In the Beginning, All the World was America: American Exceptionalism in New Contexts
Abstract and Keywords
This article considers the concept of the so-called American exceptionalism in new contexts. It explains that American exceptionalism is a highly adaptable narrative for commentators on the political culture of the U.S. was first coined in the mid-twentieth century as part of an attempt by social scientists to explain the lack of a revolutionary socialist response to the failures of industrial capitalism in the Great Depression. The article suggests that rather than reversing or redeeming American exceptionalism, the theorist must now confront it and find new ways to read the role played by the U.S. in a new century, and refuse to be tempted by the easy and apolitical escape of identifying the one true and essential American soul.
But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by‐play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, a killer. It has never yet melted.
D. H. Lawrence
The man is too thoroughly torn by inner doubt, too constantly in danger of selling out to his opponents, for a warrior legend ever successfully to be built around him. … Warrior giants, if they are legendary, are also frightening, and it is probably a virtue of the American democrat that he is not a frightening man.
(p. 282) “American exceptionalism” is a highly adaptable narrative for commentators on the political culture of the United States. The American protagonist in exceptionalist literature is both a stoic killer and a benign sell‐out; the narrative posits a republic that manages to be both murderous and banal. Variously, the USA appears as uniquely sacred, ruthlessly secular, hyper‐individualistic, conformist, bland, and profoundly violent. Perhaps it would be unsurprising for any one nation to be all these things in the course of its history; but all of them at once, and in ways that define the country? It is even more striking that generations of politicians and scholars have insisted that the United States has a singular and “essential American soul,” summed up by some defining virtue and a mission of global significance, inhabiting and being shaped by a continental stage that commands the attention of the rest of humanity. A classic example of this tendency is the Declaration of Independence; the revolutionaries preface their christening (“We hold these truths to be self‐evident …”) and their call to war in the New World with an appeal to the “enlightened opinion of mankind.” The republic will be founded as the revolutionaries name themselves and declare their credo before a rational (and presumably rapt) audience.
The fashioning of an exemplary America continued after July 4, 1776; the Declaration was definitional but not definitive. On July 17, 1776, after members of the New York Sons of Liberty toppled a statue of George III, a bystander reacted with an extemporaneous quotation. Nothing peculiar in that; public events in Britain's North American colonies were not infrequently heralded by apropos citations of Biblical or classical texts. This gentleman, however, cited not Jeremiah or Cicero but John Milton, and in doing so conjured up an unlikely exemplar. At the beginning of Paradise Lost, Satan and Beelzebub lie broken in the “utter darkness” of Hell, after being flung from Heaven subsequent to their rebellion against “the Throne and Monarchy of God.” The New York revolutionary quotes from the first lines of dialogue in the poem: “If you b'st he. But Ah, how fallen! How changed!” (Fliegelman 1982, 157). The obvious object of the comment is the King's statue (another witness responded that “there is not one Tory among the Seraphim,” underscoring this reading of the quotation). But in repeating Satan's opening line, after losing a war against his monarch and just before pledging that “to do aught good never will be our task, but ever to do ill our sole delight, as being the contrary to his high will whom we resist,” our bystander also connects the cause of the American revolutionaries with that of the rebellious (p. 283) Angel himself. At the outset of the Revolution, there were many Americans prepared to align themselves with a holy cause; but as this passage suggests, revolutionaries were also concerned with being part of a profoundly unique and special historical moment, and were willing, so to speak, to rule in Hell before they would serve in Heaven. The American republic was to be an exceptional nation, a community of saints or, if necessary, a republic of the damned. According to the logic of American exceptionalism, the exemplary and clearly defined nature of the Republic, the illumination of its “essential soul,” is all. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that this narrative is still so pervasive in American politics. My goal here is to chart the course of this concept, first by examining the history of the phrase itself, and then by charting the development of several threads of exceptionalist literature, beginning before the revolution and extending into the twenty‐first century. It is difficult, as we shall see, to write about American exceptionalism without engaging in American exceptionalism; I hope rather to examine this genre of political thinking as what has amounted to a kind of confused bildungsroman, and to force us to confront this narrative and the need that it apparently (as a cursory glance at coverage of the American war in Iraq suggests) continues to meet.
The phrase “American exceptionalism” was first coined in the mid‐twentieth century. It was part of an attempt by social scientists to explain the lack of a revolutionary socialist response to the failures of industrial capitalism in the Great Depression. American political thought, it seems, was intrinsically different from that of Europe, despite certain superficial parallels. Louis Hartz argued that the United States was a uniquely liberal nation, lacking the feudal past or the Marxian imagination that could have constructed a revolutionary alternative to the narrow political discourse of New Deal America (Hartz 1991, 5–11, 263–83). In the decades since the first formulation of this argument, however, “American exceptionalism” has become more broadly used in social science, employed whenever one discusses (or witnesses) faith that the political history of the United States was radically different from the experience of any other nation and that, indeed, its experience was exemplary to other nations. We will get to the Hartzian “liberal America” argument, with its picture of a republic living under the shadow of John Locke; but before that, we must go back further, to prior examples of national self‐definition in the United States, to the faith that the USA was particularly singled out among the various nations of the earth.
We begin with the wilderness. John Locke uses the American wilderness to signify an enormous distance in space and time; America is both the colonial (p. 284) possession of England and a representation of human life before the advent of money (Locke 1988, 301). It gives us an idea of what society would be like without specie (a world in which one cannot accumulate vast amounts of goods without hoarding garbage, and in which the need for the symbolic medium of trade was unnecessary) as well as a prospectus of the continent that industrious Englishmen could transform into tradable goods. For Puritans who settled New England, however, the wilderness represented a very different prehistory.
In Puritan political hagiography, the colonies of New England were new theocratic republics, proving their faith and their political principles in the “deserts” of the New World. John Winthrop's “A Model of Christian Charity” set the tone for this first example of American exceptionalist thinking: “we shall be,” Winthrop promised, “as a city upon a hill, and the eyes of the world shall be upon us” (Miller 1956, 79–84). The significance of this position was monumental; to be exemplary meant paying the huge costs of covenanting with God, the constant responsibility for living as a pedagogical community, and the testing, and even scourging, of the community by a jealous deity. Election Day sermons and captivity narratives cited Hebrews 12:6: “For Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He recieveth.” To be in the New World, in short, was to be engaged in a sacred act of political covenanting, tested by God before the world.
But how does God scourge the faithful? One typical New England answer to that question establishes a leitmotif, the redemptive defining wars of the “exceptional” republic. Increase Mather's summary is representative: “That the Heathen People amongst whom we live, and whose Land the Lord God of our Fathers hath given to us for a rightful possession, have … been planning mischievous devices against that part of the English Israel which is seated in the goings down of the Sun, no Man that is an Inhabitant of any considerable standing, can be ignorant” (Slotkin 1974, 83–4; see also Miller 1984 and Bercovitch 1975). These “heathen people” were as important (if not more so) to defining the exceptional nation as the land itself. “American exceptionalism” has been consistently defined in reference to outsiders, the racial and temporal others by which Americans define their identity and their mission. Agents of European monarchs confronted Native Americans as rival political communities; for the Puritans, however, the “heathen people” of the New World lacked that degree of agency. Native Americans were, rather, the scourges by which God identified and corrected his chosen nation. In some Puritan writings, native tribes were groupings of devils, “Satan's imps,” agents (p. 285) like Beelzebub; in others, they were more directly tools of Divine chastisement. But in either case, they served as a mediating presence, a physical border between the Puritan settlers and the wilderness against which they were defined. In Richard Slotkin's words, “The individual Indians … were not to be appreciated as real, individual beings, but rather as symbolic ‘masks’ of the domestic wilderness. The real interaction was that which took place between the Puritan and the ‘invisible world’ behind the Indian world. What happened to the mediating Indian world in the course of that interaction was of secondary importance” (Slotkin 1974, 119). America's exceptional nature would be defined in its sacred wars; race would mark the barriers between chosen nation and scourge of God. Long after the fall of the Puritan elites, this narrative remains the basic structure of the “exceptionalist” history of the American republic.
This narrative was dangerous, obviously, to the Native Americans, and to anyone that stood in symbolically for America's defining enemies; but it was also potentially dangerous for the Puritan community itself. The reading of the New England colonies as Israel was an optimistic one for the Puritans; without constant vigilance and virtue, the colonies might turn out to be Nineveh. And that failure would serve, Winthrop promised, as a “byword,” a lesson witnessed by the entire world of the consequences that would befall nations that failed to live up to God's promise. The first political rendering of American exceptionalism was thus a sacred and a violent one; the exceptional nature of the new society could only be proven, not assumed, and the proof lay in the capacity of the nation to destroy its enemies, endure divine scourging, and subdue the Earth.
There is an alternate founding story for British North America, one invoked by the first generation of American scholars to use the concept of “American exceptionalism” to explain the politics of the United States. “In the beginning,” wrote John Locke, “all the world was America, only more so than it is now.” In this founding story, the New World enabled a continent full of rational economically‐driven individuals to begin over with fresh slates: the education of children, the crafting of social contracts, the invention of currency were all open for human invention. This vision of US history is what Hartz and others were conjuring when they first coined the phrase “American exceptionalism.” Why was there no revolutionary tradition in the United States, no radical response to political crises after the founding? Because of the long‐standing and exceptional tradition of Lockean individualism in the New World.
(p. 286) “Locke dominates American political thought,” Hartz writes, “as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation. He is a massive national cliché” (Hartz 1991, 140). America is exceptional in this, then: a devotion to a Lockean ideal of rational liberal individualism. The overwhelming predominance of this model was abetted by a lack of obvious enemies. There was no aristocracy in America, according to Hartz, and no one argued for absolutist monarchy; there was no North American Filmer. American liberalism is premised on the ideal of enlightened self‐rule among free people, trusting as self‐evident the truth that governments exist to serve the interests of these industrious and rational citizens.
In making this argument, Hartz takes exception to a third version of American exceptionalism. At the turn of the twentieth century, Frederick Jackson Turner had argued that it was the perpetually expanding American frontier (again we return to the wilderness) that had rendered the United States what it was. The American republic had been, in Turner's thesis, a constantly refounded nation, as successive generations invaded new lands, transformed them into territories and states, and removed indigenous populations. “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the great West,” Turner writes:
The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.… Decade after decade, West after West, this rebirth of American society has gone on, has left its traces behind it, and has reacted on the East. The history of our political institutions, our democracy, is not a history of imitation, of simple borrowing; it is a history of the evolution and adaptation of organs in response to changed environment, a history of the origin of new political species. In this sense, therefore, the West has been a constructive force of the highest significance in our life. (Turner 1996, 1, 205)
With the closing of the frontier (and the US Census had declared this to be the case), Turner foretold the end of the forces that had shaped the “essential American soul,” or else a call to arms across the sea, in our new post‐Spanish/American War possessions—Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii. In such places, Turner argued, “we are beginning to consider the relations between democracy and empire” (Turner 1996, 245–6). This search for dominion in new lands is somewhat problematic for Turner's definition of the development of the American republic, but the dilemma is resolvable. Conquering a perpetual west, an incessant battle between civilization and barbarism on the frontier is, for Turner, much more central to American identity than democracy per se could ever be.
(p. 287) Hartz finds Turner's theory to be, simply put, wrong. Many nations have frontiers; but what other republic is so dominated, what public arena so monopolized, by one ideology as the United States had been by Lockean liberalism (Hartz 1991, 95–6)? Tocqueville was correct, Hartz writes, in noting that Americans are “born equal;” this experience of equality creates a society of individual actors who do not perceive the political struggle involved in creating equality. The classic American citizen is thus primarily concerned with managing his private affairs, an exemplar of rational bourgeois industry. Believing in a natural and rational equality, Americans do not see politics as the activity that creates or maintains equality or freedom and thus are likely to treat government with suspicion while viewing popular opinion and law as the immovable bedrock on which their social lives rest. Lacking the experience of struggle against feudalism and empire which defined the revolutions of England, France, and Russia, the American liberal is suspicious of any militant movement except those that serve private security and lacks, despite the American founding, any real revolutionary tradition.
Hartz has not, however, removed the fire and conquest, the fear and insecurity, of Turner or Mather from American identity. “Even a good idea can be a little frightening,” Hartz writes, “when it is the only idea a man has ever had” (Hartz 1991, 175). Hartz, following in the footsteps of Madison and especially Tocqueville, sees a profound (if somewhat shapeless) threat in American liberal democracy, a majoritarian and conformist democratic mass that destroys or absorbs the individuals in whose name it ostensibly speaks:
Actually Locke has a hidden conformitarian germ to begin with, since natural law tells equal people equal things, but when this germ is fed by the explosive power of modern nationalism, it mushrooms into something pretty remarkable. … I believe that this is the basic ethical problem of a liberal society: not the danger of the majority which has been its conscious fear, but the danger of unanimity, which has slumbered unconsciously behind it: the “tyranny of opinion” that Tocqueville saw unfolding as even the pathetic social distinctions of the Federalist era collapsed before his eyes. (Hartz 1991, 11)
Why, according to Hartz, does American democratic culture pose such a threat to its citizens? Because of the need for an exceptionalist America, the desire to be able to identify what the republic is, and who its friends and enemies are. “If you b'st he,” inquires Satan of Beelzebub; are even our allies really who we think they are? And how do we even know (in contrast to the spirit of effortless self‐definition in the Declaration) whom the true (p. 288) Americans are? The struggle to identify not just un‐American outsiders but American insiders has been an important part of American law since the Revolution, and Hartz here insists upon the centrality of this dilemma to US politics. Massive conformity underscores the crisis of self‐definition in American democracy; not just in the sense of the coercive identity‐work of witch‐hunts and red scares, but of the willingness of people to endure such conformity or the lack of effective defensive bulwarks against it. Americans insist on knowing their “essential soul,” but this question of identity can never be decisively answered. In a society of private economic and political actors, after all, how does one ever know with whom one is dealing? Lockean liberalism provides a larger descriptive definition for America while at the same time undermining identity for individual Americans.
Insecure identity and the social contract have proven, writes Hartz, to be an explosive combination. “God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labor was to be his title to it) and not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious” (Locke 1988, 291). The American republic had no “covetous” or “contentious” aristocracy, in Hartz's account, but it did not lack a population barred from public life; and Americans legally defined African and African‐American slaves, women, Native Americans, and the poor as those radically unproductive and dangerously irrational forces to whom political action had to be denied.
Transferring the accusations of instability and irrationality to their excluded others, American liberals maintain their belief in their own membership in the company of self‐governing individuals. The price of this security is the demonization of anyone that stands outside the democratic conformity of liberal society; American liberals, Hartz argues, are quick, when threatened, to “transform eccentricity into sin, and the irritating figure of the bourgeois gossip flowers into the frightening figure of an A. Mitchell Palmer or a Senator McCarthy” (Hartz 1991, 11). And by categorizing the enemy as lunatics and sinister agents of injustice, Americans can remain secure in their Lockean faith; state power properly mobilized serves to protect the “essential” rational and industrious soul of the nation from the agents that do not belong. Thus irrational purges may be represented as a rational confinement of the quarrelsome and contentious.
(p. 289) Hartz offers the American South, with its militant racism and its blood‐and‐soil nationalism, its use of romantic (rather than rational) fighting rhetoric, as an illustrative contrast, a peculiar anomaly for an exceptionally liberal nation. But where Hartz sees an outlier, others have seen the “essential soul” of American identity. In the work of Michael Rogin (at one point a Hartz student), we can locate the fusion between race and liberal individualism that puts the war between the republic and its defining enemies back at the center of the story of American exceptionalism:
“In the beginning,” John Locke wrote, “all the world was America.” Then men relinquished the state of nature, freely contracted together, and entered civil society. That was not the way it began, in America. … America clearly began not with primal innocence and consent but with acts of force and fraud. Indians were here first, and it was their land upon which Americans contracted, squabbled, and reasoned with one another. Stripping away history did not permit beginning without sin; it simply exposed the sin at the beginning of it all. (Rogin 1975, 3)
In Rogin's account, race becomes the tabula rasa on which American identity is composed. Race serves as the singular contrast around which others are defined—whiteness is to color what industry and reason are to fancy and covetousness. “Indians did not use the land for agriculture, explained Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop. Since the wandering tribes failed to ‘subdue and replenish’ the earth, white farmers could acquire their land” (Rogin 1988, 46–7).
The event which separates the beginning time in which all the world was America from the modern era is, according to Locke, the invention of money. In America, that event is not just enacted through the creation of a particular currency; indeed, as Rogin demonstrates, people of color serve as the currency dividing America from its pre‐political paradise. “Whites consistently converted what Van Buren called ‘the debt we owe to this unhappy race’ into money. … Indians were turned into things—a small reserve remaining in Ohio after removal was a ‘blank spot,’ a ‘mote in the eye of the state’—and could be manipulated and rearranged at will. Money was the perfect representation of dead, interchangeable matter” (Rogin 1975, 243). Slaves, meanwhile, were objects of American commerce and raw material for the expanding American economy.
Rogin directs our attention to the centrality of race in all these narratives of exceptionalism. Race even becomes central to the declaration of American identity, despite the removal of most of the references to slavery from Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. In Rogin's account, the (p. 290) United States had a second declaration of independence, a cultural assertion of autonomy, in the age of Jackson, and the American popular culture that was celebrated from the 1830s onwards was one which used blackface minstrelsy to contrast a white American republic to both the fancy and covetousness of European monarchies and the unstable and self‐indulgent alterity of people of color (Rogin 1995, 14–44, passim).
Rogin is not completely rejecting Hartz's point here, as Hartz had Turner's. American exceptionalism in his account was Lockean and individualist, nationalist and white. And the instability of American identity that fueled (or at least allowed for) universal democratic conformity in Hartz's account also influences the actions of the exceptional Americans in Rogin's work. The problem is mirrored in Jacksonian America's favorite public hero, an exceptionally powerful individual dubbed, by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, the “self‐made man:”
If a puritan mission or a liberal tradition engendered the United States, as the classic studies of Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch, and Louis Hartz maintain, then the slave‐holding South is an exception outside the national consensus. Placing blackface, slavery, and race at the center, by contrast, makes the South organic to American national identity. … Blackface places a racial division at its center. It also enacted the feature that, together with racialism, defined the exceptionalist character of American nationality: the power of subjects to make themselves over. (Rogin 1995, 49)
The principle of racialized and manly self‐making promised a radical degree of autonomy. But if one is “self‐made,” and if much of the performance of reason and industry is a personal creation, can one be sure that there is any “essential soul” in the American? Again we are left with the obsessive question of American exceptionalism: even if we posit that the USA is the protagonist in a story of global and historical importance, we are still left with the question of identity. Who is this protagonist?
Hannah Arendt sees the Declaration of Independence as a splendidly political response, a written and performed answer, to this question. How do we know who Americans are? We “declare” that “we” are those who hold the following political assertions to be self‐evident truths, and “we” are also those who have chosen to thus identify ourselves in a moment of political liberation before the eyes of a rational and enlightened mankind. Arendt also sees a disappointing retreat from the political in this moment, however; the insistence upon “self‐evident truth” demonstrates a very unpolitical and coercive desire to find an a priori foundation that will establish beyond any doubt our identity and our mission (Arendt 1961, 193–5). Not two weeks after (p. 291) the Declaration's signing, in the Miltonian moment of rebellion in New York, Americans begin with a question (“If you b'st he …”) that points to the radical undecidability of a willed and consensual political identity. Are we especially blessed? Particularly patriotic or treasonous? Uniquely damned? In Hartz's and Rogin's visions of American exceptionalism, this sort of undecidability is not merely an effect of radical political moments; it is central to one's life, an unavoidable part of living as a self‐made individual. “Uncertain of the motives of others and worried about their own, Americans were preoccupied with natural states,” Rogin writes. “They glorified the authentic, spontaneous natural man who wore no masks, played no roles, and never dissembled” (Rogin 1975, 258). The paradoxical demand of this glorification of the natural was that one perform the role of the genuine, spontaneous, self‐made, and industrious individual. This opened a gap between performance and performer, and reinforced the anxiety that we are not who we pretend to be.1
Rogin demonstrates how central racial performance becomes to this dilemma. It serves, via popular pseudo‐science, as the a priori foundation of identity in America. Race becomes, in American political life, a clear marker of who one is—rational or irrational, citizen or outsider, master or slave. The power of subjugation for Lockean liberalism, in short, comes from the ability to name, to identify precisely, who was rational and industrious and who was quarrelsome or covetous. White Americans could know whom they were by identifying Native Americans as the slothful wanderers who refused to labor the earth and African slaves as the victims of just wars, and both as examples of scientifically verified “inferior races.” And thus we return to racial Othering, to Indian dispossession, slavery, and blackface, at the core, not the frontier, of American exceptionalism.
Race and exceptionalism have thus been intertwined, either as practice or in critique, since the beginning. Rogers Smith has attempted to untie that Gordian knot, or at least identify the different threads in the tangle. Smith has argued that this campaign for American identity suggests a combination of alternate and sometimes incoherent “multiple traditions” in US history. At times, American political thought serves racism or patriarchal authority, speaking for the sort of feudal absolutism that Hartz thought had never (p. 292) belonged in the United States; at other times, the political culture of the USA is resolutely Lockean—individualist, tolerant, and rational. Thus Smith seems to offer us an alternative to American exceptionalism—the United States, in the “multiple traditions” account, is summed up by no one narrative, it has no “essential soul.” Smith makes Hartz's point, however, even as he attacks it, by his struggle to defend liberalism (his exceptionalist credo) from the disturbing indictments of Hartz's and Rogin's arguments. American democracy has been illiberal, Smith argues:
Locke insisted that the “natural endowments” of “savage Americans” fell “in no way short” of “those of the most flourishing and polite nations,” and he dismissed as childish the notion that “a Negro is not a Man.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never suggested that history or nature made descent from Anglo‐Saxon stock, rather than educated reason, a prerequisite for exercising basic liberties. (Smith 1997, 78)
It is as if Smith feels that America has let Locke down by being racially “ascriptive”—quarrelsome and contentious, as it were—rather than rational in its politics. America has just not been exceptionally Lockean enough for Smith. Perhaps this explains his abstractly rational proposal for stripping US citizenship from the children of “illegal aliens,” a plan that, at the very least, can serve as an “ascriptive” tool for racist anti‐immigrant movements, but that he invokes for the sake of resolving messy and “inconsistent,” irrational and contentious, American citizenship laws (Smith 1997, 309–10, 581; see also Schuck and Smith 1985).
Smith alerts us to a consistent note in American exceptionalism, from long before Louis Hartz helped to develop the concept in the pages of American social science: the willingness, and perhaps the need, to embrace invidious distinctions in the project of defining America's special role in the history of the world. Satan is only certain of who he and his compatriots are after committing to their war, and if American democrats have always preferred to fight “with God on their side,” the comparison is still apt—to know one's personal mission is “exceptional,” one must know who one is, and one knows that by knowing who one is not. The fight to define the “essential American soul” has drawn together Puritan theocrat and satanic rebel, creating a political space in which Hartz's benign American democrat, “torn by self‐doubt,” can become a “cold, stoic … killer.” At the close of his book, Civic Ideals, Smith asks Americans to commit to their nation, as patriots called upon to “be truer liberal democrats than most Americans have ever hoped to be,” who “should give support and guidance to their country so long as it (p. 293) seems the best hope available to them for leading free and meaningful lives, and for allowing others to do so as well” (Smith 1997, 505–6). American citizens are bound by duty to love their nation, at least for as long as the American republic is the “best hope” for the enlightened portion of mankind. And after that? Perhaps these ideal liberals of Smith's can begin again, rationally dividing their new public life into the spheres of the saved and the damned, the monied and the specie, citizens and illegals, rational and industrious, or fancy and covetous, and once again create a republic with an “exceptional soul” worth fighting for. If in the beginning all the world was America, we should not be surprised to find contemporary Americans like Smith again reaching out to claim yet another new beginning for themselves and their country.
Of course, Americans like Smith are not the only contemporary seekers of the “essential American soul.” As Hartz pointed out, the interventionist strain in American foreign policy has long been premised upon the exportation of exceptionalism. Seeking to define the exceptional role of the United States, Americans also seek to lead the way for other nations. We have seen this happen in the Declaration, when Americans fought for colonial independence; the same is true when Americans fought to have colonies of their own. When the United States began the war to consolidate their control of the Philippines, Woodrow Wilson defined the occupation as a pedagogical duty: “They [the Filipinos] are children and we are men in these great matters of government and justice” (Wilson 1902, 728–31). In 2003, President George W. Bush invoked these lines with approval; the idea that the American occupation of Iraq is part of a lesson in democratic self‐rule is premised upon the ideal of a singular and exemplary American soul that must be learned from. Indeed, the Bush national security statement is itself an exercise in American exceptionalism, asserting that “only one model of national success” survived the twentieth century, and that the United States is uniquely responsible for exemplifying and extending that model throughout the world. And in this regard, at least, Bush's exemplar has had its effect. Other people throughout the world have adopted the quest for an essential American soul. The USA is, again, variously held to be exceptionally modernist, fundamentalist, Judeo‐Christian, secular, blandly homogenous, and violent. Even the recent atrocities in American prisons and detention camps overseas return us to exceptionalist narratives; when one learns that an American interrogator at Abu Ghraib identified himself to his victims as “the Devil,” the dramatic conceit is (p. 294) as familiar as it is alarming (Fisher 2004). One imagines, furthermore, that few readers, in the USA or elsewhere, would find that narrative surprising. If Americans were willing to use satanic rebellion to identify themselves in the months after the signing of the Declaration, why not now? But the language of crusades and satanic rebellion does not serve non‐American audiences any better than it serves American ones.
The exceptionalist attempt to sum up the “essential American soul” is pervasive enough that attempting just to move beyond it is insufficient. American exceptionalism (as Smith's attempt at tracing multiple traditions reminds us) is too central to American political thought to be eradicated through legal or conceptual fiat. American exceptionalism can no more be eradicated than novelistic genres like the detective story or the romance can be. We may alter its form—as an audience we find particular variations more or less compelling. But the narrative itself is the favorite form of American national autobiography, a bildungsroman whose protagonist must achieve unique and persuasive narrative purity, no matter what the cost. Perhaps, then, another kind of bildungsroman might point us the way to a more skeptical reading of exceptionalism.
The Education of Henry Adams is a very different form of American autobiography, an attempt by the descendant of two American presidents to understand himself and his role in a nation utterly transformed by civil war. Adams insists repeatedly that he does not wish to critique or attack the “new” United States; he merely wants to find his place in it. His autobiography is essentially a record of his failed attempts—spanning a life that he insists was shaped for the eighteenth century, and that, therefore, partakes of three “American centuries”—to find out what the nation is about, and what his place in it should be. By the book's end, Adams is both utterly familiar with most of the narratives of American identity and alienated from them. Indeed, this alienation is central to the perspective of the book—the author insists upon referring to himself in the third person throughout, he writes an introduction in the name of another man, and he tells the reader in the book's preface that he is only a mannequin. This perspective on American identity, while problematic, is far better, I argue, than Smith's exhortation that Americans redouble their rational love for their country. Adams is alienated but familiar, utterly conversant with the different narratives of Americanness without ever being wed to any of them. Adams is not an ideal model. Leaping over twenty years in his autobiography, he hides from the things he finds most painful, and this is hardly an adequate policy for democratic citizens. (p. 295) His anti‐Semitism and racism are evident, if ironically displayed, and establish his acquiescence in some of the most pernicious narratives of the exceptionalist tradition. But then, dealing with the legacy of American exceptionalism requires that theorists stop looking for ideal models. Adams' alienated familiarity with American identity suggests to us a reader capable of recognizing the power of the exceptionalist tale without imitating it. It is all but impossible to avoid reading exceptionalism in American politics; Adams suggests a position of skeptical readership. Rather than reversing or redeeming American exceptionalism, the theorist must now confront it, finding new ways to read the role played by the United States in a new century, and refusing to be tempted by the easy and apolitical escape of identifying the one true and “essential American soul.”
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(*) I am greatly indebted to Elizabeth Mann for her help in the preparation of this chapter.
(1) This also fueled the conformity that disturbed Hartz. “Liberal society, as Adam Smith and John Adams had described it, progresses by emulation. Always unsatisfied with their present condition, men copied the successes of others and sought to improve themselves. They internalized personal ambition and the desire for the good opinion of others. Since the external and internalized eyes of society provided order, men could enjoy individual freedom” (Rogin 1975, 207).