Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have suggested that President Obama, and the Democratic Party, have lost faith in the principle of American exceptionalism. In fact, it’s difficult to tell whether Palin, Gingrich et. al. understand the meaning of the phrase, which seems to be subject to as many interpretations as there are interpreters. The concept probably originated with de Tocqueville who was talking about people who “... enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.” This was a comparison with European nations at the time of de Tocqueville’s visit to the US, and wasn’t intended as a projection of the future.
Rush Limbaugh phrased it differently. “The US is the first time in the history of the world where a government was organized with a Constitution laying out the rules, that the individual was supreme and dominant, and that is what led to the US becoming the greatest country ever because it unleashed people to be the best they could be. Nothing like it had ever happened. That’s American exceptionalism.”
Mr. Limbaugh is sort of right, if you’re prepared to ignore things like Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” There’s also Article Four, Section 2, Clause 3: “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”
When the House Republicans read the Constitution they used a version that was edited to exclude those parts that had been changed by amendments, so that they never had to mention either slavery or prohibition.
Finally the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote, “The notion of “American exceptionalism” became widely applied in the context of efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the United States. The major question subsumed in the concept became why the United States is the only industrialized country which does not have a significant socialist movement or Labor party. “
Part of the problem may be differences in the meaning of “exceptional”. The original term probably comes from an 1838 translation of de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”, at which time, the Oxford English Dictionary has only examples of the word with a meaning of “different” and without the implied favor. In modern usage, “exceptional” indicates superiority (the rarely used word “exceptionable” may be used to mean an objectionable difference.)
When the Right Wing uses the term American Exceptionalism, they seem to man something more akin to “Manifest Destiny.” William Safire lists one of the earliest uses as an 1824 statement by Andrew Jackson who described the US as “a country manifestly called by the Almighty to a destiny which Greece and Rome might have envied.” Later, the term was used to say that the United States was destined to reach across the continent to the Pacific. In 1846, Robert C. Winthrop spoke of “the right of our manifest destiny to spread over this whole continent.” In 1865, James Gordon Bennett wrote a New York Herald editorial, “it is our manifest destiny to lead and rule all other nations.” That was published the day that Union forces occupied the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., but it still seems like big talk for a country that couldn’t even hold itself together.
The United States is exceptional – it’s the only nation that was brought together by a philosophy. Other nations owe their existence to religion, or tribal traditions, or political subdivision. The United States was largely influenced by the Utilitarian philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the proper course of action in any circumstance is the one that provides the greatest pleasure to the greatest number for the longest time, and reduces suffering in a similar manner. It’s a good philosophy, and following it would imply programs like universal healthcare and increased funding of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – even if it means raising taxes on the rich (but not so much that it hurts a lot). American Exceptionalism is less a state of being than a goal, and we still have some distance to go.
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2013
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