American exceptionalism in perspective


I first came across the phrase “American exceptionalism” when I studied American history in college in the 1950s.  It referred to a historical fact—that the United States had taken a different direction than most other countries of the Western world.

I think that the United States is exceptional in some ways that are good, which I have written about in previous posts.

I think there are ways in which the United States once was exceptional and no longer is, either because we have changed or the rest of the world has changed.   Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as “the last, best hope of earth” because, in his time, the USA was the only broadly-based democracy [1] in the world, and the survival of the Union was regarded as a test case as to whether democracy was a viable form of government.  This is no longer true.  Democracy now has many homes, not just one.

Unfortunately the United States is an outlier in bad ways as well as good.  We Americans pay more for medical care and have worse health than the people of any other advanced nation.  We are exceptional in the number of deaths by violent crime, in lack of knowledge of foreign languages and in our government’s willingness to go to war.\.

Nowadays some Americans speak of having “faith” in American exceptionalism, as if it were a religious doctrine or a definition of patriotism.   For me, love of country is like love of family.  I love my country because it is mine, not because other countries are unworthy of being loved by their patriots.

Many foreigners take the phrase “American exceptionalism” to mean that Americans arrogantly deny that we are bound by the same laws and moral rules as other peoples’.  Unfortunately this is all-too-true, and it is a way in which we are not exceptional at all.  The arrogance of power is common to all powerful nations in all periods of history.

If we Americans think of ourselves as exceptionally dedicated to the cause of human liberty, this does not exempt us from the standards of law and morality that government other nations.  Rather it obligates us to live up to a high standard regardless of what other peoples do.


American exceptionalism: Capitalism as freedom.

American exceptionalism: Loyalty to a Constitution. A good way in which the United States is exceptional.

American exceptionalism: Church and state. A good way in which the United States is exceptional.

We Asked a Military Expert If All the World’s Armies Could Shut Down the United States by Oscar Rickett for Vice magazine.   The answer was “no.”

Why the U.S. Is So Good at Turning Immigrants Into Americans by Jason DeParle for the Atlantic Monthly.  A good way in which America is exceptional.

15 Ways The United States Is the Best (At Being the Worst) by Maxwell Strachan, Alissa Scheller and Jan Diehm for the Huffington Post.

Top 10 Ways the United States Is the Most Corrupt Country in the World by Juan Cole on Informed Comment.

Look at the Stats: America Resembles a Poor Country by C.J. Werleman for AlterNet.


Historical Roots

American Exceptionalisms by Richard Gamble the American Conservative.  Reflections on the Founders’ ideas of American exceptionalism.

The Real Meaning of American Exceptionalism by Cass Sunstein for the Washington Monthly.  More reflections on the Founders ideas.

The Unlikely History of American Exceptionalism by Walter A. MacDougal for the American Interest.  The phrase “American exceptionalism” was coined by 19th century Roman Catholics and 20th century Soviet Communists to designate the heresy that their ideologies did not apply to the United States.

Pride Goes before a Fall.

The Moralization of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Levine for Counterpunch.

Does American Exceptionalism Foster American Decline? by Mugambi Jouet for TruthOut.

[1]  Some contemporary Americans belittle our forebears because the franchise in Lincoln’s day was limited to white males.  But this was much broader than existed in Britain, France or any European country of the day.  The United States was a leader in extending the franchise to property-less men and to women.  Our shameful record in denying voting and other rights to black Americans is another matter.


3 Responses to “American exceptionalism in perspective”

  1. whungerford Says:

    Whatever its historical roots, when I hear the phrase nowadays it usually is as an excuse for unreasonable or uncivilized behavior. .


  2. Bill Frampton Says:

    We foreigners have excellent reason to associate the phrase “American exceptionalism” with arrogance. Indeed, your founders themselves gave us more than enough reason to make that association.

    In 1774 representatives of most of the British colonies in America convened a so-called “Continental Congress” when they didn’t even represent all of BRITISH America, let alone the whole continent of America. America existed before the United States came into existence and included not just British America but also Spanish, Portuguese and French America ― and there were 19 colonies in British America, not just 13. If that were not the case, the title of Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 work The Rights of British America would be nonsense.

    According to both logic and the Oxford English Dictionary ( America means the whole land mass that both North and South America are part of, so the United States ― along with every other country in both North and South America ― is one of 35 countries in America. This definition is consistent with other western languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and German and with the etymology of the word in all languages. In dozens of languages the words América, Amérique, America, Amerika, etc. ALL refer to North and South America together as a continent, as the Wikipedia entries for America in those languages make clear. In the 18th century the idea that there were two continents in America barely even existed.

    Those men then went on to arrogate ― take or claim something for oneself without justification ― the words America and American to themselves alone. The arrogance of this is clear when one recalls that neither Columbus nor Amerigo Vespucci ever laid eyes on the territory of the United States but instead sailed to South America, the Caribbean islands and Central America. The idea that America is a place which neither man ever laid eyes on but excludes the places they did sail to is clearly arrogant ― and an insult to those of us who live in the other 34 countries in America. It’s not only arrogant but absurd too: if North Africa is in Africa and South Asia in Asia, then consistency demands that North America and South America are both in America. A cannot be in North A.

    It’s likely that this arrogation is a major reason for the rise of Spanish in the US. In the minds of Hispanic immigrants there, they didn’t become American when they moved to the US and won’t by becoming citizens either, because in their minds they ALWAYS WERE American. The reason is that in Spanish, América does not mean the United States; instead it means the continent comprising North, Central and South America together. Likewise, americano is not a nationality but a CONTINENTAL identity, and the same is true in Portuguese too.

    These languages ALL have other words that mean “relating to the United States”: estadounidense in Spanish, estadunidense in Portuguese, états-unien in French, statunitense in Italian and US-Amerikaner in German. These are not neologisms, but official words accepted by the governing bodies of these languages. By governing bodies I mean official organizations such as l’Académie Française, Real Academia Española, Academia das Ciências de Lisboa, etc. ― those languages aren’t plagued by same the anarchism which exists in English. These entities decide officially what is (and is not) proper French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., and they’ve said officially (and properly) that Amérique, América, etc. mean a continent rather than a country.

    English also has two words equivalent to estadounidense: Usonia and Usonian, coined more than 100 years ago by James Duff Law, a U.S. citizen who saw the habit of arrogating the word America to mean the United States as the wrong that it clearly is. Law wrote, “We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines Usonian “as relating to the United States”. Frank Lloyd Wright thought Usonia a good name for the United States.

    If Usonians want to be better liked and accepted around the world, dropping your arrogant and absurd claim that America means your country rather than the continent which 35 countries share and adopting Usonia and Usonian would a good place to start. Until then those Hispanic immigrants in the US are right to reject English and stick to Spanish.


  3. philebersole Says:

    I accept that citizens of other countries, and not just those in the Western Hemisphere, have just grievances against the USA. I don’t think we US Americans would change this by changing the nomenclature we use for ourselves.

    During France’s Algerian War, the late Albert Camus wrote that he would like to be able to love his country without ceasing to love justice. He also wrote that he did not accept that France was the one evil nation in a world of holy and good nations. I feel much the same way about my own country.

    The good and the bad in US history stems partly from our claim to be a nation based not on race or ethnicity, but on universal principles. This has given us a standard by which to judge ourselves and for others to judge us, which was the basis of the movements to abolish slavery, end Jim Crow and enact other social reforms.

    It also has fostered the delusion that we intrinsically embody these principles and others don’t, which provided a rationalization for the disastrous US military and foreign policy of the past 15 years.

    Even so, I think American-style constitutional patriotism (on which we US Americans have no monopoly) is a good alternative to 19th century European blood and soil nationalism. People (including Spanish-speaking immigrants) are free to retain as much as they choose of their ancestral heritage while participating in the broader culture.


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