advanced part of the world. It was one of these Puritans, John Winthrop, who is credited as the father of American exceptionalism when, aboard the Arabella in 1630, he famously preached that the puritan’s landing spot was, “to be built as “a city upon a hill”” (Deneen, 2012, p. 31). This implication is that America was to be an exemplary beacon of purity; both in religious standards and living quality. America was to be the example: a sentiment which has hugely exceptionalist connotations.

According to Bon Tempo, this “New Zion” / “city upon a hill” mentality feeds into America’s third inherently exceptional trait that the US was uniquely, “virtuous and innocent”, a fact which was born from Puritans and then compounded (and amplified) by America’s struggle for independence. For many, the Civil War and the consequential Declaration of Independence served to solidify the moral superiority Puritans introduced by throwing off the last trace of European influence. The importance of the Civil War is undoubtedly huge in the exceptionalist timeline, as winning control of the nation meant the cultures’ underlying exceptionalist philosophy could then be ratified on a backdrop of defeating Britain. With no monarchy and the establishment of a republic; America was certainly exceptional in historical context, however the importance of the Declaration of Independence transcends the 18th century and remains hugely relevant to exceptionalism today. As Lockhart (2012, p. 160) writes, “governmental structure was designed to preserve the liberty of relatively equal and capable citizens to master their own fates”. The idea of Americans being, “capable” of personal responsibility indicates the exceptionalist idea that American citizens are more responsible than those who require intervention from the state. Lockhart (2012, p.162-163) observes that this laissez-faire mentality was initially fragile but strengthened by his opinion that America has not, comparatively speaking, suffered a sustained crisis. He uses Sweden’s history as a comparative study, noting it is littered with warfare against other European powers. This saw the need for a strong single voice to provide a co-ordinated response and created a precedent that in times of crisis the government would intervene to create a collected social response. This was especially true when the issues at hand could not be addressed by individuals. Although America has faced crises which required a collective social response, such as World War Two and the Great Depression, Lockhart argues the brevity of these issues meant the effects on the government’s structure were far more modest, protecting their exceptional quality of a limited government and “capable” citizens. One could also argue that the comparatively late timing of these events meant that many of the American principals that shaped the formation of a decentralised government were already entrenched into public consciousness. The success of the free market in funding and innovating America’s Second World War effort could even be used as evidence that the war strengthened anti interventionist sentiment, particularly in the economy. Either way, America maintained its limited governance and hence maintained a trait which in their history has indicated they are exceptional.

The significance of the American Constitution was also considered monumental to exceptionalism by Tocqueville who wrote that the protection given to American citizens was unique and an improvement on the European alternative. The successful separation of powers and, more importantly, the use of hierarchical justice ensured the political freedom of citizens, while the Supreme Court could hold both courts and the executive accountable (Hess, 2002, p. 6-8). As Lockhart (2012, p.180) observes, “Avoiding the development of such an executive was facilitated by the tradition—born in American experience with the English monarchy—of s[c]epticism about powerful central authority”. Through this, there was no risk of the tyranny, oppression or political imprisonment; placing America in the upper echelons of liberty.

As the country moved into the post-World War Two era, its economic might driven by free market ideals gave exceptionalism additional traction. Social mobility was promoted heavily as a way to better oneself with the American Dream of white picket fences serving as an enticing image of heaven to the common nuclear family. It was a dream that belonged to America, for the American citizen which could only be achieved under the ‘exceptional’ American system. However, by the 1970s, the most significant challenge exceptionalism arguably ever faced was beginning to take its toll on American exceptionalism. The Vietnam War was a brutally executed and well documented mistake which America was far from familiar with. Early in the conflict, the media’s reporting was simply a case of adding to the narrative of America vs the USSR, a dialect which significantly played off and into the idea of exceptionalism: America’s free trading democratic ideas were challenged by the red threat of communism, clearly both legitimising and encouraging America’s conflict with Russia. Vietnam in the early 60s was simply a part of this storyline of good vs evil for most Americans (Hallin, 1986, p. 9). However as the war grew in infamy it began to take on an identity of its own away from the communism vs America backdrop. War photographers such as Eddie Adams began capturing the gritty realism of the frontline while images of Americans utilising their massive firepower against often innocent individuals undermined the idea that America were the ‘good guys’ in the conflict. Reports of the My Lai massacre for example severely damaged the reputation of America with the American press began to work more independently of the government’s attempts to direct the narrative (Hammond, 1998, 102). This kind of press freedom began to set a precedent that would eventually lead to the breaking of Watergate, the Lewinsky Affair and indeed the Gulf of Tonkin Incident all of which went a significant way to harming America’s idea of itself.

Following the failures of Vietnam sociologist Daniel Bell (1975, p. 212) declared the end of American exceptionalism.

The simple point is that God’s gift of insulated space has disappeared. The United States is no longer immune to the kind of “mobilization polities” that has been characteristic of Europe in the past and of almost every other country in the world today. Mobilization politics, by its very nature, organizes direct mass pressure on a political center.
He goes on to write that issues such as Vietnam become so divisive that the American public would become hugely partisan leading to “extra-legal” protest (Bell, 1975, 220) which would ultimately lead to distrust in the system and the fall of the perception of America as an exceptional nation. However, Hallin (1998, p. 208-210) theorised that although the actions taken by soldiers within the war were questioned, the underlying cause of the conflict was rarely critically probed. He writes that, for example, the word ‘imperialism’ was not mentioned in the media while journalists were quick to defend America’s right to defend democracy. In essence the actions in Vietnam were certainly deplorable; however exceptionalism survived throughout the conflict as exceptionalist thought dictated America was ultimately doing the right thing by invading. The survival of exceptionalism through the terrible images of the Vietnam War was a great testament to how deeply rooted exceptionalism had become by this point.

Watergate and Vietnam certainly dented exceptionalism; however in the 80s Ronald Reagan’s presidency saw exceptionalist thought renewed and restored. Not only was he the figurehead of America’s final push to win the Cold War, but his incredible rise to the presidency via Hollywood made him uniquely qualified to deliver rousing addresses. His farewell address, which was in a similar vein to those he made while in power, referenced the shining city metaphor made by Winthrop (American Rhetoric, 2001)

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.

For Reagan to take central stage and reaffirm American exceptionalism went a long way to ensuring it was at the forefront of culture while also ensuring setting (or perhaps reaffirming) the precedent that exceptionalism wins hearts. Politicians such as Newt Gingrich have since attempted to utilise such rhetoric in both political campaigns and simply to boost his image with the 2012 GOP candidate hosting a DVD called ‘A City Upon a Hill: The spirit of American Exceptionalism’ (Citizens United, 2011). The central importance of Winthrop’s’ quote in particular has kept exceptionalism not only blatantly apparent but also handled with a historical reverence adding to the mentalities prestige.

In contemporary America the issues that exceptionalism encounters are the same faced by every political candidate. Hot topics such as America’s role in the world, the issue of immigration and healthcare are all breeding grounds for exceptionalist thought, however of all of these Hilfrich (2012, p.11) settles that imperialism is the most interesting. He argues that In essence, the question of whether the US is exceptional (the perceived answer to which dictates the health of exceptionalist thought) is also central to the question of imperialism as the debate about imperialism is, in Hilrich’s opinion, the question of what it is to be American. These three aspects: exceptionalism, being American and how to handle foreign policy decisions, are essentially in a symbiotic relationship. The consensus is consistent though: exceptionalism “bestowed an international mission – however defined – upon the country” (Hilfrich, 2012, p.11) or as Lundestad (1989, p.533) put it, “While other states had interests, the United States had responsibilities. Its prime mission was nothing less than to save the world”. Hilfrich explains that exceptionalism’s place in the debates is not to cause partisan disagreement, but instead to provide a constant, therefore ensuring the mentality’s proliferation.

While imperialists claimed that being unique endowed the United States with a special right to actively proselytize in the name of democracy, their opponents insisted that exceptionalism bestowed a duty to refrain from aggressive behavior in the international arena. Democracy, they maintained, would be more appropriately spread by passive example” (Hilfrich, 2012, p.2)

In other words, the breadth of the foreign policy debate and the diametrically opposing strategies of how to approach foreign policy share the same discourse that America is exceptional. Suggesting a policy outside of this framework has not been attempted as such an action could be seen as un-American. To be exceptionalist is to be American, and when it comes to foreign policy this means correcting the world. The extraordinary elasticity with which exceptionalism can be deployed in the imperialism debate ensures it remains both an agreed and relevant topic, and hence it’s longevity for years to come (Hilfrich, 2012, p.13).

In terms of practical examples, The Philippine- American war at the turn of the 20th Century perfectly encapsulated America’s exceptionalist driven imperialist foreign policy at the time. As Hilfrich (2012, p.81) describes, although the Filipinos had not asked for American intervention, their resistance was seen by exceptionalist thinking as an obstruction to the global progress of democracy; a mission bestowed upon America by exceptionalism. This was imperialism with American exceptionalist pretence, with soldiers not there “to make war but to carry peace” (Hilfrich, 2012, p.89). This in turn compounded the exceptionalist ideology when the civilised Americans were successful in democratising the ‘barbaric’ Filipinos and bringing them to America’s standards. America had to spread democracy and so they had the right to spread democracy and those who resisted this spread had to be forcibly convinced otherwise.
Conversely one could equally revert back to Winthrop’s idea of the “city upon a hill” to justify non-intervention. Given that Withrop feels, “the eyes of all people are upon [them]”, America’s role is as a “shining example” (Beardsley, 1997). Winthrop goes on to explain the power of America descends from doing God’s work and hence any actions which could offend God (i.e. military intervention), risks losing what makes them exceptional. Replacing religion’s role in Winthrop’s thesis with the idea of liberty and democracy provides an isolation favouring exceptionalist with a clear purpose for America: to be an exemplary democracy which other nations wish to emulate. This negates intervention as not only superfluous but also a risk to the image of America as a perfect democracy. It is worth noting though that Winthrop’s avocation of isolationism is a theory that lost credibility with the growth of globalisation, however the principal still remains relevant.
Bon Tempo (2011, p.148) observed that the immigration debate was equally elastic in its treatment of exceptionalism. He appears to subscribe to the idea that debating what is the right policy on immigration is to debate what it is to be American, in much the same way as Hilfrich feels about imperialism.
Both immigration advocates (called “liberalizers”) and immigration opponents (referred to as “restrictionists”) endorsed a historical narrative that emphasized the United States’ exceptional place in the world. Both camps agreed that the country’s political values – equality, liberty, freedom – and its democratic and republican political institutions made the United States unique. Likewise, restrictionists and liberalizers believed the nation’s singularity derived from capitalist, free-market economic development that produced an unrivalled bounty shared by large numbers of Americans.
He goes on to write that America’s exceptionalist thought leads to a conflict of interests based on what is the best discourse to optimise America’s ability to be the “city upon a hill”. This can be reduced to two opposing arguments. The first is that it is best for America to be open armed to immigrants, allowing them to share in the wealth that America and appearing to be assistive to those who need them. The opposing argument is that by allowing immigrants (either at all or excessively) risks polluting or over extending the currently system causing America to appear un-exceptional. Either way, both sides operate from an understanding that America is exceptional and once again it is clear that exceptionalist thought will continue being an element of American diatribe while debates occur.

In conclusion, exceptionalism is a deep rooted mentality stemming back from America’s earliest immigrants. In many ways, exceptionalism forms a huge part of America’s history and perhaps this is the reason it has been taken as a definite for so long: patriotism and exceptionalism are the same things in America, as they are maintained and supported by the same historical evidence as shown here. As for the future; exceptionalist thought will continue to be a prevalent feature of the United States’ political system as it has no de facto implications beyond the universally agreed idea that America is exceptional. This elasticity means every policy can fit the template, every argument against every policy can fit the template and hence every political victory will be framed in such a way that it will contribute to the culture of exceptionalism. Conversely if anyone chooses to buck the trend, they will be faced with constituents who have been taught exceptionalism is right and will hence have to play the bad-guy in convincing them America is un-exceptional, and that they, by proxy, are equally un-exceptional. It’s a campaign that no Republican or Democrat would ever run and hence it’s an idea that won’t permeate mainstream politics (or indeed American culture) in the foreseeable future. Instead; the debates which will shape the next election cycle such as immigration and America’s role in the world will emphasize and celebrate exceptionalism in an attempt to win votes and the presidency of a truly ‘exceptional’ country.


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