American exceptionalism

American eagle and flagWhen reading Dorothy Ross’ The Origins of American Social Science, I was surprised to see that she relied on the concept of “American exceptionalism” -which I understood as the belief that the US had a kind of special destiny in this world, a belief which impregnated the social thought of the 19th and 20th century.

This concept put me ill at ease, as it was not clear whether “American exceptionalism” was a belief (among others) held by the intellectuals studied by Ross, or if Ross herself thought that indeed, there is such a thing as a unique and distinctive “Americaness” to be accounted for by historians.  I had forgotten all this, until I read this morning in a history of the labor standards:

The study of the American role in the international labor standards movement also contributes … to an  understanding of general American history and the American policy process. It clarifies the extent and nature of American exceptionalism, that is, the tendency for the United States to follow an especially distinctive or restrained social policy course compared to other industrial democracies.
(Edward C. Lorenz. 2001. Defining Global Justice. The History of U.S. International Labor Standards Policy, Univ. of Notre-Dame Press, p. 8).

I am really not sure of the fruitfulness of this distinction. To be clear, I find it irrelevant and parochial. Of course, nations have their particularities, their traditions, etc. And if the American people see themselves as having a particular destiny in history, then it is a relevant intellectual feature to be taken into account by the historian. But it seems to me that the historians have no use of this concept to characterize their own work. After all, on what ground should a country’s history be declared “exceptional”? I am sure their is an extensive debate in historiography about this, and I would be glad to learn more about it!


7 thoughts on “American exceptionalism

  1. While some varieties of exceptionalism rely on a notion of national character of national destiny, there are some real peculiarities of American history worth taking into consideration. The existence of the frontier, for example, for a large portion of the nation’s history offered the possibility of escaping extant social rules and actually relying on self-sufficiency (see especially the Homestead Act) rather than reforming them. This, of course, is closely related to the growing nation’s overwhelming of the native American population. The existence of slavery inside the country’s bounds would connect certain post-slavery injustices to a specific historical injustice rather than to an unintentional evolution of certain social conditions. Then, of course, there is the massive immigration of diverse European nationalities into America. Such factors, combined with America’s growing economic power, would go a long way toward framing a more attitudinal notion of American identity and exceptionalism (see, notably, Manifest Destiny), but would also have distinct material consequences for American history.

    It is not necessary to share a sense that different rules apply to Americans to invoke the country’s peculiar conditions in order to understand its intellectual and political history. I don’t have Ross’ book on me, so I’m not sure what take she has on the issue, but that’s at least one way of looking at it.

  2. Will already mentioned it, but I wanted to emphasize that the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’ appears rather important to American policy (domestic and foreign). Whether that is for rhetorical or belief reasons I do not know but it is one of those things that keeps cropping up as a justification.

    I think most countries think they are special, the USA actually has a name for it. Don’t know anyone else who might have that?

  3. The concept of “Manifest destiny” is not new, nor is it peculiarly American. The British gave the concept a jolly good airing during the three hundred or so years of the Empire. Lamentably I suspect that the distinction is used more as a device for internal political management than as a bona fide aspiration. Questionable perhaps – parochial certainly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s