American Exceptionalism as a Guide

Book Review: Abbott. 1999. Exceptional America (Major Concepts in Politics and Political Theory). Peter Lang Publishing. Note: I tried to use original words when possible.

Official Book Description:

The belief that America is not only different but “exceptional” is a central aspect of American identity that appears in the speeches and writings of John Winthrop to Martin Luther King Jr. to Ronald Reagan. Yet how and why America is exceptional has produced widely diverse answers. Philip Abbott alters this debate by arguing that Americans are the way they talk. He examines American exceptionalism as a preoccupation with “newness” in both politics and culture and traces its influence in a series of great American political texts, including the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, Democracy in America, Walden, The Souls of Black Folk, and various novels and speeches.


American Exceptionalism (AE) is a theory that asserts that certain American institutions and practices are so distinctively American that a specific, discrete set of explanations are required to understand them. The explanations themselves are numerous: the absence of feudalism, religious diversity, the peculiar character of the revolution, fortuitous circumstances surrounding early political development, the genius of the founding fathers, the conjunction of race and ethnicity, cheap land, early suffrage for white males, and on and on. The theory assumes that the former explanations do not singularly describe AE, but when aggregated, political scientists may successfully reveal AE. Fortunately, Abbott maps out a well marked path for political scientists to research AE.


Initial AE research is difficult because there seem to be so many different variables/uses. On the other hand, there appears to be a dichotomous relationship. Once things are un-American—they are irrelevant in America. Yet if the American experience is an exceptional one, then Americans are liberated from the tragedies and unsolved dilemmas faced by other nations. Hartz employed these tropes by political elites as using “charm or terror.” Accept “Americanism” and bounty will follow, reject it and risk marginality.

You can hear AE in American culture as when to be an American (as opposed to French, English, etc) is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherent one, since we are inhabitants of myth instead of history (i.e. celebratory utopianism).  That America is the most free, most powerful, richest country on earth has been noticed by political scientists.

AE may be a weapon for reform or even revolution. For example, Shays’ Rebellion was a movement for Americanism: We shall not be peasants. Or take the Lowell textile workers essence: We are daughter of freemen. But AE is also a cultural injunction: class consciousness is muted in America and there is no socialism.America, love it or leave it. How can this happen in America? These aspects of AE manifest in American society and may thus be observed by political scientists.

One can explain AE by examining the discourse within American culture. For example, AE forms a structure by which actors delineate their own version of America.

AE contains two core elements: Newness and Oldness. Newness may provide a cultural authorization for the freedom to reorganize the polity upon eclectic foundations. Oldness, or enclosure, may provide a route by which new boundaries are created and justified as essential to the national identity.

Thus, AE shows that American history can be seen in terms of patterns in which enclosures encased in popular memory are broken through by the evocation of newness, and then enclosed once again.

Newness is the essential feature of AE. It suffices Tocqueville’s analysis as well as Baudrillard (America is the original version of modernity).

Old and New:

Positive Newness: newness as experiment, as boldness, as originality, as freshness, as innovation, as novelty, as energy, as the current, as youthfulness, as excitement, as vigor, as brand-new.

Negative Newness: inexperience, as the unfamiliar, as rash, as infantile, as strange, as unusual, as newfangled, as crudeness, as untried, as unversed.

Negative Oldness: time-worn, antiquated, archaic, old-fashioned, outdated, passé.

Positive Oldness: enduring, trusted, tried, abiding, reliable.

For political scientists, AE is a cultural tool, which should not be ignored in institutional analysis [or risk the peril weak foundations].

We can say that AE is a process that alters and reaffirms national identity. For example, AE texts include: Federalist papers, declaration of independence, Lincoln speeches, Walden, MLK’s “I have a dream.”

There are three early statements of AE:

1. religious: the settlement of America was the new Israel

A. so frequent were these Israeli/American typologies,

that new Englanders came to understand the history

of Israel as well—perhaps better—than their parents

knew the history of England.

2. republican ideology: animated the American Revolution,

referenced antiquity to Calvin’s Geneva to republican Florence.

3.  liberal version: as illuminated by Crevecoeur’s exploration of

“What is an American?” –that America is a place of economic

opportunity and emphasizes the multicultural origins of

American exceptionalism.

AE sees western pilgrims as a new race, much like Tocqueville sees every new American generation as a new experiment for democracy. Paine, for example,  argued that Britain was not America’s parent country. America was a refuge for all Europeans.

AE requires a careful analysis:

Shklar uses bifurcation—democracy v. tyranny, but she at times neglects AE cultural encounters. This is consequential, since America is by cultural self-definition in a perpetual state of redemption.

Shklar: America’s founding produced 3 political sciences, though flawed, which can show the march toward democracy: (1) Jacksonians picked up the torch of a generation, (2) southern political scientists represented a detour through their reconceptualization of tyranny, and (3) modern political science came in through Dewey and Merriam and they brought democratic tendencies of the social sciences into the mainstream.

Abbott: based on AE as the central structure of political discourse: (1) founders project employed AE to advance democratic commitments mixed with goals of control, (2) Jacksonians are more petit-bourgeois than democrats in a land without aristocrats whose role in the tyranny-democracy debate is highly problematic [see Tocqueville and his first hand accounts of the Trail of Tears due to Jackson]. (3) southern reactionaries were defeated by Lincoln’s political actions which was directed against anti-statist sentiment through a transformation of Whig doctrine into a formulation of AE as creedal affirmation. More importantly, AE framework would have placed antebellum politics in the context of a unique democratic struggle without an aristocracy.

One of the most puzzling aspects of democratic mass movements in America is their anti-statist and localistic character, their mixture of communal generosity and personal ambition, and their language of universal rights and spitefulness toward other groups. If Shklar recognized AE, then she would not only have recognized the redemptive project in Whig political thought, but also the great reconceptualization by Lincoln of the American nation.

Fitzhugh rejected AE and endorsed the Europeanization of America: that slavery was the best form of socialism!  If the South could “redeem” the North, then they might force AE and thus succeed—but they couldn’t energize AE in their endeavor. Only Lincoln could. AE matters.

America is a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Should America depart from its own creed? AE would cease to exist entirely.

There is a “Charm and terror” of American exceptionalism.

At any rate, the “ideological features of a liberal society reasserted themselves in the reconstruction experiment…a rededication of Lockean liberalism as the appropriate path for African American redemption—The Nation said that the Negro must succeed through entrepreneurial competition. Reconstruction was “socialism” and more so, it was anti-AE.

Critics have tried to deny AE through complex invocations of newness. Jefferson is sometimes portrayed here because Jefferson portrayed all aspects of America: natural, cultural, political, and economic—as “extraordinary” and “different.” To Jefferson, what was not new was not American.  Indeed, Jefferson (a slave owner) describes slavery as a major cause of corruption, and, thence, the republican morals of the masters are destroyed, as well as their industry.[1]

Jefferson explains American newness through the Virginia constitution of 1776. However, Jefferson did note a failure to fully embrace republicanism—too many people whom paid and fought for freedom were not enfranchised, representation was unequal, the house and senate were too homogenous, the branches of government were too consolidated, and the constitution was not submitted to the people. Newness as “inexperience” produced these effects, but the positive newness of republican America over time would cure them.

The Federalist Papers were a literal or at least an ideological coup d’etat.

This “sacred” text is the written attempt to begin a new 2nd republic. Importantly, the anti-federalists argued that the text was “new” in various negative forms: untested, exotic, and unknown. On the other hand, Publius contended that the constitution must be seen as the result of positive “oldness,” since it reflected long historical experience, and Publius constantly criticized the utopianism of their detractors.

Of course, the anti-federalists said that new constitution was so old…that it squints of monarchy and betrays the American Revolution. Moreover, Publius frequently emphasized the “newness” of his science of politics which was unavailable in the old republics.  Indeed, “publius” comes from the old republic, and more importantly, did so “as a proud, and radical, innovator within the tradition.”

Federalist 14 pointedly asked: “But why is the experiment of an extended republic to be rejected merely because it may comprise what is new?”  And after showing time and time again the advantages of a union (e.g., #10 and control of factions) over the Articles of Confederation (i.e. the failures aplenty abounding in the late 1780s—see Federalist papers #2-22).

Tocqueville:  everywhere he looks he finds new laws and new mores and more significantly this confrontation constantly challenges him to search for new methods, new words, and new theories to explain—to contain—this newness.

America in terms of absences (DIA V1): No aristocracy, no peasants, no great generals, no large army, no foreign enemies, no heavy taxes, no capital, no primogeniture, no political parties, no centralized administration.

In terms of Presence: Recent colonial founding, distinctiveness of first settlers, revolution in property, power and authority of local governments, a “vast wilderness” on its borders, the sobriety of the American Revolution, universal suffrage, moderation of voluntary associations, an extraordinary constitutional founding, high level of religious sects, high level of economic prosperity, equality of condition, reinvention of the office of justice of the peace, judicial review, sovereignty of the people.

Did these absences and presences add up to a broader notion of newness? Did “pious adventurers” give up aristocratic tendencies and embrace middle class and democratic freedom in which the world’s history had not provided a concrete example? If so, then isn’t this exceptional—indeed—new?

These “lively republics” engaged in decision-making by its own citizens and elected selectmen that provided for the poor, maintained roads, supervised property arrangements, and guaranteed public order. And the people did this—not the state. For Tocqueville, the lack of state in the administrative sense was unprecedented. The constitution was unique, which actually described an incomplete national government for this new thing.     The newness of America rested in its mores. Better still, the new democracy in America might be imitated, especially its legal system.  Individualism ruled over egoism.

Declaration of Independence:

In this commix of propositions (equality and rebellion), the declaration makes its claim to exceptionalism.

Lincoln demanded pledging obedience to the “patriots of seventy six”: to The Declaration—not the Constitution.

Lincoln’s house divided speech linked slavery with evil. Thus Lincoln could keep the “all men are created equal” and explain why the succession part of the declaration didn’t belong to the southern movement.

When to use old /new:

Publius: (1) Avoid old when speaks of the tragic course of past republican foundings. (2) Embrace new when consistent with the science of politics based upon the “tried course of human affairs.” (3) This new is to be avoided when it does not recognize the constraints of human nature. (4) New is embraced when experimentation makes it desirable.


Since America’s conception, various definitions of old and new have been known. American exceptionalism works—un-American activity fails. There is a roadmap of AE that shows when to avoid the old and/or acknowledge it, and when to grasp the new and/or shun it!

To recognize exceptionalism as both a form of freedom and a form of enslavement is a conception of American identity that eludes each exceptional text we have identified, but it is possible to capture it collectively. This is the substance of American Exceptionalism.

[1] Tocqueville also commented on the exceptional North and not so exceptional South: the farms (i.e. laborers) from the viewpoint of the Ohio River; to the one side resided free Ohio, to the other was slavery in Kentucky. The South looked lazy and the North—industrious.


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