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American Exceptionalism - Some Definitions

When the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his seminal work Democracy in America (1835/1840), a piece of American studies scholarship avant la lettre which records his 1831/32 journey through the United States, that “the position of Americans was quite exceptional(Democracy Vol. 2, 36; my emphasis), he did not imply that Americans were exceptional or special as a people or culture, but referred to the uniqueness of the American political system. American democracy for him contrasted sharply with the situation in his native France, which for the past decades had been characterized by violent revolutions and counter-revolutions and the restoration of monarchical rule. Tocqueville saw the democratic system that he studied in the United States as God-willed and thought that it was only a matter of time before it would spread to other countries; he felt that in the US this system had taken root in ‘exceptional’ ways only in so far as that it had been able to do so in the absence of feudal structures and aristocratic opposition.

The passage quoted above is often taken as a foundational scholarly reference to American exceptionalism, yet, American exceptionality was soon decon- textualized from this particular instance and used to describe the genesis of the American nation in much more comprehensive and sweeping terms; political scientist Byron E. Shafer for example flatly states that “American exceptionalism [...] is the notion that the United States was created differently, developed differently, and thus has to be understood differently - essentially on its own terms and within its own context” (Preface v). Differently from what, we may ask, and in what ways in particular? And what does this difference imply? Often, the phrase ‘exceptionalism’ has been used in very unspecific ways to claim American superiority vis-a-vis non-Americans and to legitimate American hegemony outside of the US; it also conveys notions of uniqueness and predestination.

American exceptionalism is an ideology that we find throughout US-Ameri- can history in various forms and discourses of self-representation. It gains renewed relevance and even normativity with the formation of American studies as a discipline in the first half of the 20th century, and becomes the blueprint and guiding principle for many scholarly publications on the United States. While

American studies scholarship analyzes American exceptionalism, it may at the same time also produce new exceptionalist narratives. Even though the ideology of American exceptionalism is a fuzzy conglomerate of very different ingredients, three types can be identified that recur time and again in political, artistic, and popular discourses, past and present: a religious exceptionalism, a political exceptionalism, and an economic exceptionalism.

Regarding the religious dimension of American exceptionalism, Deborah Madsen reminds us that the concept of American exceptionalism “is used frequently to describe the development of American cultural identity from Puritan origins to the present” (American Exceptionalism 2). The Puritan rhetoric of the Promised Land can be considered to be the origin of American exceptionalism. According to Madsen, “the mythology of the redeemer nation” can be “explained with reference to seventeenth-century Puritan sermons, poetry and prose” (ibid. 16). It is in John Winthrop’s image of the City upon a Hill, in William Bradford’s history of Plymouth Colony as well as in Puritan journals that we find the belief of the first generation of New England settlers in their special destiny as ‘God’s chosen people’ expressed (cf. chapter 3). This belief has been surprisingly persistent in the course of US-American history and has been modified into secular and semi-secular variations.

The political dimension of American exceptionalism comes closer to what Tocqueville may have had in mind when he used the adjective ‘exceptional’ in reference to the founding and development of the US-American nation. The writings of, for example, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine reflect the exceptionalist discourse surrounding the political founding of the American republic. When Paine declares that “[w]e have it in our power to begin the world over again” (Common Sense 45), he is establishing a creation mythology of the American nation that has been reaffirmed by numerous authors, for example by Seymour Martin Lipset, who calls the US “the first new nation” (cf. his book of the same title). References to founding documents and founding figures (to be addressed in chapter 4 of this study) affirm the shared sense of a secularized doctrine of US-American predestination. The particular (and to cultural outsiders often quite overbearing) type of American patriotism already considered to be somewhat annoying by Alexis de Tocqueville needs to be placed in the context of a self-image that is built on the notion of the exceptionality of American democratic republicanism.

The economic dimension of American exceptionalism is often connected to notions of a new kind of individualism that corresponds to but at the same time also exceeds the realm of the political, and valorizes self-interest as legitimate and necessary for the well-being of the body politic. American individualism is often seen as a precondition for individual success, which is mostly understood in economic terms. The notion of social mobility epitomized in the cultural figure of the self-made man - from rags to riches, “from a servant to the rank of a master” (Crevecoeur, Letters 60) - prototypically illustrates the promise of economic success in America as a direct consequence of the conditions of freedom and equality, which in this context is understood as equality of opportunity. The myth of the self-made man and the idea of expressive individualism (to be addressed in more detail in chapter 7 of this book) are part of a utopian narrative that promises a better life to all those who come to the US, and thus also is very much an immigrant myth. Within the typology of the present study, this myth is identified as the secularized version of the religiously and politically informed mythic narratives of American exceptionalism. In a broader sense, it (along with the other myths) is part of the civil religious vision of the American dream, which figures as a kind of ‘umbrella myth’ that encompasses all others (cf. Fluck, “Kultur”).

Clustered around these three strands of the ideology of American exception- alism that champion religiosity, patriotism, and individualism, we find mythic narratives of historical figures (Columbus and Pocahontas) and models (the melting pot, the West) with which they are interrelated. Yet, one could even more broadly claim that exceptionalism is “a form of interpretation with its own language and logic” (Madsen, American Exceptionalism 2). American exceptionalism thus is not only about what is represented (historical figures, incidents, interactions, and achievements) but also about how American matters are depicted and emplotted - i.e., about the semiotics and politics of representation. The “language and logic” of American exceptionalism are modes of narrative framing, iconic visualization, and ritualistic enactment. Often, these modes have been identified as articulating American civil religion; the concept of civil religion (which was first used by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, cf. Social Contract 249-50) suggests not merely a utilitarian relation to religion, but one that borrows selectively from religious traditions of various denominations in order to create “powerful symbols of national solidarity” (Bellah, “Civil Religion” 239). American civil religion presents an institutionalized collection of sacred or quasi-sacred beliefs about the American nation that is distinct from denominational religions, yet shares with them a belief in the existence of a transcendent being (God); it centers on the idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws and that the United States will be guided and protected by God. Symbolically, this civil religion is expressed in America’s founding documents and made concrete in phrases such as ‘In God We Trust’ (ibid. 228). The American exceptionalist logic conceptualized as American civil religion by

Robert Bellah and others had earlier also been called the American Creed: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence” (Chesterton, What I Saw 7). Gunnar Myrdal refers to the “American Creed” as “a social ethos” and as a “political creed” which functions as “the cement” in the structure of the nation and is identified with “America’s peculiar brand of nationalism” (American Dilemma 1, 5). Both Gilbert K. Chesterton and Gunnar Myrdal, cultural outsiders (from England and Sweden, respectively) for who the US was an object of scholarly interest, developed influential interpretations of American patriotism’s ideals as well as its deficits.

Whereas we can clearly see the symbolic languages of politics and religion coming together in the notion of a civil religion and an American creed, the economic aspect also plays an important role as the genuine “promise of American life” (cf. Croly’s study of the same title), which entails the promise of economic self-improvement and gain, just as, in turn, the proverbial “gospel of wealth” (cf. Carnegie, “Wealth”) connects economic success to communal obligation in the framework of national solidarity and belonging. In its dominant and recurring themes as well as in its overall rhetorical structure, American exceptionalism informs and structures American self-representations. It has been important in fashioning internal coherence and has also often been used as an ideological tool to project American hegemony outside the US. American myths thus play a crucial role in the symbolization and affirmation of the US nation; it is their cultural work, so to speak, to make discursive constructions of the nation plausible and self-evident, to create internal solidarity and commitment to the nation state and its policies, and to represent the US to outsiders. Myth in general, as it operates on the level of (often tacit) belief rather than rationality, can be seen as the prime discursive form of ideology; the myths discussed in this book can then be assumed more specifically to reinforce the basic tenets of American exception- alism also and maybe even mainly below the level of awareness whenever they are evoked.

American studies and American exceptionalism have been connected in precarious ways from the beginning. During the emergence and consolidation of American studies as a discipline around the beginning of the ‘Cold War’ era, American exceptionalism was a powerful hegemonic construct that proliferated in the form of “an academic discourse, a political doctrine, and a regulatory ideal assigned responsibility for defining, supporting, and developing the U.S. national identity” (Pease, “Exceptionalism” 109). For the practitioners of American studies, this meant that

[h]istoiians and political theorists [as well as scholars from other disciplines, HP] approached the past in search of historical confirmations of the nation’s unique mission and destiny. Examining the past became for scholars who were steeped in exceptionalist convictions a personal quest whereby they would understand the meaning of their “American” identity by uncovering the special significance of the nation’s institutions. (ibid. 110)

Historically, American studies in part have thus been complicit in establishing and maintaining discourses which sought to justify US imperial policies in the ‘Cold War’ - and beyond.

 
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