American exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is the theory that the history of the United States is inherently different from that of other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called "the first new nation" and developing a uniquely American ideology, "Americanism", based on liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy, and laissez-faire economics. This ideology itself is often referred to as "American exceptionalism." Second is the idea that America has a unique mission to transform the world. As President Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address, Americans have a duty to ensure, "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Third is the sense that the America's history and its mission give it a superiority over other nations.
The theory of the exceptionalism of the U.S. has developed over time and can be traced to many sources. French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was the first writer to describe the country as "exceptional" in 1831 and 1840. The actual phrase "American exceptionalism" was originally coined by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1929 as a critique of a revisionist faction of American communists that argued that the American political climate was unique and made it an 'exception' to certain elements of Marxist theory. U.S. president Ronald Reagan is often credited with having crystallized that ideology in recent decades.
Political scientist Eldon Eisenach argues that American exceptionalism in the 21st century has come under attack from the postmodern left as a reactionary myth: "The absence of shared purpose is ratified in the larger sphere of liberal-progressive public philosophy. Beginning with the assumption of American exceptionalism as a reactionary myth".


The exact term "American exceptionalism" was occasionally used in the 19th century. In his The Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro notes "exceptionalism" was used to refer to the United States and its self-image by The Times of London on August 20, 1861. The term's common use dates from communists in the late 1920s, when the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin chastised members of the Faction led by Jay Lovestone of the Communist Party USA for claiming that the U.S. is independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions." Stalin may have been told of the usage "American exceptionalism" by Broder & Zack in Daily Worker on January 29, 1929, before Lovestone's visit to Moscow. American communists started using the English term "American exceptionalism" in factional fights. The term was later moved into general use by intellectuals.
In 1989, the Scottish political scientist Richard Rose noted that most American historians endorse exceptionalism, and he suggested their reasoning to be as follows:
America marches to a different drummer. Its uniqueness is explained by any or all of a variety of reasons: history, size, geography, political institutions, and culture. Explanations of the growth of government in Europe are not expected to fit American experience, and vice versa.

However, postnationalist scholars reject American exceptionalism and argue the U.S. did not break from European history and accordingly has retained class-based and race-based differences as well as imperialism and willingness to wage war.
In recent years, scholars from numerous disciplines, as well as politicians and commentators in the traditional media, have debated the meaning and usefulness of the concept. Roberts and DiCuirci ask:
Some historians support the concept of American exceptionalism but avoid the terminology to avoid getting entangled in rhetorical debates. Bernard Bailyn, a leading colonial specialist at Harvard, is a believer in the distinctiveness of American civilization. Although he rarely, if ever, uses the phrase "American exceptionalism," he insists upon the "distinctive characteristics of British North American life." He argues the process of social and cultural transmission result in peculiarly-American patterns of education in the broadest sense of the word, and he believes in the unique character of the American Revolution.

Origin of term

Although the concept of American exceptionalism dates to the founding ideas, the term was first used in the 1920s.
Some claim the phrase "American exceptionalism" originated with the Communist Party USA in an English translation of a condemnation that was made in 1929 by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin against communist supporters of Jay Lovestone for the latter's heretical belief the US was independent of the Marxist laws of history "thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions." That origin has been challenged, however, because the expression "American exceptionalism" had already been used by Brouder & Zack in the Daily Worker on January 29, 1929, before Lovestone's visit to Moscow. Also, Fred Shapiro, the editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, that noted "exceptionalism" had been used to refer to the United States and its self-image during the Civil War by The New York Times on August 20, 1861.
Early examples of the term's usage include a declaration made at the 1930 American Communist convention that proclaimed "the storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism."
The phrase fell to obscurity after the 1930s until American newspapers popularized it in the 1980s to describe America's cultural and political uniqueness. The phrase became an issue of contention between the presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign, with McCain attacking Obama for allegedly disbelieving the concept.

History of concept

Alexis de Tocqueville and others (1835)

The first reference to the concept by name, and possibly its origin, was by the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835/1840 work Democracy in America:
in 1898. American exceptionalism has fueled American expansion through the ideology of manifest destiny.
Kammen says that many foreign visitors commented on American exceptionalism including Karl Marx, Francis Lieber, Hermann Eduard von Holst, James Bryce, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc and that they did so in complimentary terms. The theme became common, especially in textbooks. From the 1840s to the late 19th century, the McGuffey Readers sold 120 million copies and were studied by most American students. Skrabec argues the Readers "hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God's country.... Furthermore, McGuffey saw America as having a future mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world."

Communist debate (1927)

In June 1927 Jay Lovestone, a leader of the Communist Party USA and who would be soon named as general secretary, described America's economic and social uniqueness. He noted the increasing strength of American capitalism and the country's "tremendous reserve power" and said that both prevented a communist revolution. In 1929, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, disbelieving that America was so resistant to revolution, called Lovestone's ideas "the heresy of American exceptionalism," which was the first use of the specific term "American exceptionalism." The Great Depression appeared to underscore Stalin's argument that American capitalism falls under the general laws of Marxism. In June 1930, during the national convention of the Communist Party USA in New York, it was declared, "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism and the whole system of opportunistic theories and illusions that had been built upon American capitalist 'prosperity.'"


In general, Americans have had consideration in national "uniqueness." The historian Dorothy Ross points to three different currents regarding unique characteristics.
  1. Some Protestants believed American progress would facilitate the return of Jesus Christ and the Christian Millennium.
  2. Some 19th century historians linked American liberty to the development of liberty in Anglo-Saxon England.
  3. Other American writers looked to the "millennial newness" of America. Henry Nash Smith stressed the theme of "virgin land" in the American frontier that promised an escape from the decay that had befallen to earlier republics.

    21st-century development

Recently, socialists and other writers tried to discover or describe this exceptionalism of the U.S. within and outside its borders.
The concept has also been discussed in the context of the 21st century in a book co-authored by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney: .

Causes in historical context

Scholars have explored possible justifications for the notion of American exceptionalism.

Absence of feudalism

Many scholars use a model of American exceptionalism developed by Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz. In The Liberal Tradition in America, Hartz argued that the American political tradition lacks the left-wing/socialist and right-wing/aristocratic elements that dominated in most other lands because colonial America lacked any feudal traditions, such as established churches, landed estates, and a hereditary nobility. The "liberal consensus" school, typified by David Potter, Daniel Boorstin, and Richard Hofstadter followed Hartz in emphasizing that political conflicts in American history remained within the tight boundaries of a liberal consensus regarding private property, individual rights, and representative government. The national government that emerged was far less centralized or nationalized than its European counterparts.

Puritan roots and Protestant promise

Parts of American exceptionalism can be traced to American Puritan roots. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They believed that God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for the other nations of the Earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a "City upon a Hill: the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model for the rest of the world. That metaphor is often used by proponents of exceptionalism. The Puritans' moralistic values have remained one component of the national identity for centuries.
In that vein, Max Weber was a pioneer in delineating a connection between capitalism and exceptionalism. Eric Luis Uhlmann of Northwestern University argues that Puritan values were eventually taken up by all other Americans. Kevin M. Schultz underlines how they helped America to keep to its Protestant Promise, especially Catholics and Jews.

American Revolution and republicanism

The ideas that created the American Revolution were derived from a tradition of republicanism that had been repudiated by the British mainstream. The historian Gordon S. Wood has argued, "Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy." Wood notes that the term is "presently much-maligned" although it is vigorously supported by others such as Jon Butler.
Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land and a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that had outgrown the British mother country. Those sentiments laid the intellectual foundations for the revolutionary concept of American exceptionalism and were closely tied to republicanism, the belief that sovereignty belonged to the people, not a hereditary ruling class.
Religious freedom characterized the American Revolution in unique ways when most major nations had state religions. Republicanism, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, created modern constitutional republicanism, which limits ecclesiastical powers. The historian Thomas Kidd argues, "With the onset of the revolutionary crisis, a significant conceptual shift convinced Americans across the theological spectrum that God was raising up America for some particular purpose." Kidd further argues that "a new blend of Christian and republican ideology led religious traditionalists to embrace wholesale the concept of republican virtue."

Jefferson and the Empire of Liberty

According to Tucker and Hendrickson, Jefferson believed America "was the bearer of a new diplomacy, founded on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends based on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions." Jefferson sought a radical break from the traditional European emphasis on "reason of state," which could justify any action, and the usual priority of foreign policy and the needs of the ruling family over those of the people.
Jefferson envisaged America becoming the world's great "Empire of Liberty," the model for democracy and republicanism. He identified his nation as a beacon to the world, as he said when he departed the presidency in 1809: "Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other areas of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence."

Basis of arguments

argues that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, neoconservative intellectuals and policymakers embraced the idea of an "American empire," a national mission to establish freedom and democracy in other nations, particularly poor ones. She argues that after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration reoriented foreign policy to an insistence on maintaining the supreme military and economic power of America, an attitude that harmonized with the new vision of American empire. Young says the Iraq War exemplified American exceptionalism.
In 2012, the conservative historians Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty argued that American exceptionalism be based on four pillars: common law; virtue and morality located in Protestant Christianity; free-market capitalism; and the sanctity of private property.
In a 2015 book, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney sets out and argues the case for American exceptionalism and concludes: "we are, as Lincoln said, 'the last, best hope of earth.' We are not just one more nation, one more same entity on the world stage. We have been essential to the preservation and progress of freedom, and those who lead us in the years ahead must remind us, as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan did, of the unique role we play. Neither they nor we should ever forget that we are, in fact, exceptional."

Republican ethos and ideas about nationhood

Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.".In Lincoln's interpretation, America is inextricably connected with freedom and equality, and the American mission is to ensure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The historian T. Harry Williams argues that Lincoln believed:
American policies have been characterized since their inception by a system of federalism and checks and balances, which were designed to prevent any faction, region, or government organ from becoming too powerful. Some proponents of the theory of American exceptionalism argue that the system and the accompanying distrust of concentrated power prevent the United States from suffering a "tyranny of the majority," preserve a free republican democracy, and allow citizens to live in a locality whose laws reflect those voters' values. A consequence of the political system is that laws can vary widely across the country. Critics of American exceptionalism maintain that the system merely replaces the power of the federal majority over states with power by the states over local entities. On the balance, the American political system arguably allows for more local dominance but prevents more domestic dominance than a more unitary system would.
The historian Eric Foner has explored the question of birthright citizenship, the provision of the Fourteenth Amendment that makes anyone born in the United States a full citizen.
He argues that:

Global leadership and activism

Dean Harold Hongju Koh has identified what he says is "the most important respect in which the United States has been genuinely exceptional, about international affairs, international law, and promotion of human rights: namely, in its outstanding global leadership and activism." He argues:
To this day, the United States remains the only superpower capable, and at times willing, to commit real resources and make real sacrifices to build, sustain, and drive an international system committed to international law, democracy, and the promotion of human rights. Experience teaches that when the United States leads on human rights, from Nuremberg to Kosovo, other countries follow.

Peggy Noonan, an American political pundit, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional."
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney explores the concept of United States global leadership in a 2015 book on American foreign policy, , co-authored with his daughter, Liz Cheney, a former official of the U.S. Department of State.

Frontier spirit

Proponents of American exceptionalism often claim that many features of the "American spirit" were shaped by the frontier process. Following Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, they argue that the American frontier allowed individualism to flourish as pioneers adopted democracy and equality and shed centuries-old European institutions such as royalty, standing armies, established churches, and a landed aristocracy that owned most of the land. However, the frontier experience was not entirely unique to the United States. Other nations had frontiers without them shaping them nearly as much as the American frontier did, usually because they were under the control of a strong national government. South Africa, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Australia had long frontiers, but they did not have "free land" and local control. The political and cultural environments were much different since the other frontiers neither involved widespread ownership of free land nor allowed the settlers to control the local and provincial governments, as was the case in America. Their edge did not shape their national psyches. Each nation had entirely different frontier experiences. For example, the Dutch Boers in South Africa were defeated in war by Britain. In Australia, "mateship" and working together were valued more than individualism was in the United States.

Mobility and welfare

For most of its history, especially from the mid-19th to the early-20th centuries, the United States has been known as the "land of opportunity" and in that sense prided and promoted itself on providing individuals with the opportunity to escape from the contexts of their class and family background. Examples of that social mobility include:
However, social mobility in the US is lower than in some European Union countries if it is defined by income movements. American men born into the lowest income quintile are much more likely to stay there than similar people in the Nordic countries or the United Kingdom. Many economists, such as Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, however, state that the discrepancy has little to do with class rigidity; rather, it is a reflection of income disparity: "Moving up and down a short ladder is a lot easier than moving up and down a tall one."
Regarding public welfare, Richard Rose asked in 1989 whether the evidence shows whether the U.S. "is becoming more like other mixed-economy welfare states, or increasingly exceptional." He concluded, "By comparison with other advanced industrial nations America is today exceptional in total public expenditure, in major program priorities, and in the value of public benefits."


The historian Michael Kammen argues that criticisms against the topic were raised in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War. According to Kammen, many intellectuals then decided, "The American Adam had lost his innocence and given way to a helpless, tarnished Gulliver." At about the same time, the new social history used statistical techniques on population samples that seemed to show resemblances with Europe on issues such as social mobility. By the 1980s, labor historians were emphasizing that the failure of a workers' party to emerge in the United States did not mean that America was exceptionally favorable for workers. By the late 1980s, other academic critics started mocking the extreme chauvinism displayed by the modern usage of exceptionalism. Finally, in the mid-1980s, colonial historians debated the uniqueness of the American experience in the context of British history. On the other hand, Wilentz argued for "distinctively American forms of class conflict," and Foner said there was a "distinctive character of American trade unionism."
The third idea of American exceptionalism, superiority, has been criticized with charges of moral defectiveness and the existence of double standards. In American Exceptionalism and Human Rights, the Canadian commentator Michael Ignatieff treats the idea negatively and identifies three main sub-types: "exemptionalism" ; "double standards", and "legal isolationism".

Exceptionalism as "exemptionalism"

During the George W. Bush administration, the term was somewhat abstracted from its historical context. Proponents and opponents alike began using it to describe a phenomenon wherein certain political interests view the United States as being "above" or an "exception" to the law, specifically the law of nations. The new use of the term has served to confuse the topic and muddy the waters since its unilateralist emphasis, and the actual orientation diverges somewhat from prior uses of the phrase. A certain number of those who subscribe to "old-style" or "traditional American exceptionalism," the idea that America is a more nearly exceptional nation than are others and that it differs qualitatively from the rest of the world and has a unique role to play in world history, also agree that the United States is and ought to be entirely subject to and bound by public international law. Indeed, recent research shows that "there is some indication for American exceptionalism among the public, but very little evidence of unilateral attitudes."
On September 12, 2013, in the context of U.S. President Barack Obama's comment about American exceptionalism during his September 10, 2013 talk to the American people while he was considering military action on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Obama: "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
In his interview with RT on October 4, 2013, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa criticized Obama's policies and compared American exceptionalism with Nazi Germany: "Does not this remind you of the Nazis' rhetoric before and during World War II? They considered themselves the chosen race, the superior race, etc. Such words and ideas pose extreme danger."

Moral purity

Critics on the left such as Marilyn Young and Howard Zinn have argued that American history is so morally flawed because of slavery, civil rights, and social welfare issues that it cannot be an exemplar of virtue. Zinn argues that American exceptionalism cannot be of divine origin because it was not benign, especially in dealing with Native Americans.
Donald E. Pease mocks American exceptionalism as a "state fantasy" and a "myth" in his 2009 book The New American Exceptionalism: "Pease notes that state fantasies cannot altogether conceal the inconsistencies they mask, showing how such events as the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the exposure of government incompetence after Hurricane Katrina opened fissures in the myth of exceptionalism."
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that the automatic assumption that America acts for the right will bring about moral corruption although Niebuhr supported America's Cold War policies. His position, "Christian realism," advocated a liberal notion of responsibility that justified interference in other nations.

Double standards

US historians like Thomas Bender "try and put an end to the recent revival of American exceptionalism, a defect he esteems to be inherited from the Cold War." Gary W. Reichard and Ted Dickson argue "how the development of the United States has always depended on its transactions with other nations for commodities, cultural values and populations." Roger Cohen asks, "How exceptional can you be when every major problem you face, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to gas prices, requires joint action?" Harold Koh distinguishes "distinctive rights, different labels, the 'flying buttress' mentality, and double standards. he fourth face—double standards—presents the most dangerous and destructive form of American exceptionalism." Godfrey Hodgson also concludes that "the US national myth is dangerous". Samantha Power asserts that "we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism."

Americanist heresy

In 1898, Pope Leo XIII denounced what he deemed to be the heresy of Americanism in his encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae. He targeted American exceptionalism in the ecclesiastical domain and argued that it stood in opposition to papal denunciations of modernism. In the late 19th century, there was a tendency for US Catholic clergy to view American society as inherently different from other Christian nations and to argue that the understanding of Church doctrine had to be enlarged in order to encompass the "American Experience," which included greater individualism, tolerance of other religions, and separation of church and state.

Pre-emptive declinism

defined pre-emptive declinism as a postmodern belief "that the United States is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations". London ascribed that view to Paul Krugman and others. Krugman had written in The New York Times, "We have always known that America's reign as the world's greatest nation would eventually end. However, most of us imagined that our downfall, when it came, would be something grand and tragic."
According to RealClearPolitics, declarations of America's declining power have been common in the English-language media. In 1988, Flora Lewis said, "Talk of U.S. decline is real in the sense that the U.S. can no longer pull all the levers of command or pay all the bills." According to Anthony Lewis in 1990, Europeans and Asians are already finding confirmation of their suspicion that the United States is in decline. Citing America's dependence on foreign sources of energy and "crucial weaknesses" in the military, Tom Wicker concluded "that maintaining superpower status is becoming more difficult—nearly impossible—for the United States." In 2004, Patrick Buchanan lamented "the decline and fall of the greatest industrial republic the world had ever seen." In 2007, Matthew Parris of The Sunday Times wrote that the United States is "overstretched," and he romantically recalled the Kennedy presidency, when "America had the best arguments" and could use moral persuasion, rather than force, to have its way in the world. From his vantage point in Shanghai, the International Herald Tribunes Howard French worries about "the declining moral influence of the United States" over an emergent China.
In his book, The Post-American World, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria refers to a "Post-American world" that he says "is not about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else."

Similarities between US and Europe

In December 2009, historian Peter Baldwin published a book arguing that despite widespread attempts to contrast the "American way of life" and the "European social model," America and Europe are actually very similar to a number of social and economic indices. Baldwin claimed that the black underclass accounts for many of the few areas in which a stark difference exists between the US and Europe, such as homicide and child poverty.
The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that it be commonly thought that all people consider themselves exceptional. In most cases in which the subject has been broached, the similarities between the conflicting parties outweigh the differences. Things such as the "dynamic wealth creation, the democracy, the accessibility of opportunity, the cult of civil liberty, the tradition of tolerance," and what Fernández-Armesto considers evils such as the materialistic economy, the excessive privileges of wealth, and the selective illiberality are standard features in many modern societies. However, he adds, America is made exceptional by the intensity with which those characteristics are concentrated there.

Current official stance and its detractors

In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama responded to a journalist's question in Strasbourg with this statement: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Obama further noted, "I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone." Mitt Romney attacked Obama's statement and argued it showed Obama did not believe in American exceptionalism. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said that Obama's "worldview is dramatically different from any president, Republican or Democrat, we've had... He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation."
In a speech on the Syria crisis on September 10, 2013, Obama said that "however, when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our kids safer over the long run, I believe we should act.... That is what makes America different. That is what makes us exceptional." In a direct response the next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times, articulating, "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.... We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." Putin's views were soon endorsed by future President Donald Trump, who declared the op-ed "a masterpiece." "You think of the term as being beautiful, but all of sudden you say, what if you're in Germany or Japan or any one of 100 different countries? You are not going to like that term," Trump said. "It is very insulting, and Putin put it to him about that." Some left-wing American commentators agree with Trump's stance; one example is Sherle Schwenninger, a co-founder of the New America Foundation, who in a 2016 Nation magazine symposium remarked, "Trump would redefine American exceptionalism by bringing an end to the neoliberal/neoconservative globalist project that Hillary Clinton and many Republicans support." However, Trump has also advocated an "America First" policy, emphasizing American nationalism and unilateralism, though with a greater emphasis on non-interventionism than imperialism.
American exceptionalism has been a plank of the Republican party platform since 2012. The current platform, adopted in 2016, defines it as "the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership" and affirms that the U.S. therefore must "retake its natural position as leader of the free world."

Primary sources