Alexis de Tocqueville and American Exceptionalism

In the last three or four years, we have heard more and more about American exceptionalism. Loosely defined, exceptionalism is the belief that America is the most free, most prosperous, most powerful nation in the world with a God given mission to export democratic institutions and ideas abroad. Woodrow Wilson talked of making the world safe for democracy. FDR spoke of securing the four freedoms–freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want “everywhere in the world” (Annual Message to Congress, January 6, 1941). Abraham Lincoln famously described America as the “last best hope of mankind” in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1862. Ronald Reagan, thinking of America, picked up on his language, as well as John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of a “city upon a hill.”

What is the origin of the term “American exceptionalism”? Usually, Alexis de Tocqueville is given the credit for coining the term. What did de Tocqueville actually say when he coined the term “exceptionalism” with reference to America? Here is the term set in its context:

At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly identified one to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. Among this people they found distinguished men of science, able artists, writers of eminence; and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without laboring to amass them. In spite of the ocean that intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind. 

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science literature and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the Americans upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features (de Tocqueville, 2.36-37).

So what do we have here from de Tocqueville? What exactly does he affirm about America, using the adjective “exceptional” to describe it? First, let’s consider what he does not appear to be affirming. There’s nothing here about America being chosen by God; nothing about having a special mission or responsibility to export democracy; and de Tocqueville places no value judgment on America in his use of “exceptional.” There are no theological claims in de Tocqueville’s application of “exceptional” to America. These are striking facts to consider upon reading de Tocqueville, in light of the many citations of his use of the term by contemporary writers. 

De Tocqueville, interestingly enough, is not willing to acknowledge any meaningful difference between Americans and their cousins in Europe or Britain. In fact, the way de Tocqueville sees it, Americans are the more practical of the English speaking people, and if there is any mission at all, it is to “explore” the wilderness of North America. While Americans are engaged in that task, Europeans are at liberty to pursue the intellectual and aesthetic endeavors. 

For de Tocqueville, Americans are different, not because of any normative reasons, but because of their physical and social circumstances. They were building a European-style civilization in a continent that was largely uninhabited by whites. In that regard, there were certain unique aspects that set them apart from Europeans. There were social, economic, political, and religious implications that attended this fact. But it seems clear that what de Tocqueville had in mind about American exceptionalism is a far cry from that of many who espouse the idea today.

Americans seem uncomfortable using the term “nationalism” to describe their brand of patriotism. “Exceptionalism,” which seems to be a word substituted for “nationalism” in America, seems to carry less jingoistic and provincial baggage. “Exceptionalism” also underscores the unique brand of American patriotism that identifies America as more than just a nation, but an idea, as Gordon Wood as has said in his recent work, The Idea of America.
 
But it seems strange to invoke Alexis de Tocqueville in arguing for American exceptionalism. He only uses the term once in his work Democracy in America, and his use of the term is pedestrian compared to how it is often used now. He did not think America was the greatest nation on earth on the verge of civilizing humanity with democratic ideals. Citing de Tocqueville is helpful to an extent, but there is a wide gap between his understanding of American “exceptionalism” and that of many proponents of the idea today.

2 responses to “Alexis de Tocqueville and American Exceptionalism

  1. Ok, John. Cut to the chase. In what ways is America "exceptional," and in what ways is it not?

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