Sticks, Stones, and American Exceptionalism

The Progress of AmericaThe Progress of America. Domenico Tojetti, 1875 (Photo: Oakland Museum of California)

On February 18, 2015, in a fundraiser for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Mayor of New York City Rudolph Giuliani joined the parade of accusers in American politics – accusing President Obama of not loving this country. He was the latest exemplar of politics-as-accusation, by which politicians and polemicists attack another politician, even a President, for being anti-colonialist or having an anti-colonialist agenda; for not believing in American exceptionalism; and for hating America. But what do these accusations mean? They seem to claim some link with American history and culture to give them meaning, but what is that connection?

Let’s start with anti-colonialism. We have long had to endure charges, by such people as the journalist, film-maker, and polemicist Dinesh D’Souza and the former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, that President Obama seeks to advance an anti-colonialist agenda, or is anti-colonialist. The writers in question link these accusations with the history of British colonial rule in Africa following World War II, suggesting that President Obama is a radical black socialist like some of those Africans who sought to control their own nations after 1945. They fail to note that such American politicians as Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S Truman brought pressure on such allies as Britain and France to grant independence to their African colonies. That is, they advocated anti-colonialism. More curious, the President’s attackers also seem to forget that the first successful anti-colonial movement in world history was led by such radicals as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, and other eighteenth-century Americans, who in other contexts are celebrated by these writers and their allies as the Founding Fathers. If they venerate the Founding Fathers without recognizing the anti-colonialism at the heart of their politics and of the Declaration of Independence, how seriously should we take this charge of anti-colonialism?

What of American exceptionalism? Most scholars trace the origin of that term either to the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” (Turner cited the nation’s possession of a frontier for most of its history as the factor differentiating America from other nations and peoples) or to Marxist polemicists, who sought to figure out why socialism never established itself as a going concern in American politics, concluding that some exceptional feature of the American character or American history prevented socialism from taking root here.

But there are two much earlier precedents for American exceptionalism, though they didn’t use the specific term. One precedent is the line of thought associated with Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who identified an inherent exceptionalism characteristic of the American people. Americans were somehow naturally better than people in the rest of the world, Paine and Jefferson suggested, because they were free of the influence of old European institutions and practices such as feudalism. In this, Paine and Jefferson echoed the German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who congratulated America for not being haunted by old ghosts.

The other version is associated with John Adams, who voiced it in his 1776 pamphlet Thoughts on Government. Adams wrote not of an inherent exceptionalism of the American people, but rather of an exceptionalism of opportunity for Americans, who had a chance in 1776 to frame wise forms of government. Adams insisted, however, that aside from this opportunity, Americans were no different from any other human beings on the face of the globe, past, present, or future. For him, human nature was human nature, and he worried that Americans might replicate the mistakes of other nations and other peoples if they were not careful to study history and remember that they were neither unique nor uniquely different from the rest of humanity.

The “American exceptionalism” championed by the right does not resemble either of these lines of thought, though it resonates with the inherent exceptionalism favored by Jefferson and Paine. Today’s American exceptionalism looks rather like a familiar, tired strain in American culture – boosterism, the self-congratulation that says that we are the biggest, best, most powerful, wealthiest, most noble, most virtuous, and least sinful people on the planet. It is a long-winded version of the chant, “USA! USA! USA!” It is not really thought at all – it is political self-satisfaction reduced to a phrase fitting on a bumper sticker.

So, too, the accusation that the President hates America does not seem to have thought behind it; instead, it’s a form of chestbeating. Those who use such terms are denouncing anyone who does not share their vision of the country or its history. The sin they attack is not hating America. It is the sin of embracing a different vision of the nation.

Their vision of the nation is of one with a pure and virtuous past, with nothing to complain about or apologize for; of a nation that has always treated everyone fairly, justly, and equally; of a nation whose past is a triumph of justice and progress. To these critics, any critical thinking about that past, any investigation of its less savory elements, is hating America. To them, any acknowledgment that the nation’s record is less than sacrosanct, is hating America. Any attention to those who challenged American injustice or inequality, is hating America.

This, for example, is why opponents of Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2010 attacked her nomination by denouncing the man for whom she clerked – one of the nation’s great heroes, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who won Brown v. Board of Education and attacked key parts of the nation’s past as unjust and unfair. This, for example, is why attention to the history and practice of slavery in the acclaimed film Twelve Years a Slave is attacked as “slavery porn,” another form of hating America. This, for example, is why politicians either attack Advanced Placement guldelines for U.S. History or seek to ban AP courses altogether. This, finally, is why President Obama is attacked for his failure to inspire love of America with his rhetoric – when his rhetoric, like that of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barbara Jordan, and Thurgood Marshall, focuses on extolling those who dared America to live up to the content of its creed, to do what the Constitution’s preamble urges – to form a more perfect Union.

How are we to take these polemicists’ rhetoric seriously, when it celebrates a past and a nation that never was? Isn’t it better to echo poet Langston Hughes’s call to America?

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

About the Author

R. B. Bernstein

R. B. Bernstein teaches at City College of New York's Colin Powell School and New York Law School; his books include Thomas Jefferson (2003), The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (2009), the forthcoming The Education of John Adams, and the forthcoming The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction, all from Oxford University Press.

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  1. You folks give me too much honor. I am not fit to succeed Jon Stewart, and, well, I only sought to state the common sense of the matter. (By the way, my work on American exceptionalism flows from my work on finishing a concise life of John Adams, just so that folks know.)

  2. It was such a joy to read this post. So well written and well thought out. Thank you for taking the time to write and post it.

  3. Is it true, as Wikipedia says, that the first person actually to use the term “American exceptionalism” was Joseph Stalin? (well-known promoter of GOP-stye free enterprise, in the late 1920s). And if so, how do we make this better known?

    1. I went to the article and found that the article identifies Tocqueville’s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA as the first exposition of the concept. It really doesn’t matter that Stalin was the first to use the term, if Wikipedia and its source are right — a large assumption, you will grant. The real problem is the nature and use of the concept and not who happened to put the concept into a phrase.

  4. I would love to hear the author’s take on this subject in relation to the President’s speech at Selma, a brilliant recasting of the question of exceptionalism as Americans struggling to recast the country in the image of its ideals. The historical sweep and thematic resonance were, to my ears, pitch perfect, a worthy admission into the pantheon of Douglass, Jordan, King and others that the author mentions.

    1. I agree with Andrew Lipsett. In my 2009 book THE FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED, I included Obama (and his 2008 Constitution Center speech on race in America and his acceptance speech in November 2008) as fitting successors to the words of Douglass, King, Jordan, and Marshall. I would include the Selma speech as well.

  5. great to see a bit of your work — read your review of Ellis’s latest book in NYT Book Review w/o noticing you were a classmate; but on American exceptionalism, whoever gave birth to the concept, it got a tremendous shot in the arm around 1900, with speeches of Beveridge and others, justifying what Republicans called “expansionism” and Democrats “imperialism”, in connection with taking control of Philippines, Cuba, etc. after Spanish-American War. God had chosen the U.S. for this special mission of bringing democratic government to peoples incapable of governing themselves, bringing order to places where chaos had reigned, etc.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. The concept of Amrican Exceptionalism goes back in some ways to the founding guys, particularly Jefferson and Paine, and to Tocqueville. But you’re right that it undergirds the imperialist experimentalism of Beveridge and others. Indeed, President McKinley specifically invoked the Almighty in explaining why it was the US mission “to civilize our little brown brothers.”.

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