American exceptionalism

The idea of American exceptionalism, together with past American greatness, is often discussed in US politics, most recently in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The concept of American exceptionalism was introduced long ago by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic book, Democracy in America (1835/1840). The following sentence from volume 2, chapter 9 of the 1972 translation is frequently cited: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.”

But what did de Tocqueville really mean? The chapter that contains the sentence is itself titled “The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, and Art”.

This hardly suggests that de Tocqueville used the term ‘exceptional’ in the sense of in the sense of ‘superior’ or ‘great’.

Professor T. David Gordon explains.

Note what Tocqueville is saying [in the chapter’s title]: Although Americans have no aptitude or taste for science, literature, or art, this does not mean that democratic people in other circumstances would suffer from the same liability. That is, he concedes that Americans have no aptitude or taste for science, literature, or art, but argues that this is due to the particular American experience, and is no natural concomitant to democracy. ….
[This paragraph] contains the oft-misquoted sentence:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.

What was “exceptional” about the American “position” is its peculiar history that had led it to its present (to Tocqueville) circumstance, in which the American mind was devoted to almost nothing but pragmatic/practical interests. Only his religion, Tocqueville sighs, occasionally relieves the American of his unseemly mundaneness and bids him to a “transient … glance” at more transcendent concerns.

The American is “exceptional,” in other words, in his lack of artistic or intellectual culture. But this is not damning with faint praise; this is damning with vigorous criticism. I might as well refer to a failing student as “exceptional,” because all the other students are passing the course. Or imagine a college advertising itself as an “exceptional” college, where it attempts “to divert minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts.”

Rhetorically, Tocqueville was trying to persuade others that democracy was a good form of government; and his problem, rhetorically, was that the American example appeared to provide counter-evidence. Tocqueville was embarrassed that a free people had employed their freedom for mundane or commercial pursuits; so in order to rescue democracy, Tocqueville argued that it only looks like a bad form of government in America because of America’s peculiar (“exceptional”) history. Freed from this peculiar history, Tocqueville argued, democracy would work fine.

Whether America ever was or is exceptional is a matter for more discussion, but Tocqueville’s own estimate of 19th-century America was mixed at best and negative at worst. He would have preferred that democracy had produced a more learned and refined culture. And that’s a side of Alexis de Tocqueville, and his view of America, we don’t often hear or understand.

T. David Gordon, “The Roots of Tocqueville’s American Exceptionalism“, Vision and Values, 1 April 2011.

T. David Gordon (born 1954) is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts college located about 80 km north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

See also the blog of Rev. Byron Williams, “The Myth of American Exceptionalism and the Uniqueness of America”, Huffington Post, 12 December 2015.

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3 Responses to “American exceptionalism”

  1. Douglas O. Walker says:

    From that day in 1630 when John Winthrop first expressed his desire that his fellow Puritans establish a “City Upon a Hill” down to this very day there is a pervasive sense that America is exceptional among the nations of the world. Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America that the United States was different from other countries and held a special place among nations because it was the first working representative democracy and a country of unique morals and opinions inhabited by a people sharing a common destiny rooted in freedom and liberty and the prosperity that comes from respect for private property and the rule of law.

    In the first instance, America is exceptional because it was founded from scratch by a people who did their very best to reject the history of the past and all the baggage and corruption that came with it. Immigrants to this country, especially those from Europe, came here with the express intention of leaving the past behind and starting afresh in a new country in an open land with what was almost an unlimited frontier of immense possibilities. Across a continent of fertile soil networked by navigable rivers in a temperate climate they and their children built a forward-looking and self-reliant and generous civilization, focused on the future and separated by a great ocean from the historical preoccupations and terrible legacies that are so much a part of the ancient civilizations they left behind.

    Second, America is exceptional because Americans are mobile geographically and have fewer reminders of their past in the way of art and houses and monuments and traditional ties to place and social class. They are not obsessed with their ancestry and the position they inherited by consequence of the circumstances and place of their birth nor are they constrained by stifling values of the monarchies and aristocracies they left behind. Liberty and individualism and egalitarianism and self-reliance and a strong desire to be free from the formal authority of church and state have molded a distinctive culture unique to America, with an emphasis on the rights of individuals in private property and to equality before the law and their Maker.

    Third, Americans see history as a gentle reminder of where they have been rather than a heavy weight on their future. They are rooted in the present, not the past, and look to influence the future. They want to change the world, not be bound by it, and simply do not accept that the future is in any sense determined by impersonal forces that limit their possibilities. Historical determinism is, after all, one of the major points of Marxism and other European theories of history, and it is rejected by Americans because it is inconsistent with their vision of the limitless future of a nation protected by a Creator with a purpose for every American. American determinism is shaped by their own hands and a gift from God, not a legacy of history imposed by fate.

    Finally, America is exceptional because it has nurtured a people who view the world as one of grandeur beyond the ability of mere mortals to comprehend. For this reason, the typical American tends to be anti-intellectual, in the best sense of the word. Pragmatic and forward looking in their view of the world, Americans are not seeking intricate theoretical explanations of philosophical notions about the nature of the world but simple practical ideas relevant to the problems of an active life. Americans do things rather than think about things and live a life of outward action and faith rather than inward acceptance and contemplation. They are not interested in never ending philosophical speculations about complex and insoluble riddles which in their mind bear little relation to their lives and their future and in any event have no real essence. To Americans, science and the scientific method inform practical matters. God and faith inform those areas where metaphysics reigns. Moreover, the strong religious influence in America’s Puritan past was absorbed into the American mainstream where the idea of America as the “City Upon the Hill” serves as a new and unique model community for the rest of the world.

    While America is exceptional, Americans are not. They are merely a people blessed by living in America and burdened with the responsibility of passing their blessings to their children.

  2. Douglas, you seem to agree with de Tocqueville’s observation that Americans’ “strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, … seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts ….” In short, the typical 19th century American was very practical and anti-intellectual, except for “religion alone [, which] bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven”. Unlike de Tocqueville, though, you consider anti-intellectualism to be a virtue, not a character flaw.

    I fail to understand your concluding paragraph: “While America is exceptional, Americans are not. They are merely a people blessed by living in America and burdened with the responsibility of passing their blessings to their children.”

    How does America (the 50 US states) differ from the sum of its inhabitants? ‘America’ cannot possibly refer to geography, because America’s aboriginal inhabitants were not blessed before or after the arrival of Europeans. By ‘America’, do you mean Puritan values, which can possibly be transmitted to children? Or do you mean something else?

  3. Further response from Douglas O. Walker:

    Any people benefiting from the extensive physical landscape, the lack of borders, the abundance of resources, the low population density combined with a common, already developed culture, the relative isolation from wars of its ancestors combined with inheriting relatively advanced and well developed institutions and technology means that the situation, not the people, laid the foundation for great progress and shaped their outlook.

    Obviously, the European heritage shaped the particulars but similar progress in my view would have been made had North American been discovered by (Asian) Indians, Chinese or Japanese, civilizations that had had the time and numbers to develop an extensive division of labor, a rich trial and error history of what works and what doesn’t, and set of institutions for governing society. In this environment, any people introduced to a “wild, open and extensive” frontier would have developed similar religious views as to the role of the Creator and their place in this world. What makes one civilization focus more on the Creator than another, I have no idea.

    If one doesn’t like the term “blessed” for finding what was for practical purposes an empty continent one my say the Europeans (and eventually, the Americans) were (undeservedly) “lucky”. Could the aboriginal inhabitants have developed a civilization matching the Europeans (or Asians), sure, if given enough time they no doubt would have. By the way, same is true for Africans, who faced (and face) substantial physical problems in terms of the geography of Africa that other peoples did not have to contend with, namely, very poor soil, climate, non-navigable rivers, few harbors, and many diseases among other barriers to economic progress. Given these handicaps, it is not surprising Africans lag in the process of world development. In my view, humanity is destined to rise, when and where depends on circumstances and history.

    The point here is that American exceptionalism refers to the fact there is no where else on earth where the particular physical and cultural circumstances allowed for the rapid rise of a civilization from scratch. Hence, it rose quickly. Nor will this rise ever be repeated because the earth is now fully discovered and for practical purposes fully intwined in ways not previously seen. Moreover, mankind’s advance will be encumbered by the legacies and rigidities inherited from the past, differing from continent to continent. Only North, and to a lesser degree South, America was uniquely “blessed”.

    Bottom line, it is not people who are exceptional, but the ideas and ideals that arose from unique circumstances that are not readily reproducible. Yes, many of those ideas and ideals in America come from its Puritan roots and its European background. And, yes, those ideas and ideals were shaped by a much more pragmatic outlook than those of the Europeans precisely because they were developed in a very different landscape than Europe. For this reason, American ideas and ideals are in many respects uniquely suited for Americans and as we have learned have difficulty traveling across the Great Ponds that separate us from others. Can others benefit from American ideas and ideals? Of course, just as we can, and do, benefit from theirs. But contra Obama, American exceptionalism has nothing to do with the exercise of American power and influence in the world except insofar as all people look to others for better ideas. In this, Americans as a source of influence are no different from anyone else.

    Douglas O. Walker, Ph.D.