United States History: American Exceptionalism


Figure 1.--This Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veteran is recounting to a rapt group of shoeshine boys how as a youth he helped preserve the Union and end slavery. They had no doubt that they lived in an exeptional country. And about 10 years later they would proved it by not only smashing NAZI Germany and Imperial Japan and then saving Western Europe from totalitarian Soviet Communism. Never in human history has any country delivered so many people from opression. And if that was not enough, create an international economic system that would permit more people to escape from poverty than ever before.

The great debate in American history is today if the United States is an exceptional country. It is no accident that in the same year America declared its independence as a democratic republic, that an obscure Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith explained the operation of free market capitalism and not country embraced his ideas like the new American Republic. Thus from the onset, America was an exceptional country, embracing the two killer apps of state success, political and economic liberty. Most Europeans intent on defining a nation in ethnic terms saw America as exceptional, but were convinced that it would not succeed or even last. The idea of American exceptional ism did not use to be an issue. The young men and boys who took up arms in the Civil War. They understood intuitively with only a very basic education what President Lincoln put into unforgettable words, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." America at the time was the only democratic republic of any importance. Left wing college professors imbued with Marxist ideology have since called that premise into question. They teach that America is not only not an exceptional country, but many believe that America has not even been a force for good in the world. They question free market economy as a engine of economic prosperity to be replace by social justice engineered by an ever-expanding and immensely expensive government. And now they are joined by a substantial part of the Democratic Party and President Obama who have largely signed on to this outlook. There are undoubtedly aspects of American history that are less than idea, even deplorable. And this is how left-wing historians present their argument, by comparing America to a utopian ideal that does not exist or has never existed. No nation on earth could stand up to such a comparison. The clear arc of American history has been for liberty, first landowners, next ordinary white males, then blacks, and finally women. And throughout this process, ordinary individuals, often uneducated and disdained by the cultural elite now dominating American universities have voted with their feet. Left-wing historians stress the tenements and crowded, unhealthy conditions of the rising American industrial cities in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, offering this as proof of capitalist exploitation of the working man. The central question which they are terrified their students might ask, is why if conditions are so bad did emigrants come to America in a steady stream. The simple answer is the obvious, living and working conditions were better in America than anywhere in Europe. And they were better because of the wealth creating engine of free market capitalism unimpeded by governmental restricts and costly bureaucracies. That dynamic of political and economic liberty crushed first the expansionist German Empire and then the totalitarian dictatorships rejecting liberal democracy and capitalism. Today many Americans unaware of the role of government in creating economic crisis are also questioning free market capitalism and American exceptionalism.

Killer Apps: Economic and Political Liberty

It is no accident that in the same year America declared its independence as a democratic republic, that an obscure Scottish economist, Adam Smith, published The Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith explained the operation of free market capitalism and not country embraced his ideas like the new American Republic. Thus from the onset, America was an exceptional country, embracing the two killer apps of state success, political and economic liberty. Most Europeans intent on defining a nation in ethnic terms saw America as exceptional, but in a negatgive sense. Many in Europe were were convinced that it would not succeed or even last. The Germans in particular thought this way, but were hardl the only Europeans.

Academic Statement

One of the most important scholars addressing the subject of American exceptionalism wrote, America’s unique ideology "can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire." The whole idea has attracted the interest of Marxists because acording to Marx's 'scientific' theory. The Revolution should take place first in the advanced inustrial countries. And American as the largest most advaznced industrial country ofzll. Yet the Revolution took place in backward, largely agrarian Russia. The concept of American exceptionalism was used to explain “why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party.” [Lipset] We would rephrase this because the Democratic Party in reent years has become an increasingly socialist political party.

American Achievements

Many countries have made important achievements in world history. TheGreeks invented democracy. The Romans are renowned for achectuure ans law. The French are known for art and the Germans for music. The Chinese in the mediveal era were a jor source of technology. The Russians are known for literature. The Dutch and English invented capitalism. Every country have made a contribution of some kind. The idea of Americn exceptionalism is a theory that America's contribution and society is unique or pronounced. We believe it is. Abd we beliece that there are a long list of anerican ideals nd acomplshments that subsstantiate America's status unique. America like any country is not wih out its misteps and misdeds, but the acomplishments are so immense that America hasmore than earned its status as an exceptiomal xountry. Here we are going to list some of those achievements and the reader can juge for his or herself. We do not pretend that our list is complete, but it is long enough and syffucently impressive to firmly establish Ameriuca's unique status as an exceptionally noble country. Many countries have made importnt contributions to the orld, but no country coms even cloe to the achivements of America. So let's discuss America's phenomenal achievements.

Reason: Freedom

The next issue to be ansered is why America developed as an exceptional country. Why was America soexceptional?. The answer we believe is fairly simple. It was was th syrendipitous fusion of two important historical threds: 1) freedom and 2) manifest destiny. America's foundation came a great turning point of history. Finally after milenia, indididuals had freedom within their grasp. And Americans grasped both political and economic freedom. The firsr step was political freedom--democracy. America declred independence from Britain (1776). America did not invent democraccy. Democracy was develping in Britain for centuries beginning with Magn Cara (1215). But it was still incomplete and the monarchy still played a powerful role. Ameica seized on democracy as a national cro like no other country at a time that the British were still uneasy with the udea. . America took the next step in the decelopment of political freedom, the formation of a republic. This was a huge development in a world mostly ruled by democraxies. And America was on its way to universal sufferage. It would take some tome to chieve, byt the suferage as it was moreexpansive than any other country. Most other countries did not even have any form of popular vote. The cognocenti in Europe scoffed at the udea that aepublic was fesible and expected the anerican experiment to soon coillose. It dud not. The second stepo was economic freedom. Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations (1776). And like democracy, the americans also seized on it. Not country implemented cpitalism to the extentbmerica dis. And the result was economic growth, entrpreneurial spirto, and innivation beyond that of any country in history. Other countries in Europe were playing with democravy and Europe to varying degtees with somr success, most notably the Dutch and British. Bit not countries emvraced political and democratic freedom to the same extent Amrrica did. And even more importantly, mnifest destiny gave the Anericabs and freedom and virgin continent with which to let loose the force of freedomnnd humn inoitative.

Assessments of American History and the Utopian Ideal

The There are undoubtedly aspects of American history that are less than idea, even deplorable. And this is how left-wing historians present their argument, by comparing America to a utopian ideal that does not exist or has never existed. No nation on earth could stand up to such a comparison. Only a perfect people could achieve this. I have had internt debates and individuals have suggested that there are many countries with more ethical histories. Sweden and Switerland often come up. And my interlocators are shicked when i explain aittle about these countries. The Swedes for example during World war II supplied iron ore to the Grmans, without which the German war econony could not have d=functioned. And the Swiss not only provided industrual products to the Germans, but turned over Jews over to the Germans, but refused to pay off insurance policies to Holocaust survivors. And neither of these couuntries saved Europeans three times from authoriarian/totalitarian countries intent on ruloing the continent. Despite our wars and blemishes, The clear arc of American history has been for liberty, first landowners, next ordinary white males, then blacks, and finally women. And throughout this process, ordinary individuals, often uneducated and disdained by the cultural elite now dominating American universities have voted with their feet. Left-wing historians stress the tenements and crowded, unhealthy conditions of the rising American industrial cities in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, offering this as proof of capitalist exploitation of the working man. The central question which they are terrified their students might ask, is why if conditions are so bad did emigrants come to America in a steady stream. The simple answer is the obvious, living and working conditions were better in America than anywhere in Europe. And they were better because of the wealth creating engine of free market capitalism unimpeded by governmental restricts and costly bureaucracies. That dynamic of political and economic liberty crushed first the expansionist German Empire and then the totalitarian NAZI and Soviet dictatorships rejecting liberal democracy and capitalism. Today many Americans unaware of the role of government in creating economic crisis are also questioning free market capitalism and American exceptionalism.

Modern Debate

The great debate in American history is today if the United States is an exceptional country. There did not use to be such a vehement debate on this, but today progressives or the American left take great umbrage at the very idea. They have moved to remove the pledge of alligance from the schools and want to fundamentally change how young Americans think of their country. Several readers have engaged CIH on this issue.

Freedom

No one set out the issue more clearly than President Lincoln in his Gettyburg Address (1863). In the century and a half that has trnspired, the world has changed, but the fundametal issue has not--human liberty. idea of American exceptionalism did not use to be an issue. The young men and boys who took up arms in the Civil War. They understood intuitively with only a very basic education what President Lincoln put into unforgettable words, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." America at the time was the only democratic republic of any importance. Left wing college professors imbued with Marxist ideology have since called that premise into question. They teach that America is not only not an exceptional country, but many believe that America has not even been a force for good in the world. They question free market economy as a engine of economic prosperity to be replace by social justice engineered by an ever-expanding and immensely expensive government. And now they are joined by a substantial part of the Democratic Party and President Obama who have largely signed on to this outlook. The President in an effort to be witty, responded to a question. " I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." But the rest of his answer suggests that he may not have etirely rejected the idea, although he would never admit that. "We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.... I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

Isolation and Size

A reader contends, "The thing is whoever wins wars gets to say their story is true. Soviets were very powerful after the WWII. Communism has an incredible appeal even today. It failed practically, but the influence remains. The basic fact remains: Worlds largest inhabitable landmass, one of the largest energy reserves, two oceans make foreign invasions nearly impossible (stability), leading to a large self sufficient country rich for human habitation. Give any large civilization 100 years of peace and self rule, and things follow. The US became the world's largest economy only after 1890: 115 years post independence. China became independent in 1949. In 2064, i.e. 115 years later, it will be at least if not more powerful than the US: Economically, militarily, politically. By 2064, the Chinese will definitely start leading on innovation, if they are not already. Nothing is exceptional."

What you say is simply inaccurate and demonstrably so, at least in out modern age. We will accept that you have been told that over and over again, but repeating an inaccuracy does not make it true. American won World War II, but there is a very extensive assessment and debate over every aspect of the War, including the atomic bomb, the strategic bombing campaign, our strategy, our failure to support the Allies at the onset, even the rise of the NAZIs. Thees and many other issues are hotly debated in adademic circles and on the internet. What you describe is true of other countries as well. The Russians lost the Cold war, but it has not prevented Russian nationalists from writing a very creative history of Stalin and the Cold War. The Arabs have lost war after war, but it has not prevented them from blaming everything on British colonialism (which lasted a very short period in the Middle East), America, and of course the Jews.. The thing is that much of what you describe about America is true of other countries such as Tsarist Russia, Brazil, Spanish South America, and China. But only America succeeded and succeeded spectacularly. The matters you mention are important, but it is the ideas that America adopted that made all the difference--making us exceptional even today, although I will agree that Obama and his acolytes are doing their best to change this.

Or take China. Chiang and the Nationalists achieved independence well before 1949. What you call independence, was the seizure of power by a vicious totalitarian dictatorship which killed 75 million people--four to five times more people than the Japanese. The Communist won the Civil War, but the history of China is well established, including monstrous totalitarian crimes. We will agree with in one area--the rapid rise of China. But it certainly did not begin in 1949 and it is the perfect proof of how wrong you are about America's rise. The Communists created enormous poverty. The rise of China began with Deng and capitalist market reforms during the 1970s. Notice that it is not isolation, raw materials, productive farm land, and the other factors you mention ect that made the difference in China. All this was true before AND after Deng's reforms. It was ideas that changed--market capitalism. (The same is true of the Asian Tigers.) And if they continue to foster a capitalist economy, they may well supersede America as the preeminent world power, especially if America continues down the path of socialism. .

Other Western countries

A reader takes excption. He writes, "I think that compared to other New world Anglophone countries and EU countries, America is not particularly exceptional, except for its land mass and population. So if Germany or Australia have land mass and population as big as America, it will just be as powerful as America. All new world Anglophone countries turned wilderness into productive economies in a short period of time. But compared to other Anglophone countries, America has the largest area, best climate, location (close to Europe) and longest duration of settlement."

Now we do not entirely disagree with that because a substantial part of what makes America tick is Western Civilization. And another part is British law and economics in particular. But that said said we had our own unique experiences that made us different. 1. The Frontier had a major impact on Americans, instilling a sense of adventure and problem solving. Americans began evaluating each other based ot on who they were, but on their character and abilities. It also helped create a individualism that is an important part of our national ethos.,. 2. The Frontier also created a land owning middle class with evenly distributed farms. There was no landless peasantry and large estates as in Europe. 3. The early Protestant foundation instilled a worth ethic and a commitment to public education which created a equal opportunity. It also created an educated population that would play an important role in the new age of industry and science. 4. The mix of religions (beginning with Protestant denominations) forced religious toleration. Unlike Europe there was no established church in America. And even non Christians found toleration. Jews in the 9th century and Muslims, Hindus, an other today. 5. The mix of ethnicities, forced ethnic toleration. There was no one dominant ethnic community. 6. No country adopted freedom (the essence of Western civilization) as fervently as America, both political freedom (democracy) and economic freedom (capitalism).. And until recently, Americans had no interest in the socialism that proved so popular in many other countries. Now I will grant you that Europe today has adopted many of these features, but not all. America adopted them first and most fervently.. Which is why America in the 20th century saved not only Western Civilization, but China as well. And in the Cold War, it was America that again saved Europe, this time from Soviet totalitarianism. And while today Europe is on a par with america in most aspects, the strong commitment to Socialism not only holds Europe back, but may undo the whole EU project..

America and Islam

Primarily because of American support for Israel, America in the eyes of many Arabs and other Muslims has been precieved as hostile. American support for Arab government which are mostly undemocratic has also angered many Arabs. The Fundamentalists charge that America is an evil society that has launched a war on Islam. Fundamentalits widen their appeal now charge that America has launched a war on Islam itself. This of course has not stopped large numbers of Muslims from emograting to the United states to pursue the american dreeam. In fact America has consistently acted to prevent starvation and mass murder of Islamic people as well as making major contributions to Muslim countries suffering natural disasters. Some of these countrie are oil rich and others are impoverished countries of no real ecomnomic importance. The countries or people include: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Indonesia, Kosovo, Kurds, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries nd peoples, . America has often been accused of making war for oil. In fact in all of these countries, only Kuwait has important oil resources. And in Kuwait only Sadam seized the oil fields. After liberation, control of the oil fields immeiately returned to Kuwati control. There are Islamic scholars who dispute the Fundamentalits. Some even maintain that America is more Islamic (just and tolerant) than fundamntalist states like the Taliaban in Afghanistan. In addition to specifuc efforts to assist Muslim people and countries, American technology and medical sxience has saved millions of people around the world including countless Muslims.

Sources

Lipset, Seymour Martin.

Obama, Barak. First overseas trip as president, (2009).






CIH







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Created: 10:48 PM 2/20/2013
Last updated: 5:07 AM 4/30/2016