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American Exceptionalisms

What Barack Obama must learn from William Graham Sumner
washington and his ball cap

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.

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.