Is U.S. Special? American Exceptionalism Debated

A series of articles in a new journal, American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, deconstruct the meanings and applications the notion of "American exceptionalism."

Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University argues that the original conception of American exceptionalism, which can be traced to John Winthrop, was largely isolationist. America should lead the world not by force but by example. "As originally invoked and imagined by Winthrop, America as a space where a particular human community grounded in Christian charity could be perfected was to serve as an exemplary ideal for the rest of the world," Deneen writes. Later, the American example would take on a tone that was less religious and more political, but the concept remained largely isolationist until Ronald Reagan. "Reagan invoked the image of the 'shining city' not only to serve—as Winthrop had intended—as an example for the rest of the world…but as a focal point from which the American creed emanated outward to the world, even justifying an aggressive push toward its worldwide adoption." This expansionist conception of exceptionalism would continue to find voice in the Bush doctrine. More:

James Ceaser of the University of Virginia stresses the non-religious dimension of American Exceptionalism. "My contention is that the predominant scholarly view, which holds that there is one core understanding of the mission that has been shaped mainly by Puritan religious thought, is incorrect," he writes. "There have instead been different views influenced by different sources, including (besides religion) various philosophical doctrines, applications of scientific theories, and reasoning based on political-historical analysis. The exaggerated emphasis on religion may have begun as an innocent error of scholarly interpretation, but it is being perpetuated today by those seeking, for political purposes, to discredit any possible idea of a political mission in the conduct of foreign affairs." More:

Hilde Eliassen Restad of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs argues that exceptionalism is part of the American identity and offers a useful tool in explaining U.S. foreign policy in any era. "The United States is exceptional as long as Americans believe it to be exceptional," she writes. "Americans have always assumed that people everywhere share American political and moral ideas…. This underlies the idea that in every foreigner there is an American waiting to get out. It is an assumption that links the otherwise unlikely grouping of Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, William Jefferson Clinton, and George W. Bush and their mission to reform the world in the American image." More:

The idea of exceptionalism as identity is echoed by Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia. "What makes Americans exceptional is not their institutions or democratic way of life or frontier experience but rather their self-conscious and self-defining embrace of American exceptionalism throughout their history," he writes. "Americans' belief that their revolution constituted an epochal moment in world history set the terms for subsequent and never-ending arguments about their character and destiny." More:

Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania explores what might be seen as exceptionalist claims about America. "My core argument is this: the American institutions, practices, and activities of commerce, science, and religion shaped by the Constitution's structuring have transformed commerce, transformed science, transformed religion, and transformed Americans and America, in ways that have taken the nation as a whole far from the understandings of those realms that prevailed when the American experiments in constitutional republican governments began. These transformations have made modern Americans wealthier, more scientifically knowledgeable, more powerful, in many ways more diverse, and in important ways more democratic and inclusive than the founding generation. But these changes have also made modern Americans more deeply divided over many matters…than their founding predecessors were."More:

Live Science Staff
For the science geek in everyone, Live Science offers a fascinating window into the natural and technological world, delivering comprehensive and compelling news and analysis on everything from dinosaur discoveries, archaeological finds and amazing animals to health, innovation and wearable technology. We aim to empower and inspire our readers with the tools needed to understand the world and appreciate its everyday awe.