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American Exceptionalisms

In 1765, John Adams unwittingly penned one of the proof texts of American exceptionalism. “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder,” the young lawyer wrote in his diary, “as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”

This one sentence sums up what we have come to assume is America’s calling: to be a beacon to the world and a liberator on a mission of universal redemption. This was heady stuff for 18th-century colonists with the chutzpah to resist the British Empire. Perhaps such a powerful meta-narrative helped them triumph over impossible odds.

But the simple story of the American identity gets complicated when we discover that Adams edited out these musings when he extended his thoughts a short time later for publication as his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law. When his son John Quincy came upon the excised words, he regretted the omission and exclaimed, “Who does not now see that the accomplishment of this great object is already placed beyond all possibility of failure?” Charles Francis Adams in 1851 called his grandfather’s sentiments “the most deserving of any to be remembered.” If John Adams had reservations about American exceptionalism—and he did—later generations got over them.

Today, the United States owes more to the hubristic exceptionalism of Adams’s descendants than to anything bequeathed to us by the Founders of the republic. Hardly a trace of humility survives among the boasts of collective excellence we encounter with numbing predictability from neoconservatives and their allies. Dissidents find themselves in the crosshairs as apostates from the American civil religion.

The speed with which this neo-orthodoxy has been fastened onto the popular mind is astonishing. In America by Heart, Sarah Palin’s 2010 “reflections on family, faith, and flag” (as the subtitle promises), the former Republican vice presidential candidate used the word “exceptional” 20 times, the word “exceptionalism” 14 times, and devoted all of chapter three to “America the Exceptional.” Palin’s preoccupation with this idea is remarkable in contrast to her 2009 memoir, Going Rogue. There she—or ghostwriter Lynn Vincent—didn’t use the word once. In the year between these books, “exceptionalism” became central to the GOP’s marketing campaign. “There is a depressing predictability to conversations about America these days,” Palin complained. Indeed there is.

In Palin’s chapter on “America the Exceptional,” she quoted Barack Obama’s now-infamous answer to a question posed by Financial Times reporter Ed Luce at a televised press conference in Strasbourg held in conjunction with the 2009 NATO summit. The former Alaska governor complained that the president said “that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way ‘the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.’”

Obama’s artful equivocation struck Palin as saying that no one is special if everyone is special. By relativizing America’s sense of itself, she charged, the president stood apart from an enduring tradition that united patriotic Democrats and Republicans into a single vision of the Redeemer Nation. But context matters. Here is the rest of what Obama told reporters in Strasbourg:

I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

At one level, Obama endorsed American exceptionalism. At another, he finessed exceptionalism with a postmodern flair that rendered his words anything but an affirmation of America’s uniqueness. And the backstory of his comments reveals the charade going on at the nexus between the media, presidential rhetoric, and America’s increasingly politicized image.

In an online post on April 4, 2009, Time White House correspondent Michael Scherer wrote that “[Obama’s] answer was fascinating to me.” He detected a telling contrast between the new president and his predecessors in the Oval Office. “While in the past the idea that America was exceptional, the shining city on a hill, was evoked as an objective description, a fact, a prediction and a course by which the ship of state could be sailed, Obama used the phrase, by contrast, in a more subjective, self-aware way, acknowledging that the fact that he held this belief was not so, well, exceptional.”

Yet it turns out that Scherer was the one who wrote the question in the first place and fed it Luce, who admitted this in a tweet on June 14, 2012. The C-SPAN video of the news conference clearly shows the president working from a prepared list of questioners. The pretense here is breathtaking. A reporter writes a question, gives it to a colleague, who is then chosen to ask the question, and does so, after which the first reporter writes a glowing editorial praising the cleverness of the answer. One can’t help wondering if the president saw the question ahead of time and if the answer was scripted.

This staged contrast in 2009 between Obama and his recent predecessors masks a deeper division in American history between two incompatible exceptionalisms, what we might call the “old” exceptionalism and the “new.” On this view, Obama and Mitt Romney do not speak from separate traditions but from within the same ideological construction of the purpose-driven nation. Both speak for the new exceptionalism and sound like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But we need not remain trapped in Alice’s looking glass. The necessary resources are still there in our history for conservatives to articulate a compelling alternative. We might forego the word “exceptionalism” as damaged beyond repair by ideologues, but we need not reject all notions of America’s differences. There is a reason why ordinary Americans respond to these ideas.

 

One place to turn is the work of William Graham Sumner. More than a hundred years ago the Yale sociologist noticed the damage being done to the old exceptionalism. His classic 1899 speech “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” affirms the old exceptionalism in a way that might prove useful in combatting the new exceptionalism that bolsters nationalism and imperialism while undermining what’s left of federalism.

Sumner deftly captured his thesis in his title. America had militarily defeated Spain on land and sea. But with that victory the United States had been conquered by the old European lust for empire. By its adventures in the Pacific and the Caribbean in the Spanish-American War, the U.S. was not venturing on something new but on something very old and even un-American. The old imperialism gave birth to the new exceptionalism.

“The point which I have tried to make in this lecture,” Sumner emphasized, “is that expansion and imperialism are at war with the best traditions, principles and interests of the American people, and they will plunge us into a network of difficult problems and political perils, which we might have avoided, while they offer us no corresponding advantage in return.”

There is much in Sumner’s long speech of contemporary relevance. His indictment of President William McKinley could apply as easily to Bush or Obama. “A statesman,” he said, “could not be expected to know in advance that we should come out of the war with the Philippines on our hands, but it belongs to his education to warn him that a policy of adventure and of gratuitous enterprise would be sure to entail embarrassments of some kind.”

Sumner believed that the plunge into war and territorial expansion pointed first and foremost to a failure of statesmanship, the craven use of foreign policy to wage domestic party warfare, the “truckling to popularity” at the expense of “moral courage.” But he knew that we cannot simply blame our leaders. A dangerous public appetite for spectacle and pomp made cynical political exploitation of imperialism possible.

“The thirst for glory,” he said, “is an epidemic which robs a people of their judgment, seduces their vanity, cheats them of their interests, and corrupts their conscience.” (Sumner was no “national greatness” conservative.) “My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit bankrupt old state like Spain.”

When Sumner came to the question of what set America apart from other nations, he debunked the most popular and superficial conception of exceptionalism and looked at history to ground America’s identity in something more substantial. Sumner first noted the irony that by claiming it had a unique civilizing mission to perform, America sounded just like every other major power at the end of the 19th century.

“There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” he remarked. The English, French, Germans, Russians, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish said the same. “Now each nation laughs at all the others when it observes these manifestations of national vanity. You may rely upon it that they are all ridiculous by virtue of these pretensions, including ourselves.” America’s divine mission was emphatically not what set it apart in history. This kind of exceptionalism placed the U.S. on a crowded stage.

Sumner also feared that the new exceptionalism—the belief that Americans were somehow secure from changing circumstances, immune to limits on power and resources, and exempt from the impact of war and empire on free institutions—had seduced the public into believing that their prosperity, liberty, and security were inevitable blessings accruing to a special people, rather than the fragile products of abundant land, a small population, and benign neighbors. Once these circumstances changed, Americans would discover that “liberty and democracy” required hard work to sustain.

“People say that this country is like no other; that its prosperity proves its exceptionality, and so on,” he cautioned. “These are popular errors which in time will meet with harsh correction.”

Sumner’s realism enabled him to put aside messianic and chosen-nation delusions and ground America’s uniqueness in something far more valuable for a free and self-governing people—the historically rare creation of a federal republic. In an 1896 essay, “The Fallacy of Territorial Extension,” he had already addressed this point. Americans in the late 18th century had seized the opportunity handed to them by history and geography to build a system that escaped Europe’s errors: “This confederated state of ours,” Sumner claimed,

was never planned for indefinite expansion or for an imperial policy. … The fathers of the republic planned a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths, shielded by their geographical position from the jealousies, rivalries, and traditional policies of the Old World and bringing all the resources of civilization to bear for the domestic happiness of the population only. They meant to have no grand state-craft or ‘high politics,’ no ‘balance of power’ or ‘reasons of state,’ which have cost the human race so much.

This claim takes on even more significance when we recall that America had been through a bloody war of national unification in the 1860s, yet Sumner was still able to say that the United States was not a unitary nation-state on the model of the Old World, but rather “a confederated state of a very peculiar and artificial form. It is not a state like the states of Europe, with the exception of Switzerland.”

In the speech’s closing section, Sumner repeatedly used the words “no,” “not,” and “never.” This makes sense if authentic exceptionalism is more about what America doesn’t do than what it does, more about national self-restraint than national self-assertion. The early republic dreamed of a land, he said, with

no manors, no barons, no ranks, no prelates, no idle classes, no paupers, no disinherited ones except the vicious. There would be no armies except a militia, which would have no functions but those of police. They would have no court and no pomp; no orders, or ribbons, or decorations or titles. They would have no public debt. They repudiated with scorn the notion that a public debt is a public blessing. If debt was incurred in war it was to be paid in peace and not entailed on posterity. There was to be no grand diplomacy, because they intended to mind their own business, and not be involved in any of the intrigues to which European statesmen were accustomed.

 

Sumner did not offer nostalgia, and no statesman should do so today. What had been possible at the Founding may no longer be possible: “We know that, as time has gone on, and we have grown numerous and rich, some of these things have proved impossible ideals, incompatible with a large and flourishing society, but it is by virtue of this conception of a commonwealth that the United States has stood for something grand in the history of mankind, and that its people have been happy.”

The shift from the old exceptionalism to the new did not happen all at once. The examples of John Quincy Adams and his son Charles show that the old and the new have existed for a long time, perhaps since our beginning as a people. There were new exceptionalists among the old and there remain old exceptionalists among the new. But where the old once predominated in how Americans thought about where they came from, who they are, and how they ought to relate to the rest of the world, now the new does. William Graham Sumner believed he witnessed the tipping point in 1898, when, to use Walter McDougall’s image, the U.S. turned from Promised Land to Crusader State.

The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world.

The task is not to recapture a Golden Age of American exceptionalism from a distant epoch when we got it all exactly right. The challenge is to articulate a healthy exceptionalism that is true to our history, traditions, principles, and institutions, that helps sustain a constitutional republic of limited powers.

[1]With apologies to C.S. Lewis, we might call the old exceptionalism our republic’s “discarded image.” That picture of American exceptionalism showed that empires were incompatible with republics; that wars and colonies were expensive indulgences that led to high taxes, excessive borrowing, and perilous debt; that empire did something to the soul of a virtuous people and not just to its pocketbook; that statesmanship required self-restraint and placing the good of one’s people above personal and party ambition; that one should demand of one’s nation what one demanded of one’s own character and no less—namely, that a nation ought to cultivate a reputation for integrity, frugality, keeping its word, fair-dealing, and courage.

In 1814, half a century after the publication of his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law, John Adams wrote to his Southern adversary John Taylor of Caroline. In the course of defending his constitutional principles, Adams issued a warning that the new exceptionalists will never quote, let alone heed: “We may boast that we are the chosen people; we may even thank God that we are not like other men; but, after all, it will be but flattery, and the delusion, the self-deceit of the Pharisee.”

A people, as surely as an individual, cannot stand in the presence of the world and congratulate itself on its unassailable virtue without leading itself into moral blindness and earning the contempt of others. Nothing about the American achievement is “placed beyond all possibility of failure,” as John Quincy Adams boasted. It would be fatal for a republic to entertain such presumption. There is nothing inevitable about our future, and no facile talk about exceptionalism will make it so. A history and a tradition—an authentic, fully American history and tradition—is available to us, but only if we turn away from the myths of the new exceptionalism.

Richard Gamble is the author of In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth [2].

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "American Exceptionalisms"

#1 Comment By Robert Pinkerton On September 4, 2012 @ 8:55 am

These many decades ago when I was a child, my father, a mustang Officer, told me that the true exceptionalism of America was that the privileges of Nobility and “aristocracy” of the old world, were the ordionary civil rights of common equal citizens.

#2 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On September 4, 2012 @ 9:59 am

it may be cheating for a secular humanist to cite the Bible; but I am reminded of something about “…pride cometh before the fall…” it is one thing to reflect on American History, the Constitution, and the Republic itself; and note ‘exceptional’ moments or features. it is an entirely other thing to ‘brand’ or trademark the phrase American exceptionalism is a calculated, cynical, and almost delusional attempt to attain and project power (see: Palin). as with the “you didn’t build that” and the neo-right’s obsession with the bin Laden raid; there is fact and there is fiction.

#3 Comment By JD Salyer On September 4, 2012 @ 10:43 am

A fascinating and provocative article.

As hesitant as I am about disagreeing with someone of Professor Gamble’s erudition, I think the problem may lie deeper than old vs new exceptionalism. It seems to me that the moment Americans start talking of the enlightened and superior “New World” then they have already decided they have nothing to learn from their European roots (aside maybe from the mistakes) and have committed themselves to jettisoning the collective wisdom of the West.

#4 Comment By Andrew On September 4, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

What a superb piece!!!

The fathers of the republic planned a confederation of free and peaceful industrial commonwealths, shielded by their geographical position from the jealousies, rivalries, and traditional policies of the Old World and bringing all the resources of civilization to bear for the domestic happiness of the population only.

This quote from Summner sums it extremely well. A national “doctrine” (and mythology) could be anything (including new Exceptionalism) but until it was tried by means of war on the nation and created a shared historical experience, and that implies continental warfare, it remains just that–a doctrine, a set of the views. The militancy of American New Exceptionalism, in large degree, derives from what is highlighted in bold in Summner’s quote. Contemporary calls for re-institution of the Draft, however misplaced, share the same rationale–that broader participation of the nation in own wars may arrest (this is highly debatable, of course) the aggression.

Back to article, again–an outstanding piece!!!

#5 Comment By Luke Daxon On September 4, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

Ahh…the ever quotable Sarah. I can’t help but recall her comment a couple of years ago which neatly dismissed the hundreds of thousands of years of human history before 1776:

“We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.”

#6 Comment By Richard S On September 4, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

Henry Adams, of course, helped Spain’s colonists organize against Spain, but he was angry with the U.S. for holding territory as an imperial power. American principles suggested support for independence movements, (at least in some ways) but not conquest.

All the Adamses also held that the U.S. was a nation built upon social compact. That set it apart from nations constructed by history–which was most of them.

That did not mean that Americans were less liable to sin than others, however. That’s what John Adams meant when he said “there is no special providence for America.” The same forces were at work on human nature in America as in Europe. And the same forces were at work on human nature in ancient Israel as in modern America–that’s what Adams meant. He was, after all, a firm believer in the idea that human nature had no history.

Of course, in the Bible, God’s chosen people are punnished when they sin. Being chosen might not mean being better.

#7 Comment By Paul Craig Roberts On September 5, 2012 @ 8:14 am

The US is exceptional only in the evil and deceit of its government.

#8 Comment By An Anachronistic Apostle On September 5, 2012 @ 8:55 am

“We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.” — Mrs. Palin

America collectively invented the wheel?

That said, the article is magnificent in its righteous meekness and penetrating insight, which is why it will collect, maybe, about a dozen or fewer comments in a week. Sumner speaks of mere militias (as police), a civil solvency, and the minding of one’s own business; and the article’s author seems importantly and accurately aware of Luke 18, without blushing or hemming or hawing, if perhaps only by way of Mr. Adams to Mr. Taylor.

How did this get into today’s TAC?

#9 Comment By JDonald On September 5, 2012 @ 11:42 am

Americans are exceptional in their love for guns and the number of lethal shootings that they tolerate each year.
Americans are exceptional in their telling of their economic success without informing their people of the $160,000 debt per family that they have run up.
Americans are exceptional in their belief that poor health and disease is a fair game for profiteering.
Americans are exceptional in their intolerance for any systme of government that does not emulate theirs.

Americans are surely exceptional. i could go on.

#10 Comment By jeff_davis On September 5, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

When “American Exceptionalism” started coming out of the mouths of both Democrat and Republican politicians, I new something was up. It didn’t take much thought to figure it out.

Citizens generally identify with “their” country. This primitive cleaving to the tribe manifest as an emotional attachment and loyalty. Here is the source of nationalism. Us vs them, with “us” good and true, and “them” bad and false. From there one proceeds effortlessly to “we/us” are better than “them”. Being better than anyone else, leads straightaway to telling others how they should live, then to telling them how they must live, and then going to war with them when they have the audacity assert their right to choose to live in their own way.

It is to state the obvious to say that politicians exploit the primitive feral power of this tribalism –“God bless the United States!” What is not so obvious is when the notion of American exceptionalism — as grounded in the real benefits of American social and political innovation — is hijacked and used as cover for the toxic tribal attitude of “were better than everyone else”. Then the politicians are coerced into supporting militaristic imperial adventurism, because neither side of the political divide will risk explaining why they don’t believe in (the corrupted form of) American Exceptionalism.

The political elite are astonishingly craven and cowardly. We’re all doomed! Doomed, I say.

#11 Comment By Vojkan On September 5, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

A really great article. I used to detest Americans. But I have come to realise that America has been hijacked by people without obedience, values, principles or morality. Vanity and greed are the two worst sins. Because they are the most murderous sins. And empires are all about vanity and greed.

#12 Comment By Wesley On September 5, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

Wasn’t Manifest Destiny expansionism and imperialism? Just because it only concerned expansion and domination over the North American continent shouldn’t make a difference. But as far as we know from his speech, Mr. Sumner didn’t oppose Manifest Destiny. The same went with most other anti-imperialists in the United States. It was only natural that the United States became an imperialistic power since we grew out of 13 colonies and our Mother Country developed an empire in which the sun never set. It was therefore logical for the United States to succeed the British Empire as the world’s greatest power after World War II.

#13 Comment By peter terminello On September 6, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

America has the greatest ideals in the world, but too many in both major parties forget what our founding was about. It was a new beginning against tyrants of the world. The main tyrant for America was Britain. After the Revolution, the British wanted revenge so they bribed natives to attack American settlements with British troops and murder innocent people. The took sailors off U.S. ships and forced them to serve the British Navy. They harrassed U.S. Commerce then they came to Washington and burned our capitol. They had no respect for us then and only use us today and the fools in power fall for their sham friendship. The commemoration of the War of 1812 is coming up and we should remember what the British did to us. We don’t need the British example of Empire, we need to set the example that tyrants need to be brought down just as we did 2 centuries ago. It would be fitting to burn Buckingham Palace to the ground in an act of simple justice.

#14 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 4, 2013 @ 10:59 am

In my opinion the keys to American exceptionalism are or were:

Calvinism, which kicked away the remaining remnants of the Feudal World

Agricultural productivity and distribution best in the World

Individual land ownership

High wages

Bill of Rights

Rule of Law

#15 Comment By Richard W. Bray On July 4, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

President Obama made a great show of praising and carrying around Robert Kagan’s book The World America Made for a reason. He does everything for a reason. He’s a very shrewd man.

Last word to Kurt Vonnegut:

* I was taught in the sixth grade that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks.*

#16 Comment By Tim D. On July 4, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

Americans had an appetite for natural wealth long before the Spanish-American War. Concepts such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘the White Man’s Burden’ were evident long before the 20th century, and indeed even before the founding of the nation.

When the US was still various colonies, settlers looked towards the West and viewed anyone as ‘non-white’, and to a lesser extent, ‘non-rich’, as fair game for exploitation. To deny this trend is to deny why events like the War of 1812 and the Mexican War occurred.

#17 Comment By Stephen Gould On July 4, 2013 @ 10:36 pm

It is the great irony of the term “American exceptionalism” that those who made/make America exceptional are not the same people as those who cry it – and in many cases, would soundly disagree with them.

#18 Comment By Bill Jones On July 3, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

American Exceptionalism is the fact that Americans are more terrified of anything, any where, than anybody any time.

#19 Comment By David Naas On July 4, 2014 @ 11:33 am

Yes, we have held as an ideal the shining city on a hill. Not that we already have achieved, but that we might become.

Americas exceptionalism has always been that, underlying our race for land or money or power (not unlike other nations), is the pursuit of Virtue.

That we have not succeeded, and this fact pointed out by carping critics is beside the point. If we had not such a goal, they would have nothing to criticize.

#20 Comment By Niels Hoogeveen On July 4, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

An interesting subject for 4th of July.

I think the idea of American exceptionalism is all too often interpreted in a static way.

There are points in history where the United States were exceptional in many respects.

Upon its founding many of its citizens had rights few other people in this world had.

After the Second World War, the United State had exceptionally many factories still running and an exceptional opportunity to expands its technological skills.

However, the world is not static.

Nowadays, citizens of many countries have rights and freedoms that measure up to those American citizens have, ironically this is even true for some monarchies.

Many countries have caught up with the US in technological abilities and economic participation around the globe.

Militarily, the US is still exceptionally strong. Its projection of power may be helpful to this world, but its interventions have become less successful over the decades and are greeted with less sympathy around the globe.

No country can forever be exceptional, just like no person can be forever exceptional.

Right now we may say Usain Bolt is an exceptional athlete, being the fastest sprinter in the world.

Ten years from now Usain Bolt will no longer be an exceptional athlete. By then he will be retired and it is not unlikely others will have come along beating his fastest times.

Upon his death (hopefully many decades from now), people will say Usain Bolt was an exceptional athelete, strictly speaking in the past tense, referring to what once was.

Of course, there is always room for an exceptional role in this world for the US, but it doesn’t come from looking backwards.

Upon its inception the United States embraced the modernity of its time. Even during the 1950s, Americans dreamed futuristic dreams.

Nowadays I see many Americans look at the past. Some look at the Guilded Age as an example of an era before regulation became common place, others look at the 1960s when America had a large middle class doing economically well, and upward mobility was almost a given.

I see many Americans long back to a state of exceptionalism, but I see little movement towards a renewed state of exceptionalism, one where pride in ones country is based on achievement instead of nostalgia.

#21 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On July 4, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

The word “imperialism” can be very elastic, depending upon whose ox is being gored. And imperialism in America may have a lineage that dates back well prior to the Spanish-American War. Starting around the 16th century or so Russia begain looking east across The Urals—and eventually conquered. Fast forward two centuries or so later. America began looking west across The Appalachians–and eventually conquered (the Proclamation of 1763 be damned) We call the Tsars “imperialists”. If so, what does that make us?

#22 Comment By jeremy On July 4, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

The War of 1812 was in large part the result of American exceptionalism. Those that persecuted the war on the American side viewed it as a war of liberation, they expected to be greeted as liberaters by the denizens of British Canada and could not understand it when they were not. Many of the American citizens that were conscripted near the border refused to fight because they viewed it as a war of aggression and not one of defense.

America ‘lost’ this war primarily because they could not galvanize the citizenry behind the cause, resulting in riots and boycotts across the nation.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 4, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

With corrections

““as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.””

Laughing and laughing.

I love the United States and I think we are exceptional.
However, I don’t do the 4th of July anymore. When you experience the country at its noblest and must grapple with the attempt to note that nobility in the first and second paragraphs in this article or other articles designed to bring note to the day, even Miss Olmstead’s Agrarian celebration and juxtapose that nobility in every area of life with the serfdom, slavery and the policy of removing native americans by genocide or ethnic cleansing – forget about the failure to honor agreements with either blacks or native americans. Reading the material on those days about these people’s is just depressing. All for a senseless war that needn’t have been fought in the first place. I did a review of the complaints by colonial leadership this week, and despite my cursory effort, I am convinced the entire revolution leaves one wanting for justification. What becomes clear s that Great Britain’s population paid nearly the entire tab for colonial success. I think it’s laudable to ponder the past’s goodness. And there is goodness despite the childish selfishness.
And if one is going to introduce a biblical leaning scholar such as Dr. Lewis, then the blight on that goodness is double fold. Because for the Christian (leaning on scripture) the war against the crown was completely unwarranted. It is a rebellion in complete violation of scriptural tenet and cannot be condoned. I always get a laugh when christians come at me with obeying authorities in a democracy in which the Republic as structured to the people make the people the actual authority. But in the case of the parliamentary and monarchial system – they were the authority and for the believer, they were bound to obey parliament and the crown. They had no such mandate of authority as one does in our practiced democracy.
Trying to establish that we have lost our way is quite funny considering actual history. Unless one ignores the meaning of the Monroe (John Adam’s) Doctrine. The concepts of manifest destiny.
What enlightened Pres Adams grasped, more than any other failing, was the failure to end slavery. That haunting forced a man who was forever attempting to right himself with integrity and ever present hypocrisy. It does make me wonder why he sided with revolution so vehemently.
I love the US. I think we are exceptional, not because we have abandoned some old school ideas about democracy or our that battles against threats to our ideal which are ever present. They come wrapped in the same package. Ever the heart deceiving us that our pursuit is the ideal in action as oppose to utter greed, avarice and selfishness to expediency. The ideals have been an inspiration for the world to so aspire to and no other country can make that claim save for perhaps Rome. herself an imagined ideal of democratic polity.
The US is not evil. She may turn evil if she ceases pursue her ideals. And such battles do not mean she must shun every intervention. We just have to be wiser. More circumspect. And hold ourselves and our leadership to account.
So tonight i will, as I have for the past ten years or so, close my blinds and lock up the porch to shun the fire works display I used to watch sitting in my backyard. I have even avoided watching “1776.”
Which has one of my favorite songs, “Molasses To Rum To Slaves.”

#24 Comment By Timmuggs On July 4, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

Very good piece, thank you.

It reminds me of a statement by someone else, name unknown:

“Each person is unique, just like everyone else.”

#25 Comment By Larry On July 4, 2014 @ 11:19 pm

What Niels said.

#26 Comment By hammersmith On July 4, 2015 @ 11:12 am

Exceptionalist thinking is refelexive. BO, a person would almost certainly does not believe in American exceptionalism, resorts to it when making a pitch for this or that. Clueless speech writers I perhaps. Just words I suppose.

#27 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On July 4, 2015 @ 11:55 am

Excellent article! Exactly why John Adams originally deleted the quote that appears in the author’s first paragraph is a bit unclear. What is clear, however, is that subsequent generations, most recently the current Ruling Class, seem to have misunderstood what he meant.

“American Exceptionalism” appears to have taken on a whole different meaning from what Adams, and others, intended it to mean.

#28 Comment By TB On July 5, 2015 @ 10:02 am

American Exceptionalism today consists of collective self-aggrandizement made possible by willful denial.
– We imprison a vastly higher % of our population than does any other country.
– We wage war against darker skinned people.
– We make the health of our population secondary to the profits that derives from health care delivery.
Our’s was an extraordinary social experiment 239 years ago because we placed trust in ourselves to self-govern. Today, one of our political parties devotes itself to shrinking the size of our governmental apparatus down to a size small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.

#29 Comment By Nil On July 5, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

The commemoration of the War of 1812 is coming up and we should remember what the British did to us. We don’t need the British example of Empire, we need to set the example that tyrants need to be brought down just as we did 2 centuries ago. It would be fitting to burn Buckingham Palace to the ground in an act of simple justice.

I’m assuming you’re super keen on reparations, then?

#30 Comment By Johann On July 4, 2016 @ 9:43 am

Some commenters make the understandable mistake of judging people who lived centuries ago by today’s standards. Back then, uncivilized people were not really considered the same as civilized people. So the entire continent west of the colonies were considered empty. To avoid angry responses, please understand that is not what I personally believe. It is however what virtually all of the “civilized” world believed back then.

#31 Comment By Johann On July 4, 2016 @ 9:53 am

To add to my previous comment, even if the early Americans had considered the uncivilized native populations as equals, because of their subsistence life style, the continent outside of the colonies were very sparsely populated. Larger populations could only be sustained with agriculture. And there were no clear lines marking the territories of the various native tribes. These conditions reinforced the belief that there were no defined sovereign “countries” between the new United States and the Pacific.

#32 Comment By connecticut farmer On July 4, 2016 @ 9:59 am

A very informative, well written piece. American “exceptionalism” takes the form of the unique system of self-government which was erected 200-plus years ago “the historically rare creation of a federal republic.” Nothing more…nothing less.

Three cheers for William Graham Sumner!

#33 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 4, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

“The commemoration of the War of 1812 is coming up and we should remember what the British did to us.”

I think you mean what the British did on our behalf. When one speaks of the US it is a mistake to separate her from empire. One of the interesting twists of fate is that the colonies pert of the British Empire became their own colonial enterprise.

Our grand experiment to live up to an ideal that rings in the hearts of people does and will remain the exception save a time when men seek to be led by authoritarian systems over democracies of any form.

We cease to be exceptional when we cease to strive ‘after the better angels of our nature’. We have been given much, and to whom much is given . . .

is applicable to our governing selves.

#34 Comment By bacon On July 4, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

Regarding history, Americans are taught from grammar school on that we are indeed the greatest country and our motives are always pure. History should be taught insofar as possible as a factual story, but no country, America included, could view themselves as always good if that were done and so it isn’t done, anywhere.

Memory is short; most alive today remember what they know of our history from the post WWII era. At the end of that war every country which might otherwise have been an effective competitor, from Britain across western and eastern Europe and Russia, to Japan and China were in ruins. Their infrastructure and economies were largely destroyed and the manpower needed to rebuild was drastically reduced by the war, and by the previous war. In contrast, the US was physically untouched, our casualties were relatively light, and our manufacturing capacity was improved by the demands of war production. In the race for postwar dominance we had a tremendous head start. what is exceptional about America is how quickly we dissipated that advantage under both Democratic and Republican leadership.