Two American Exceptionalisms in Sam Haselby’s Origins of American Religious Nationalism

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Just finished reading Sam Haselby’s excellent book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford, 2015). I am writing a review of the work for Fides et Historia, but I thought I would write a few things about it here on the blog as I collect my thoughts for the review.

The book’s thesis is two-fold: first, westward expansion from 1783 through 1830 answered the question about what American nationality would mean. Second, American nationality was decided largely as a result of a conflict between frontier revivalism of the early Second Awakening and the missionary movement of Northeastern Protestant elites. In sum, frontier revivalism won out over Yankee reformed Protestantism. The presidency of Andrew Jackson, with his attack on Bank of the United States and his policy of Indian removal, demonstrated that American identity would be expansionist and nationalist. The immediate beneficiaries of this new concept of American nationality were the Southern planters, who were able to export slavery and a plantation society into the territories of the Old Southwest and subsequently become the wealthiest ruling class in the world.

While there are many interesting parts of the book, one of the most arresting points comes toward the conclusion. Haselby places Andrew Jackson’s Second Annual Message to Congress (December 6, 1830) in contrast with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863). While Lincoln sought to bring the Declaration of Independence to its logical conclusion by recognizing human dignity in “all men,” he cast the Civil War and emancipation as “the transformative events of nineteenth century American history,” in Haselby’s words. But Jackson’s 1830 address to Congress, which in part explained the rationale for the explusion of Native Americans from locales ranging from the southern Appalachians to Louisiana was, according to Haselby “the first explicitly racist statement on the political community from a sitting US president, and it was also the first time a US president turned to a theological justification for an imperial act.”

In answering his Northern critics who “often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country,” Jackson claimed that “no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself” for Native Americans. (Seriously?) Benefits to the Native Americans included separation from the white settlers, freedom from the power of the states from which they were leaving, and furthermore, they could “pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions.” Perhaps they would even “cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Nevertheless, the Native Americans should be grateful for their removal, Jackson said. “Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. . . . To save him . . . from utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”

As Haselby pointed out, Jackson’s policy was exclusionary, while Lincoln’s vision was one of inclusion. Jackson’s policy of removal was the perpetration of a great theft, but Lincoln’s purpose was to seek, as Haselby described, “the righting of a wrong.”

Both Jackson and Lincoln represent two distinct forms of American identity. One is a closed form, and the other is open. One is imperialistic, the other exemplaristic. One is self serving, the other is self examining. One lays hold of “Christianity” for justification, while the other looks to political and ethical ideals on which the country was founded: equality of the human condition, individual freedom, and democratic republicanism.

Americans have always seen themselves as the exception to the rule in human history. Alexis de Tocqueville looked to the unique geographical, political, religious, and social circumstances of America’s founding and early career and said “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.” Both Jackson and Lincoln saw America in exceptional terms. But Jackson’s and Lincoln’s brands of exceptionalism were polar opposites in that one was closed, the other open.

We see these two articulations of exceptionalism throughout America’s career as an independent nation. Closed exceptionalism always hijacks Christian theological themes, whereas open exceptionalism is a political/social construct devoid of appeals to theology. In this way, open exceptionalism establishes a helpful starting point for patriotism and civic engagement that is not idolatrous, nor does it depend on twisting Christianity into an American form.

Haselby’s work presents a detailed and well-argued history of where religious nationalism—closed exceptionalism—comes from in the early republic. And once religious nationalism was ensconced in the American mind, it took on a life of its own. We continue to live with its legacy in our own day.

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