Monthly Archives: April 2014

Is American Exceptionalism Inescapable?


Andrew Hartman wrote a fascinating piece over at the blog of the Society for US Intellectual History a few weeks back. In it, he grapples with the question of whether or not it is possible to “study this thing we call America, even from a Marxist or leftist vantage point, without reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural or political category.” I would be so bold as to answer his question, “No.” In this piece, I’ll attempt to explain this answer by considering how Hartman describes exceptionalism.

Hartman starts off by referencing Michael Denning’s 1986 American Quarterly article, in which he critiques the legitimacy of the basic question animating the discipline of American Studies—“What is American?” Hartman writes,

For Denning, using that question as a methodological starting point is problematic because it assumes that “America” (shorthand for the United States, or the culture of the United States, or for the idea that animates the culture of the United States) is exceptional. American Studies, understood as such, is the product of American exceptionalism, and, since American exceptionalism is something that all correct-thinking individuals must reject, perhaps American Studies is something we should reject, too.

Hartman is being a bit sarcastic here (as he admits in a statement later in the comments section). Still, Denning’s critique poses a question about American Studies that has far-reaching ramifications for the study of American history, sociology, religion, economics, and diplomacy. If exceptionalism is rejected, does that, in turn, mean that the legitimacy of American Studies itself is undermined? And does the very appellation “American Studies” render the field nonsensical because it is overly provincial? If I take Hartman correctly, I’d say that this is what he means in his title by the “specter haunting American Studies.”

In the next paragraph, Hartman describes his understanding of exceptionalism in two ways. He writes,

Of course, the idea of American exceptionalism has (at least) two meanings, and different political valences stem from these different meanings. To some, the concept of American exceptionalism means that America is better than other countries—a beacon of freedom or a “city on a hill.” America, right or wrong, but usually right. To others, it means, simply, that America is different, particularly in comparison to Europe. In this second meaning, “exceptional” is stripped of its normative claims. The fact that America is unique is not an indication that it is better; rather, it often indicates the opposite.

Hartman is right to steer clear of ambiguity here at the outset of his article. And I agree with how he divides the concept of exceptionalism into two distinct expressions. But I would like to offer another possible way to understand exceptionalism. As Hartman says, there is the imperialist expression of exceptionalism—America as a city on a hill. Let’s call this one “closed exceptionalism.” And there is the “different, not special” expression. This could be called “conditional exceptionalism.”

The problems with closed exceptionalism are pretty obvious. It’s exclusivist and jingoistic at its heart. It is also far too epistemically certain when it comes to how it conceives of the nation’s interaction with the divine. And the problems with conditional exceptionalism, as a working definition for the concept, are significant also, especially in their practical application. If exceptionalism is to be understood as merely “different, not better” how is one to study American culture and history defined in such a way? This formulation of exceptionalism does not seem to appear prominently in American history or literature. Even considering “Anti-American Studies,” we have a situation where America is either loved or hated on its own terms. In either case, America is reified. The ambivalence of conditional exceptionalism just doesn’t seem to have much of a potential contribution to the study of culture in America.

I propose a third way to understand exceptionalism, one that I’ll call “open exceptionalism.” Open exceptionalism sees America as an exemplar. Like its imperialist cousin, open exceptionalism is civil-religious. It is based on a canon, what Robert Bellah famously identified as an American civil religious Old and New Testament canon in his essay “Civil Religion in America.” The American Old Testament consists of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and any number of other founding documents. The American New Testament, arising forth from the trauma of the Civil War, consists of the Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. This exemplarist brand does recognize God’s providence in American history, but takes on a decidedly agnostic approach as to how it is understood and applied. Finally, open exceptionalism recognizes that the principles of equality, natural rights, individual freedom, and justice are ideals which are to be pursued and applied to all, but may never be fully realized. Given this reality, open exceptionalism entails national self-examination and self-critique, and is never satisfied with the status quo. The speeches and writings of Lincoln, W. E. B. DuBois, and MLK, Jr. (to name a few) seem to suggest them as possible examples of open exceptionalist figures.

If such an expression of exceptionalism is valid, then I think it is key to answering Hartman’s question. He observes that Michael Kazin argued in American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, that the American radicals appealed to the Declaration of Independence as an authority to legitimize their agendas of social and political justice. In doing so, they acknowledged that America was established on a set of ethical norms, and those norms were intended to transcend circumstance and generation. Further, when those norms were violated, there was something palpably “un-American” going on that cried out for correction. And that is exactly what we find when we look at King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to take one example among many.

Thinking about America as exceptional does not necessarily entail the many pitfalls of exclusivism or imperialism. An exemplarist account of exceptionalism allows for the flaws, inconsistencies, and moral failures which are inevitable realities in any culture. I would argue, in fact, that exemplarist exceptionalism demands their acknowledgement, but also, their rectification through whatever means necessary.

In terms of whether or not we can “study this thing we call America, even from a Marxist or leftist vantage point, without reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural or political category,” again, I do not think it can be done. Hartman points out in a later comment that “even Denning, I think, ignores his own advice in his book ‘The Cultural Front,’ because there’s no other way to study America, and that’s OK.” And I would suggest that the reason this is so is because open exceptionalism is the most consistent expression of the concept appearing in American cultural forms.


Digital Preservation of Significant Artifacts

411940_300Head over to John Fea’s Way of Improvement Leads Home to watch and listen to some really interesting pieces preserved by the Library of Congress and British Pathe. John has been posting a lot of cool stuff in the past few weeks, and I’ve really been enjoying the material he’s been sharing.

His most recent post is a 1915 recording of Homer Rodeheaver singing the hymn “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart.” Great old hymn. There’s also a recording of “He Leadeth Me,” one of my personal favorites.

You can check out a video clip of Eisenhower’s trip to England in 1959, window washers on the Empire State building in 1938, and even the “world’s first mobile phone,” from 1922.

There’s a lot more to see from British Pathe and the Library of Congress on John’s blog. I also want to recommend you check out the video series he produces called “Virtual Office Hours.” Whether you’re a student, a teacher, a professor, or a history buff, you’ll enjoy watching these videos. John is such a versatile scholar that there really is something for everyone. So check it out!

Tracy McKenzie Introduces Us To Alexis de Tocqueville


“The County Election” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

In writing and thinking about populism in American politics, Wheaton historian Robert Tracy McKenzie got to thinking about America in the age of Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828 and served until 1837. And in considering the ramifications of the state of American politics in the age of Jackson, McKenzie directs us to one of the most important books on America ever written–Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville.

It’s one of the most intriguing studies, not only of American politics in the 1830s, but of American values, habits, assumptions, and beliefs during that time. As a historical work, it is a fascinating window looking into America’s past. Much of what Tocqueville saw in Americans remains today. And much of what he saw is gone forever–good things and bad things.

McKenzie urges us to take up and read Tocqueville, because Tocqueville made a contribution to an ongoing conversation of which we can and should be a part. He cites C. S. Lewis on the value of reading old books–old books reveal our blind spots in a way that contemporary books do not, indeed cannot.

So here is a bit of McKenzie’s introduction to Tocqueville. Consider McKenzie to be a mutual friend of yours and Tocqueville’s. McKenzie knows Tocqueville very well, and wants to introduce him to you because he wants you to benefit from his wisdom as much as he has. Take up and read his book, and in doing so, be a part of an ongoing conversation that will help mold and change you as an American, but also as an individual, in beneficial ways–

As the French Revolution of 1789 gave way to the Great Terror of 1793, Tocqueville’s grandfather went to the guillotine and his parents, then young adults, went to the dungeon and barely escaped with their lives.  By the time that Tocqueville was born a dozen years later, Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor of France.  The implications of these events were clear: proclaiming  liberty was not the same thing as preserving it, and the establishment of political equality guaranteed neither liberty nor justice.  These lessons haunted Tocqueville his whole life long, and Democracy in America cannot be understood apart from them.

You should know that though Tocqueville was an aristocrat in temperament and lineage, he both foresaw and accepted that democracy represented the wave of the future.  He hoped to refine the trend, not resist it.  If he was critical of what he saw in America–and he often was–he was on the whole a sympathetic critic.  He was fascinated with the United States because he believed it to be the freest nation in the world, and he always hoped that his native France could learn from the American example.

Finally, we should respect just how seriously Tocqueville approached his subject.  The stakes were almost incalculably high, he believed.  “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst,” Tocqueville wrote in the very last paragraph of volume II.  “But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”

Satirical Cartoons of World War I, 1914-1916

This is a post I wrote a couple of years ago, but I thought it would be appropriate to re-post it now that the world is getting ready for the World War I centenary.

To Breathe Your Free Air

I’ve been re-reading portions of Mark Sullivan’s Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925 while my students have been taking their mid-term exams. Mark Sullivan was a muckraking journalist of the early twentieth century, and he compiled a popular history of the American people in the first eventful years of the 1900s.

The following are some satirical cartoons that Sullivan collected and included in the fifth book of his series entitled Over Here: 1914-1918. The cartoons appeared in newspapers and journals in the years that the United States remained neutral, but while the forces of the European nations slaughtered each other on the battlefields. The cartoons I have selected here follow the development of American sentiment about the war, from early desires for neutrality to that of preparedness for entry into the war on the Allied side.

Notice in these cartoons the attention to artistic detail, the use of stark…

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Off to the HBU Philosophy Conference


Looking forward to attending the fourth annual philosophy conference at Houston Baptist University tomorrow through Saturday. I have been enjoying this conference every year but the first one, and looking at the schedule of papers to be presented, I can see that the trend is going to continue.

This year, the conference theme is “Religion, Science, and the Intellectual Virtues.” None other than Jay Wood of Wheaton College will be the keynote speaker, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing his remarks. I’m a big fan of his introduction to epistemology entitled Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, which is part of the Contours of Christian Philosophy series published by IVP Academic. Dr. Wood will be giving a lecture Friday evening entitled “How Is Your Intellectual Appetite?” and Saturday afternoon entitled “Intellectual Humility and Scientific Inquiry.”

Here are a few of the paper presentations I am hoping to attend:

John Laing, “Calvinism, Natural Knowledge and Fatalism,” Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

John Macias, “A Defense of the Thomistic Account of Divine Omniscience,” University of St. Thomas

Ben Arbor, “Intellectual Idolatry: On the Incompatibility of Scientific Realism, Methodological Naturalism, and Christian Intellectual Virtues,” University of Bristol

David T. Echelbarger, “Four Virtues of Teaching the Vices,” Baylor University

Shannon Holzer, “The Definition of Rights and Same-Sex Marriage,” HBU

Mike Keas, “Intellectual and Theoretical Virtues in Civil Discourse: Science, Religion, and the Public Square,” College at Southwestern

I’ll be presenting a paper entitled “Exceptionalism as an Aspect of Civil Religion.” Should be a lot of fun.


“The Tocquevillian Moment” and Other Adventures at Furman University


I’m just wrapping up a wonderful day at Furman University. Since graduating in 1992 (was that really 22 years ago???), I have not spent very much time on campus. It has really changed! Made me feel old.

But what a tremendous day it was. I can’t say enough about all the classy people at the school who made me feel right at home.

This morning, I met up with my advisor, Marian Strobel. Here is a fun story about Dr. Strobel, who once saved me from utter disgrace and abject humiliation. I had Dr. Strobel for Women’s History and US Since 1941. She is a wonderful scholar/teacher, and I have never forgotten her influence on my life. She took me under her wing when I was a scared freshman, and she has remained a mentor to me all these years.

I spent most of the day in the library writing on my book. The James B. Duke Library at Furman is truly second to none. It was fantastic when I was a student, but it is really impressive now. And the nice folks on staff there were very helpful.

At 4:30, I went down to the Student Center to find a seat for Wilfred McClay’s lecture entitled “The Tocquevillian Moment . . . And Ours.” I figured I’d better get down there so I could get a good seat, but wouldn’t you know it–Paige Blankenship of the Political Science Department had reserved a seat for me on the front row. Like I said–classy folks.

Then Dr. McClay spoke–a tremendous lecture. McClay set up the lecture by demonstrating a connection between Tocqueville’s time in the 1830s-40s and our own. Both his time and ours are marked by tectonic shifts in culture. Tocqueville was witnessing great social, political, economic, and religious changes in his native France, and of course, the changes wrought by the success of the American Revolution and the beginning of the American career in democracy. We in our own day are witnessing the enormous changes brought about by advances in technology (which, McClay noted, are an extension of the changes in Tocqueville’s day, in that we are seeing a democratization of information). With great change comes the prospect of hope, but change also brings anxiety for the future. McClay taught that history helps us to navigate challenging times, because history connects us to past generations that dealt with challenging times of their own. The past offers we who live in the present a lifeline.

Tocqueville saw great hope in American democracy, but he was anxious about the degenerating influence of self interest that is inherent in democracy. Tocqueville looked to the past for ways in which this degenerating influence could be controlled. Part of his solution was to be found in educating the citizenry in how to pursue self interest, rightly understood. That is, teach people what virtue is, and how to pursue not only individual good, but also the common good. In other words, do well by doing good. This is the key to a liberal education, and to training people how to be able to govern themselves.

McClay applied Tocqueville’s lessons to the challenge faced by institutions of higher education today. Those challenges are many, but hyper-connectivity to the internet and the ever-expanding costs of higher education are two of the big ones. Like Tocqueville, we should affirm that change is good–and unstoppable. But we should resist the temptation to uncritically accept the idea that four year residential colleges and universities are doomed. But how?

In short, accept the changes offered by technology that offer the greatest good to the greatest number of people. But recognize that information mediated by technology is often thrown at us in fragmented, contextless bursts. An education is obtained through the careful, deliberate, and patient process of receiving information that is situated in context, and then critically evaluated. An education is had in the physical presence of a teacher, other students, and a classroom. Physical presence makes relationship and trust possible, and without these, true education can hardly take place.

McClay spoke of reading books, and particularly old books. Reading Plato’s Republic, for example, is helpful because we avail ourselves the opportunity of critiquing the usually sacrosanct idea of democracy. We need to think critically, even about an idea that we all embrace, if for nothing less than to know our democracy better, and to improve on it.

After the lecture, the Political Science Department hosted a dinner in Dr. McClay’s honor at a place in Downtown Greenville called High Cotton–fabulous food! Ty Tessitore, who is heading up the Tocqueville Program this year, graciously included me, and I was assigned a seat next to Dr. McClay. We chatted about his and Ted McAllister’s new book on place, along with other topics. I’m looking forward to seeing him in September at this year’s Conference on Faith and History.

Sitting across from me was yet another of my professors from undergrad days–Lloyd Benson, a nineteenth century US historian. I took Dr. Benson’s US from 1820-1890 course during the summer before my senior year, and it was a truly formative experience for me. He remains one of the best teachers I have ever had. We had some fun with “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” and I got to bounce some ideas off him on some of my ideas on exceptionalism. And I also enjoyed some fun conversation on Thomas Hobbes with Jenna Silber Storey, an insightful political philosopher.

Many thanks to Ty Tessitore and Ben Storey for their work on the Tocqueville Program at Furman–and for their gracious hospitality. I thoroughly enjoyed being with all my friends at Furman, both old friends and new.

Furman Bound

main_gate_740Headed to Furman University today to see some old friends and to enjoy a lecture by Wilfred McClay of the University of Oklahoma. His lecture is entitled “The Tocquevillian Moment . . . And Ours.” I’m excited to hear Dr. McClay speak on Alexis de Tocqueville, because I have been immersed in Democracy in America in my own research.

I am also excited to hear Dr. McClay because I am enjoying his (and Ted McAllister’s) new book, Why Place Matters. The Furman political science department graciously invited me to join them for dinner with Dr. McClay following the lecture, so hopefully I will have the chance to chat with him further about his ideas.

Since I am super cool and hyper connected to the interwebs, you can expect me to live tweet McClay’s lecture. More to come . . .