Just What is American Exceptionalism, Anyway??














My friend Rich Holland, who blogs over at Befriending Wisdom, is getting frustrated with me and pressing me for further explanation and clarification on American exceptionalism. Rich is an insightful and thoughtful philosopher, and you should make checking his blog a regular part of your routine.

American exceptionalism, as I noted in my previous blog post, is somewhat difficult to define. In my last post, I discussed Alexis de Tocqueville’s use of the term “exceptional.” He is credited by many with coining the term “exceptionalism.” See my earlier comments on some problems with giving de Tocqueville this credit without any caveats.

“Exceptionalism” was not a term used by anyone after de Tocqueville in the heady days of expansion in the 1840s and 1890s. It wasn’t used at all in the nationwide debates over the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Nor was it used in the years of World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of the war. The term is reintroduced to American discourse via Max Lerner’s 1957 book, America as a Civilization. The term became more prominent in the 1990s through Seymour Martin Lipset’s work, American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword. And in the last three or four years, dozens of books and articles have addressed the topic.

Generally speaking, James W. Ceaser of the University of Virginia says that the common theme in the way exceptionalism is understood in the literature–even going back to de Tocqueville–is uniqueness. America is a nation that has many characteristics distinguishing it from other nations. What makes America unique? That’s were you see a whole host of diverging views. 

To generalize further, uniqueness carries one of two meanings. Some think of America’s uniqueness in terms of what Ceaser describes as either “something different about America” or “something special” (Ceaser, 2012). The term “different” is based on observations about social, physical, political, religious, and geographical aspects of America. Thus, if you understand America as “different,” you are acknowledging those specific, measurable–and temporal–aspects that set America and Americans apart from other nations in the world. If you understand America as “special,” you are making a much more meaningful claim about America. The term “special” is based on what Ceaser calls “a normative claim” (Ceaser, 2012) about America. For example, America is special because it has been chosen by God to fulfill a divine mission in human civilization. America is special because God is using America in a unique way to accomplish His purposes for humanity in what theologians refer to as “salvation history.” And so on. The distinction between “different” and “special” is an important one in how American exceptionalism is defined in early 21st century discourse.

What makes America exceptional? I don’t think that exceptionalism can be defined in terms of any normative claims about America. America is not “special” in that regard. It has no unique place in salvation history. God has not called America to fulfill some divine mission. But it is different, and significantly so. For example, America invented republican democracy in the modern world. Americans have spread freedom to the advancement of human civilization everywhere in the world. The American difference does, in my own view, make America the greatest country in the world. But by that I do not mean that America is the greatest country in history. And I recognize that America has not championed freedom for everyone equally at all times in its history. Still, America is my home, and it has the place of prominence in my mind and heart when I consider other countries. I am grateful to be an American–nearly as much as I am for being a Christian. But not quite. America is the City of Man, my temporal home. My citizenship is in heaven, the City of God. As a Christian, my first allegiance is with that other Country.

James W. Ceaser “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism,” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1 (Spring 2012): 1-25.


One response to “Just What is American Exceptionalism, Anyway??

  1. Thanks for the clarification, John.Your historical perspective and careful analysis of this issue is exceptional!Here is the "problem": Many Americans recognize intuitively that America is exceptional – in the everyday, commonsense use of the word. We are special. We do enjoy freedoms that are (in large part) unique in the history of the world. Our economic system and industry are the engine that drove 20th Century advancement. This is a special place, and we have a special – and indeed exceptional – place in the world.However, many have adopted the idea of exceptionalism and made it into something much more. I think of Rushdoony and his ilk, for example, who argue that the good ol' US of A is God's chosen place, a new theocratic kingdom, nothing less than the New Israel. And when those of that type use the term "exceptionalism," without explaining what they mean, they win friends among the group that uses the term in the commonsense way.Then, when you (or I, or others) argue against "exceptionalism" in the bad sense, we lose friends and gain enemies among the crowd that believes we are exceptional in the commonsense way.See what I mean?

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