American Exceptionalism Isn’t a Modern Idea

Juliana Geran Pilon claims the phrase “American exceptionalism” has acquired neither the ripeness of age nor the nobility of distinguished usage. (“Let’s Take Exception to the Term ‘American Exceptionalism,’” Wall Street Journal. op-ed, April 29.)   The term should be abandoned on the grounds it is “too susceptible to equivocation and manipulation,”

But Abraham Lincoln, when searching for meaning in the midst of the tragedy of the Civil War, invariably returned to his belief that the United States “shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” Alone among the world’s nations, Lincoln believed, the United States had succeeded in preserving liberty and democracy. Unless the United States could survive the maelstrom into which it had been flung, he doubted whether this “nation, or any nation” which was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal,” could long endure.

Though Lincoln did not talk about exceptionalism per se, he could not justify the killings of hundreds of thousands either to his country or to himself without first believing America was more than exceptional—it was the world’s best hope.

It cannot be proven, but Lincoln was probably aware that a French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, had identified an exceptional nation when he traveled in the United States during the 1830s. Convinced that liberty could not survive in a democracy, Tocqueville tried to understand the anomaly he observed. He concluded: “The situation of the Americans is entirely exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be put in the same situation. Their . . .uniquely commercial habits, even the country that they inhabit … had to concentrate the American mind in a singular way in the concern for purely material things.” Americans were not susceptible to Napoleonic schemes of political reform, he said. For this reason democracy in America had not lead to tyranny.

Ever since, scholars have debated not whether America is exceptional but what specifically accounts for the fact. Competing (complementary?) explanations include the lack of a feudal heritage, widespread citizen involvement in machine-style political parties (forestalling socialism), a federal system of government, a fast-growing economy, an expanding frontier, an enviable education system, risk-taking immigrants, and a belief in hard work, entrepreneurialism and opportunity.

Exceptionalism does not mean perfection. Most obviously, the American experience is stained by slavery. Lincoln hoped that the stain could be washed clean once “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” but its bitter legacy persists.  Further, the United States today is under pressure to abandon much of what has made it exceptional. The frontier has closed, power is being centralized, economic growth is slowing, our schools are at best barely average, an entitlement state undermines commitments to hard work and entrepreneurialism, the door to risk-taking immigrants is closing, and in 2016 a socialist nearly won the nomination of a major political party.

Pilon rightly points out that Stalin derogated American exceptionalism. So did Vladimir Putin: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to think of themselves as exceptional. . . . We must not forget that God created us equal.” But just as “Yankee-Doodle” was transformed from an English put-down into a self-respecting assertion of independence, so the exceptional nature of the American experience can be turned from a sneer into a notable element in the nation’s escutcheon.

The cognoscenti in our elite universities are declaring American exceptionalism a politically incorrect term. To her credit, Pilon does not iterate these canards but argues only that the concept is “susceptible to equivocation and manipulation.”   But if we were to abandon each and every phrase open to manipulation, our language would soon be reduced to “Run, Spot, Run.” As long as the United States remains exceptional, we should celebrate, not denigrate, our (not always, but often) good and great country.

—Paul E. Peterson
Department of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Senior Editor of Education Next.

This originally appeared in abridged form as a Letter to the Editor in the Wall Street Journal.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College