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!