The Secret Origin of American Exceptionalism

The secret origin of American Exceptionalism

Where did the recent talk of an “exceptional” America originate? What does the term “American Exceptionalism” mean, anyway? Does it mean, “exceptionally-good,” “set apart for some divine purpose,” both, neither?

Though he probably never even gave the sermon where it appeared, John Winthrop gets the credit for invoking Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, specifically the “city on a hill cannot be hid” part, to call his congregation to be careful and to be ready. They were headed to the New World and the wild frontier was no place for careless, uncommitted Christians.

Some politicians have made a big deal about French traveler¬†Alexis de Tocqueville’s observations when he visited in 1835, but he was just trying to explain to Europeans why Americans weren’t too hot on the arts and sciences when he called America “exceptional.”

Joseph Stalin is credited for coming up with the term “American Exceptionalism.” He didn’t mean America was better than everyone else, obviously. He believed America was no different than other nations who had embraced socialism. He insisted capitalism would fail the US and he was ticked at Communist Leader Jay Lovestone for suggesting otherwise. Stalin must have been bubbling over with joy when the Great Depression hit the following year.

These days, politicians have claimed the phrase to cast the nation as an example of virtue, probably starting with Woodrow Wilson. JFK brought the City On A Hill motif into the spotlight with an historic speech in 1961, and Ronald Reagan often discussed it as his vision for the country, memorably describing that vision in his 1989 farewell speech.

Me, I think this notion of the exceptionalism of America is filled to the rim with hubris, and hubris generally throws up red flags. Hubris strolls through the door and destruction gets its foot in. A haughty spirit walks by and ruin is close behind. How often have we seen the lofty humbled? It happens a lot, from classic mythology to big money industries to modern institutions of higher learning.

I like my beefy love of country with a generous helping of humble sauce.

(Inspired and informed by a recent episode of BackStory with the American History Guys, a radio show and podcast from NPR.)

Transcript

Panel 1: Puritan John Winthrop preaches to his shipmates. “We shall be as a city on a hill. So obey God or we’ll look like idiots. And we’ll get eaten by savages.”

Panel 2: As they stroll through Paris, a friend asks Alexis de Tocqueville, “What did you think of America?” He responds, “An exceptional nation that values practicality over arts and sciences.” Then, “Say, would you mind lending a hand?” He’s dragging a heavy trunk. His friend says, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly.”

Panel 3: A Communist Leader tells Joseph Stalin, “Sir, the American working class just doesn’t want to revolt. They’re too individualistic. They cherish economic freedom, don’t mind inequality…” Stalin interrupts with, “Bull Cookies!” This is translated as: “Stop this heresy of American Exceptionalism.”

Panel 4: John F. Kennedy speaks at a podium. “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.”