American exceptionalism

Scholars argue that the Statue of Liberty "signifies this proselytizing mission as the natural extension of America's sense of itself as an exceptional nation."[1]

American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nation states.[2] In this view, U.S. exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation"[3] and developing a uniquely American ideology, "Americanism", based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire. This ideology itself is often referred to as "American exceptionalism."[4]

Although the term does not necessarily imply superiority, many neoconservative and other American conservative writers have promoted its use in that sense.[4][5] To them, the U.S. is like the biblical "City upon a Hill" — a phrase evoked by British colonists to North America as early as 1630 — and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries.[6]

The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840.[7] The exact term "American exceptionalism" has been in use since at least the 1920s and saw more common use after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chastised members of the Jay Lovestone-led faction of the American Communist Party for their belief that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions". American Communists started using the English term "American exceptionalism" in factional fights. It then moved into general use among intellectuals.[8][9] In 1989, Scottish political scientist Richard Rose noted that most American historians endorse exceptionalism. He suggests that these historians reason as follows:

America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.[10]

However, postnationalist scholars have rejected American exceptionalism, arguing that the U.S. had not broken from European history, and accordingly, the U.S. has retained class-based and race-based inequalities, as well as imperialism and willingness to wage war. Furthermore, they see most nations as subscribing to some form of exceptionalism.[11]


  • Etymology 1
  • History of the concept 2
    • American uniqueness as a nation 2.1
    • In Marxism 2.2
  • Causes in their historical context 3
    • Absence of feudalism 3.1
    • Puritan roots 3.2
    • American Revolution and republicanism 3.3
    • Jefferson and the empire of liberty 3.4
  • Basis of arguments 4
    • Republican ethos and ideas about nationhood 4.1
    • Global leadership and activism 4.2
    • Frontier spirit 4.3
    • Mobility and welfare 4.4
  • Criticism 5
    • Moral purity 5.1
    • Double standards 5.2
    • The Americanist heresy 5.3
    • Pre-emptive declinism 5.4
    • Similarities between the U.S. and Europe 5.5
  • Debates 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • Bibliography 9
    • Primary sources 9.1
  • External links 10


Although the concept of American exceptionalism dates to the 1830s the term was first used in the 1920s. The phrase "American exceptionalism" originates from the American Communist Party. The term comes from an English translation of a condemnation made in 1929 by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin criticizing Communist supporters of Jay Lovestone for the heretical belief that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions".[8][12] Early examples of the term's usage include a declaration made at the 1930 American Communist convention proclaiming that "the storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism".[13]

The phrase fell into obscurity for half a century, until it was popularized by American newspapers in the 1980s to describe America's cultural and political uniqueness.[13] The phrase became an issue of contention between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, with Republicans attacking Obama for allegedly not believing in it.[14]

History of the concept

The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville first wrote about it in his 1835/1840 work, Democracy in America:[15]

American exceptionalism was tied to the idea of Manifest Destiny,[17] a term used by Jacksonian Democrats in the 1840s to promote the acquisition of much of what is now the Western United States (the Oregon Territory, the Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession of California and New Mexico and adjacent areas).

After de Tocqueville's usage the theme became common, especially in textbooks. From the 1840s to the late 19th century, the McGuffey Readers sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students. Skrabec (2009) argues that the Readers "hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God's country... Furthermore, McGuffey saw America as having a future mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world."[18]

American uniqueness as a nation

Historian Dorothy Ross discussed three currents in American exceptionalism:

  1. Protestant American Christians believed American progress would lead to the Christian Millennium.[19]
  2. American writers also linked their history to the development of liberty in Anglo-Saxon England, even back to the traditions of the Teutonic tribes that conquered the western Roman empire.[20]
  3. Other American writers looked to the "millennial newness" of America, seeing the mass of "virgin land" promised an escape from the decay that befell earlier republics.[21]

In Marxism

In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party in America and soon to be named General Secretary, described America's economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism, and the country's "tremendous reserve power"; a strength and power which he said prevented Communist revolution.[22] In 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disagreeing that America was so resistant to revolution, called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism"[23]—the first time that the specific term "American exceptionalism" was used.[24] The Great Depression seemingly underscored Stalin's argument that American capitalism falls under the general laws of Marxism.[25] In June 1930, during the national convention of the Communist Party USA in New York, it was declared that, "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism and the whole system of opportunistic theories and illusions that had been built upon American capitalist 'prosperity'".[26]

Riding with the rest of the nation on the wave of post-depression prosperity, academics in the U.S. redefined American exceptionalism as befitting a nation that was to lead the world, with the newer United States ready to serve the older European societies as an example of a liberated and free from Marxism and socialism future.[23] More recently, socialists and other writers have tried to discover or describe this exceptionalism of the U.S. within and outside its borders.[27]

Causes in their historical context

Scholars have explored possible justifications for the notion of American exceptionalism.

Absence of feudalism

Many scholars use a model of American exceptionalism developed by Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), Hartz argued that the American political tradition lacked the left-wing/socialist and right-wing/aristocratic elements that dominated in most other lands because colonial America lacked any feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates and a hereditary nobility.[28] The "liberal consensus" school, typified by David Potter, Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter followed Hartz in emphasizing that political conflicts in American history remained within the tight boundaries of a liberal consensus regarding private property, individual rights, and representative government. The national government that emerged was far less centralized or nationalized than its European counterparts.[29]

Puritan roots

Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots.[30] Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They believed God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a "City upon a Hill"—that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world.[31][32] This metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism. The Puritans' deep moralistic values remained part of the national identity of the United States for centuries, remaining influential to the present day.

American Revolution and republicanism

The ideas that created the American Revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. Historian Gordon Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy."[33] Wood notes that the term is "presently much-maligned", although it is vigorously supported by others such as Jon Butler.[34]

Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land, a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that had outgrown the British mother country. These sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not to a hereditary ruling class.[35]

Religious freedom characterized the American Revolution in unique ways—at a time when major nations had state religions. Republicanism (led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) created modern constitutional republicanism, with a limit on ecclesiastical powers. Historian Thomas Kidd (2010) argues, "With the onset of the revolutionary crisis, a major conceptual shift convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some special purpose."[36] Kidd further argues that "a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue".[37]

Jefferson and the empire of liberty

According to Tucker and Hendrickson (1992) Jefferson believed America "was the bearer of a new diplomacy, founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends based on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions". Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European emphasis on "reason of state" (which could justify any action) and the traditional priority of foreign policy and the needs of the ruling family over the needs of the people.[38]

Jefferson envisaged America becoming the world's great "Empire of Liberty"—that is, the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, for, he said on departing the presidency in 1809, America was: "Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."[39]

Basis of arguments

  • How the World Sees America—Washington Post Feature
  • "The American Creed: Does It Matter? Should It Change?"
  • Obama and American exceptionalism – Glenn Greenwald,
  • Obama and the Burden of Exceptionalism – Shelby Steele,
  • The right to be different Debate between Grover Norquist and Will Hutton
  • , June 23, 1996.American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword interview with Seymour Martin Lipset on Booknotes
  • American Exceptionalism, American Freedom, by Eric Foner (The Montreal Review, January, 2013)

External links

  • Roberts, Timothy, and Lindsay DiCuirci. (Eds). American Exceptionalism. Volumes 1-4. London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 2012, 1552 p. A compilation of the primary sources on the subject of American exceptionalism, including pamphlets, sermons, newspaper and magazine articles from colonial period to 1900.

Primary sources

  • Bacevich, Andrew (2008). The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Metropolitan Books.  
  • Bender, Thomas (2006). A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History. Hill & Wang.  
  • Dollinger, Marc. "American Jewish Liberalism Revisited: Two Perspectives Exceptionalism and Jewish Liberalism". American Jewish History (2002) 90#2 pp 161+. online at Questia
  • Dworkin, Ronald W. (1996). The Rise of the Imperial Self. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.  
  • Hilfrich, Fabian (2012). Debating American Exceptionalism: Empire and Democracy in the Wake of the Spanish-American War. Palgrave Macmillan.  
  • Hodgson, Godfrey (2009). The Myth of American Exceptionalism. Yale University Press.  
  • Madsen, Deborah L. (1998). American Exceptionalism. University Press of Mississippi.  
  • Glickstein, Jonathan A. American Exceptionalism, American Anxiety: Wages, Competition, and Degraded Labor In The Antebellum United States (2002)
  • Ferrie, Joseph P. The End of American Exceptionalism: Mobility in the US Since 1850, Journal of Economic Perspectives (Summer, 2005)
  • Hellerman, Steven L. and Andrei S. Markovits (2001). Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Princeton University Press.   online version
  • Ignatieff, Michael ed. (2005). American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton University Press.  
  • Kagan, Robert (2003). Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. Knopf.  
  • Koh, Harold Hongju. "On American Exceptionalism" 55 Stan. L. Rev. 1479 (2003) online
  • Krugman, Paul (2007). The Conscience of a Liberal. W. W. Norton.  
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin (1997). American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. W. W. Norton & Company.  
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. The First New Nation. Basic Books, 1955.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. "Still the Exceptional Nation?" The Wilson Quarterly. 24#1 (2000) pp 31+ online version
  • Lloyd, Brian. Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890–1922. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Noble, David (2002). Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism. University of Minnesota Press.  
  • Restad, Hilde Eliassen, "Old Paradigms in History Die Hard in Political Science: U.S. Foreign Policy and American Exceptionalism", American Political Thought (Notre Dame), (Spring 2012), 1#1 pp53–76.
  • Ross, Dorothy. Origins of American Social Science. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Ross, Dorothy. "American Exceptionalism" in A Companion to American Thought. Richard W. Fox and James T. Kloppenberg, eds. London: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1995: 22–23.
  • Shafer, Byron E. Is America Different?: A New Look at American Exceptionalism (1991)
  • Schuck, Peter H., Wilson, James Q., Eds. Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation, 704pp, 2008, ISBN 978-1-58648-561-0
  • Soderlind, Sylvia, and James Taylor Carson, eds. American Exceptionalisms: From Winthrop to Winfrey (State University of New York Press; 2012) 268 pages; essays on the rhetoric of exceptionalism in American history, from John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" to the "war on terror".
  • Swirski, Peter. American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge (2011)
  • Tilman, Rick. "Thorstein Veblen's Views on American 'Exceptionalism': An Interpretation". Journal of Economic Issues. 39#1 2005. pp 177+. online version
  • Tomes, Robert. "American Exceptionalism in the Twenty-First Century." "Survival." 56#1. pp. 26–50. [1]
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson Richard W. Etulain ed. (1999). The Significance of the Frontier in American History, in Does The Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?. 
  • Tyrrell, Ian. "American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History", American Historical Review Vol. 96, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 1031–1055 in JSTOR
  • Voss, Kim. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (1993) online version
  • Wilentz, Sean. Against Exceptionalism: Class Consciousness and the American Labor Movement, 1790–1820, 26 Int'l Lab. & Working Class History 1 (1984)
  • Wrobel, David M. (1996). The End Of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety From The Old West To The New Deal. University Press of Kansas.  


  1. ^ Winfried Fluck; Donald E. Pease; John Carlos Rowe (2011). Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies. UPNE. p. 207.  
  2. ^ American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. Seymour Martin Lipset. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1996. Page 18. ISBN 0-393-03725-8. Retrieved 11 October 2012.
  3. ^ Seymour Martin Lipset, The first new nation (1963).
  4. ^ a b Lipset, American Exceptionalism, pp. 1, 17–19, 165–174, 197
  5. ^ The American Spectator : In Defense of American Exceptionalism "the conditions American Exceptionalism provides, allow us to enjoy the economic and social mobility that other countries envy" and "progressivism rejects American Exceptionalism".
  6. ^ Harold Koh, "America's Jekyll-and-Hyde Exceptionalism", in Michael Ignatieff, ed., American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, p. 112
  7. ^ de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America (1840), part 2, page 36: "The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."
  8. ^ a b Albert Fried, Communism in America: A History in Documents (1997), p. 7.
  9. ^ Donald E. Pease (2009). The New American Exceptionalism. U of Minnesota Press. p. 10.  
  10. ^ Richard Rose, "How Exceptional is the American Political Economy?" Political Science Quarterly (1989) 104#1 pp 91-115 in JSTOR
  11. ^ David W. Noble, Death of a nation: American culture and the end of exceptionalism, pp. xxiii ff.
  12. ^ The New American Exceptionalism, Donald E. Pease U of Minnesota Press, 2009 ISBN 0-8166-2783-5, ISBN 978-0-8166-2783-7 Length 246 pages p.10
  13. ^ a b How Joseph Stalin Invented American Exceptionalism, The Atlantic.
  14. ^ Robert L. Iviea and Oscar Ginerb, "American Exceptionalism in a Democratic Idiom: Transacting the Mythos of Change in the 2008 Presidential Campaign", Communication Studies (2009) 60#4 pp 359-75 doi:10.1080/10510970903109961
  15. ^ Foreword: on American Exceptionalism; Symposium on Treaties, Enforcement, and U.S. Sovereignty, Stanford Law Review, May 1, 2003, Pg. 1479
  16. ^ Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vintage Books, 1945
  17. ^ February 15, 2007, NYT Manifest Destiny: A New Direction
  18. ^ Quentin R. Skrabec (2009). William McGuffey: Mentor to American Industry. Algora Publishing. p. 223.  
  19. ^ Dorothy Ross (1991). Origins of American Social Science.  p 23.
  20. ^ Dorothy Ross (1991). Origins of American Social Science.  p 24,5.
  21. ^ Dorothy Ross (1991). Origins of American Social Science.  p 25.
  22. ^ Fried, Albert. , pp. 7–8, 19, 82–92.Communism in America: a history in documents Columbia University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-231-10235-6
  23. ^ a b Pease, Donald E. Editors: Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. "Exceptionalism", pp. 108–112, in "Keywords for American Cultural Studies. NYU Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8147-9948-5
  24. ^ Edwards, Brian T.; Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar (2010). Globalizing American Studies. University of Chicago Press. pp. 58–59.  
  25. ^ McCoy, Terrence. "'"How Joseph Stalin Invented 'American Exceptionalism. The Atlantic, March 15, 2012. Retrieved 13 September 2013. 
  26. ^ Johnpoll, Bernard K. A Documentary History of the Communist Party of the United States. Vol. II, Vol. II. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1994, p. 196.
  27. ^ American Exceptionalism. The Washington Post
  28. ^ Holland, Catherine A. (2005). "Hartz and Minds: The Liberal Tradition after the Cold War". Studies in American Political Development 19 (2): 227–233.  
  29. ^ Cross, Gary (1995). "Comparative Exceptionalism: Rethinking the Hartz Thesis in the Settler Societies of Nineteenth-Century United States and Australia". Australasian Journal of American Studies 14 (1): 15–41.  
  30. ^ Anna Gandziarowski, The Puritan Legacy to American Politics (2010) p. 2
  31. ^ Justin B. Litke, "Varieties of American Exceptionalism: Why John Winthrop Is No Imperialist", Journal of Church and State, 54 (Spring 2012), 197–213.
  32. ^ The Hanover Historical Texts Project, ed. (August 1996). "John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity(1630)". Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1838), 3rd series 7:31–48.). Archived from the original on April 13, 2010. Retrieved March 13, 2010. 
  33. ^ Gordon Wood, "Introduction" in Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (2011) online.
  34. ^ Gordon S. Wood (2009). The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. Penguin. p. 240. 
  35. ^  
  36. ^ Kidd, Thomas S. (2010). God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic Books. p. 9.  
  37. ^ Kidd, God of Liberty, p 8
  38. ^ Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of liberty: the statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (1992) quote on p. ix
  39. ^ Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900) text p 895
  40. ^ Marilyn B. Young, "One Empire Under God", European Contributions to American Studies, May 2004, Vol. 55, p8-18
  41. ^ T. Harry Williams, "Abraham Lincoln--Principle and Pragmatism in Politics: A Review Article," Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1953) 40#1 pp. 89-106 at page 97 in JSTOR
  42. ^ Robert Alan Dahl (1997). Toward democracy--a journey: reflections, 1940-1997. Institute of Governmental Studies Press, University of California, Berkeley. p. 2:711. 
  43. ^ Harold Hongju Koh, "On American Exceptionalism" 55 Stan. L. Rev. 1479 (2003)quote at p 1487 online
  44. ^ Richard W. Etulain, Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? (1999)
  45. ^ Walker D. Wyman and Clifton B. Kroeber, eds. Frontier in Perspective (1957)
  46. ^ Marvin K. Mikesell, "Comparative Studies in Frontier History", in Richard Hofstadter and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier (1968) pp 152-72
  47. ^ Carroll, Dennis (1982). "Mateship and Individualism in Modern Australian Drama". Theatre Journal 34 (4): 467–480.  
  48. ^ Kaelble, Hartmut (1981). Social Mobility in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Europe and America in Comparative Perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.  
  49. ^ Thernstrom, Stephan (1999). "The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970". Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  
  50. ^ Stephenson, Charles; Jensen, Richard; Webster, Janice Reiff (1978). Social predictors of American mobility: a census capture-recapture study of New York and Wisconsin, 1875–1905. Newberry Library. 
  51. ^ Blau, Peter M.; Duncan, Otis Dudley (1978). The American Occupational Structure. London: Collier Macmillan.  
  52. ^ De Grauwe, Paul (July 2, 2007). "Structural rigidities in the US and Europe". Retrieved January 1, 2010. 
  53. ^ Mankiw, Greg (January 12, 2011). "Half-Full Glass of Economic Mobility" (blog). Archived from the original on January 22, 2011