American Exceptionalism and Historical Scholarship

Over the past several years I’ve noticed in the blogosphere and elsewhere a debate over the concept of American exceptionalism.  I tried not to pay much attention to it, because much of the debate seemed to act as a surrogate for something else.  However, in going through newspapers at home this morning (part of the never-ending effort to recycle all the paper that comes into this house), I came across this article, which was also recycled in our local paper.

So much of this argument has so little to do with trying to understand what we mean by American exceptionalism that I’m hard-pressed to know where to begin.  But I do think we can break down elements of the argument and consider them.  Let’s see if that engenders some sound discussion or more of the same partisan bickering …

1.  Do nations believe they are exceptional?  Sure they do.  Ever been to France?  Ever been to Great Britain?  The French (at least the ones in Paris … some people make the mistake of equating Paris with France, although no one would make the mistake of equating America with New York) think they are very special.  So do the British.  We even concede that in in odd sort of way.  If someone speaks with a French or a British accent (and “a British accent” is in itself problematic, since there are many accents circulating in the UK, and I’m sure that’s true elsewhere … we’d all laugh at the notion of “an American accent”), we immediately accord some special characteristics to them.  There’s no other way to explain the popularity of Hugh Grant.  President Obama was playing off this notion of everyone thinking they’re exceptional by alluding to it.  Get a sense of wry humor, people.  Americans are not alone in thinking that their country is exceptional.  Most people think their country is in some way exceptional.  It’s hard to understand British imperialism in any other way.

2.  This “American exceptionalism” is a topic for American historians.  It is so in two ways.  First, we can look at exceptional circumstances.  The United States benefited from them, and those circumstances shaped national development.  They include plentiful land and natural resources, the presence of weak neighbors (no need to pour money into national security), the preservation of a European balance of power (through the help of British interests) that promoted development (the primary human agency that made the Monroe Doctrine possible was the Royal Navy), and so on.  American historians have always been aware of these circumstances, although some are more explicit than others.  Second, there is the fact that most Americans think they are exceptional (and superior), an assumption that has been important in discussing American thought and action in a number of areas, including foreign policy.  Not all Americans agree about the nature and source of that exceptionalism.  Some attribute it to ideology; others to circumstances; others to a divine source; others to some combination of the first three.

3.  Having said that, the question becomes most touchy when it comes to addressing the concept that the United States is the chosen country of some divine being (let’s call this being God … I do), that Americans are God’s chosen people, and so on.  Many people believe this on some level.  Some people advance this as a guiding principle.  For me, it’s one thing to say in a classroom that many, perhaps most Americans think that they are a chosen people who were chosen by a supreme being; it’s another to state that as fact.  Belief, faith and fact are different things.  To preach religious belief as fact in my classroom would be no different in my opinion that preaching my political preferences as “fact,” or to make what I believe the basis for a course.  I have beliefs, just as I have political opinions, and I think it is not part of my job description or personal obligation or mission to try to convert people to those beliefs.  My job as I see it is to make them think and reason, to learn how to develop ideas and arguments, support them, and defend them, all the while participating in a broader dialogue of mutual respect where what’s deplored is sloppiness in its broadest sense.  Others may believe differently, and I respect that, even when I think the result may be problematic.  My own sense is that many people are not critical of the academy for teaching certain beliefs so long as those people agree with the beliefs being taught; they claim that the academy is “politically correct” or dominated by dastardly secular interests or is a cover for proselytizing religious beliefs when they don’t agree with what’s being taught, and all would be well if the academy simply taught what they believed.  Mind you, when we don’t like it here or elsewhere, it’s “indoctrination.”   But when we like it …

As students of the Civil War, we know that many white northerners and southerners thought that they as northerners and southerners were exceptional … not so much the other side.  Each side believed that God was on their side …

I tend to side with Abraham Lincoln when it comes to issues of divine will.  Lincoln repeatedly pointed out that if God was on the side of the United States, then He indeed acted in mysterious ways.  As Lincoln told Thurlow Weed in March 1865, “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.  To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world.”

Moreover, I think it is one thing to profess such principles.  It’s another thing to act upon them.  I happen to think that while words are terribly important, we often render talk as cheap by choice: it’s what we do that matters.  In my second year at Phillips Exeter Academy (a school attended by many Civil War figures and their offspring, by the way), I took a public speaking class from Carl M. Casper.  It met in the basement of Phillips Hall, a main classroom building, where we all sat around a Harkness table (note on exceptionalism … sometimes Exeter behaves as if the tables are exclusive to the Academy).  I remember the class vividly for three reasons.  First, I had a terrible crush on a young lady in the class (she never became aware of it).  Second, I recall reading a passage from Sylvanus Cadwallader’s Three Years with Grant, where Cadwallader describes encountering Grant in the aftermath of the battle of the Wilderness (you can find what I read on pages 180-82 of that book).  Third on the list but first in importance was another speech I was assigned to deliver to the class … Frederick Douglass’s remarks about the Fourth of July, delivered to the people of Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852.  This excerpt of the speech is still worth reading, and I believe it’s this excerpt that I read.  It was a heck of an assignment.  It’s fundamentally shaped my thinking on this subject.

That’s what good teaching is all about.  Well done, Mr. Caspar … and thanks.

2 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism and Historical Scholarship

  1. James F. Epperson December 8, 2010 / 4:56 pm

    Here is my take on this: I happen to think the US is a very exceptional place, but I don’t think it is a good idea to mandate teaching something like this. If the true history of the country is taught—warts and all—then I think the exceptional qualities will be self-evident to all but the utterly closed-minded. In fact, one of the exceptional qualities is the very lack of a requirement for teachers to toot the national horn.

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