American Literature American Exceptionalism
by
Donald E. Pease
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0176

Introduction

The concept of American exceptionalism has provided US citizens with a representative form of self-recognition across the centuries. John Winthrop’s admonition to his fellow New England colonists is usually cited as the foundational moment of American exceptionalism: “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Although these stirring words from Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) have fostered a tendency to view America in religious terms—“America” as an elect nation and “Americans” a chosen people—American exceptionalism was more decisively shaped by the ideals of the European Enlightenment. The founders imagined the United States as an unprecedentedly free, new nation based on founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that announced its unique destiny to become the champion of the universal rights of all humankind. In Rights of Man (1792), Thomas Paine asserted that the “revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics.” Despite American exceptionalism’s standing as an invariant tenet of the national creed, however, accounts of the discourse’s content have changed with historical circumstances. American exceptionalism has been taken to mean that America is either “distinctive” (meaning merely different), or “unique” (meaning anomalous), or “exemplary” (meaning a model for other nations to follow), or “exempt” from the laws of historical progress (meaning that it is an “exception” to the laws and rules governing the development of other nations). The particulars attributed to the term have been said to refer to clusters of absent and present elements—the absence of feudal hierarchies, class conflicts, a socialist labor party, trade unionism, and divisive ideological passions, and the presence of a predominant middle class, tolerance for diversity, upward mobility, hospitality toward immigrants, a shared constitutional faith, and liberal individualism—that putatively set America apart from other national cultures. Although historical realities have posed significant challenge, these tenets have proven uncommonly resilient. Indeed, the “rhetoric” of American exceptionalism permeates every period of American history. The concept undergirds the rhetoric of nearly every American president, from Washington’s (1796) Farewell Address to Barack Obama’s 2014 Inaugural. While descriptions have varied, the more or less agreed upon archive concerned with what made America exceptional would include the following propositions: the United States and its citizens are divinely ordained to lead the world to betterment; the United States differs politically, socially, and morally from the Old World of Europe; and the United States is exempt from the “laws of history” that lead to the decline and downfall of other great nations.

General Overviews

Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to use the term “exceptional” to describe the United States and the American people in his classic work Democracy in America (1835–1840). Greene 1993 provides an account of the lasting presence of American exceptionalism that traces the idea back to America’s origin as a British settler colony. But as Miller 1956 observes, the nationalist ideology of exceptionalism did not begin for a century and a half after the Puritans’ arrival in the New World. When English Puritans described New England as a New Eden, they referred to the religious experiment rather than the place. American writers nevertheless celebrated the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” as crucial for an understanding of the redeemer nation’s manifest destiny. Weinberg 1935 specifies the historical origin of American expansionism as the informing principle of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804 and shows how a “destinarian discourse” accompanied 19th-century American expansion. Lipset 1963 cites Lincoln’s memorable description of the United States as an “almost chosen nation” as evidence of Americans’ belief that destiny marked their country as different from others. Chief 20th-century interpreters and exponents of American exceptionalism have focused on different aspects and themes to explain its enduring efficacy. Bercovitch 1979 probes its foundations in the Puritans’ political theology; Commager 1978 contends that the United States rendered the Europeans’ Enlightenment ideals into political realities; Smith 1956 inspects the national myths and symbols embedded in its ideology; Kohn 1957 sets the American ideology in comparatist international context; Huntington 2004 stresses the significance of the shared national identity expressive of that ideology; Madsen 1998 offers a historical survey of the heterogeneous articulations of the exceptionalist ideology; Hodgson 2010 draws on historical evidence to discredit the belief that the United States is a special nation with an extraordinary mission in human history as a dangerous myth.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

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    Sacvan Bercovitch considers the Puritans’ sermons, allegories, and biographies foundational to the meaning of America. Through close textual reading of Cotton Mather’s “Life of John Winthrop,” Bercovitch shows how the Puritans instituted a “celebration of the representative self as America, and of the American self as the embodiment of a prophetic universal design” (p. 136).

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  • Commager, Henry Steele. The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment. New York: Anchor, 1978.

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    In this reevaluation of the philosophic and intellectual background of the nation’s founding, Commager argues that the United States founders intended the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to achieve the Enlightenment ideals that European leaders could not.

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  • Greene, Jack P. The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

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    Greene claims that American exceptionalism originated within a culture of British colonial imperialism as the response of white British settlers to the lands and populations they colonized. Prior to the Revolution, being part of the British imperial world system conformed Americans’ identities according to their belief in a shared British heritage.

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  • Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

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    Hodgson argues that exponents of American exceptionalism perform a categorical mistake when they locate its origin in the 1635 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop was preaching to Englishmen, Hodgson insists, who were eager to prove the unique importance of British settler colonialism. America, in Hodgson’s view, was part of the Anglo-European liberal capitalist tradition and is subject to comparably dangerous ventures of missionary colonialism.

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  • Huntington, Samuel. Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

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    Huntington argues that the main components of American national identity—race, ethnicity, culture—are under siege. In the absence of these binding characteristics, Huntington concludes that Americans should resist disintegration by reaffirming the shared values that define US citizens.

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  • Kohn, Hans. American Nationalism: An Interpretive Essay. New York: MacMillan, 1957.

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    Hans Kohn brings a comparatist perspective to bear on belief in the uniqueness of American nationalism. According to Kohn, American nationalism is not comprised of the usual elements of nationhood such as shared language, culture, common descent, or historical territory, but on the singular idea that American values and principles would benefit all mankind.

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  • Lipset, Seymour. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: Anchor, 1963.

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    Seymour Lipset claims that Americans are unlike citizens of nation-states who derive their national identity from a shared history and ethnicity. According to Lipset, American national identity involves the willingness to believe in the set of political and social principles and exceptionalist values that embody the ideology of Americanism.

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  • Madsen, Deborah L. American Exceptionalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

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    Madsen provides an overview of the changing contours of American exceptionalism by exploring the complex set of issues to which it is related. Madsen finds counter-exceptionalist ideologies expressed in the work of Native American, Chicano, and, to a lesser degree, African American writers.

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  • Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

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    According to Miller, the idea of America as an exceptional entity can be found in the thought of Puritan settlers who regarded the North American continent as a promised land where a new Canaan could be built as a model for the rest of the world. Perry Miller cites Samuel Danforth’s 1670 sermon “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness” to corroborate the claim that the “wilderness” set New England apart from England.

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  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956.

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    In this classic account of the myths and symbols of the American West, Henry Nash Smith argues that the way 18th-century Americans thought about the West was more important than the material features of the land itself. Smith maintains that the settlers who developed the American West were moved to do so by the alluring symbols of the West created by 18th- and 19th-century poets, orators, and novelists.

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  • Weinberg, Albert K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1935.

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    Weinberg’s book is particularly valuable for his account of manifest destiny as the creedal doctrine that the American nation “has a preeminent social worth, a distinctively lofty mission, and consequently, unique rights in the application of moral principles” (p. 8). Written under the influence of President Woodrow Wilson’s anti-interventionist policies, Weinberg believed that the United States had outgrown its expansionist tendencies.

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Foundational Texts

Three generations of American studies scholars have scoured the historical archive to locate the writers that supplied American citizens with the concepts that secured and regulated their understanding of American exceptionalism. Their intensive scholarly labors resulted in the ordination of a select cohort of writers and scholars whose texts were hailed as canonical accounts of the sundry national characteristics that fostered and substantiate this foundational belief. Winthrop 1630 professes the nation’s special religious mission; de Crèvecoeur 2013 hails its annulment of European history; de Tocqueville 1945 celebrates America’s egalitarian drive; O’Sullivan 1845 consecrates the nation’s expansionist destiny; Turner 1894 lauds the country’s seemingly limitless frontier; Du Bois 1935 points to its formation of abolition democracy; Sombart 1976 specifies the absence of socialism from US history; Luce 1941 acclaims the timeliness of American power; Myrdal 1944 explores the obstacles to the United States’ achievement of racial justice; and Niebuhr 1952 situates the impasses to justice within what the author calls the irony of US history.

  • de Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John. Letters from an American Farmer and Other Essays. Edited by Dennis Moore. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

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    De Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer was the first book to distinguish an American from a European identity. In response to the question, “What, then, is the American?” de Crèvecoeur describes the American as an immigrant who was utterly transformed though the negation of his European past: “Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops . . . no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury . . . We have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed; we are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free; as he ought to be” (p. 29).

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  • de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.

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    Alexis de Tocqueville was the first European observer to claim that Americans’ historical situation was “entirely exceptional” and would never again be replicated. In arriving at this judgment, de Tocqueville cites the nation’s Puritan founding, the “providential facts” of the revolution, and the creation of the federal constitution. Since its publication in the mid-19th century, Democracy in America has provided readers with an authoritative framework of intelligibility with which to interpret what renders American democracy exceptional.

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  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935.

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    Du Bois characterizes white supremacy as an anomaly in an attempt to elevate abolition democracy into an exemplary form of American exceptionalism: “Two theories of the future of America clashed and blended just after the Civil War.” One was “abolition-democracy based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men,” and the other was “industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power” (p. 182).

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  • Luce, Henry. “The American Century.” Life, 17 February 1941: 61–65.

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    In the tradition of the American jeremiad, Luce famously rebukes the American readers of this essay for their failure to live up to what he describes as the responsibility of the inhabitants of the most powerful and vital nation in the world, namely, “to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit” (p. 63).

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  • Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.

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    Writing on the “Negro problem,” the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal characterizes the obstacle that racism posed to black assimilation as symptomatic of a lapse in the United States’ adherence to a liberal notion of equality that Myrdal considers the benchmark of the nation’s moral superiority. Representing such racism as an atavism, Myrdal argues that American liberalism is destined to overcome this moral dilemma.

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  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. New York: Scribner’s, 1952.

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    In this monograph composed at the outset of the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr offers a fallibilist interpretation of American exceptionalism to fault the competing ideologies of communism and liberal democracy as comparable expressions of an overly optimistic view of human nature. To counter them, Niebuhr proposes that Americans must struggle to achieve justice in the face of the knowledge that absolute justice is impossible.

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  • O’Sullivan, John L. New York Morning News (27 December 1845).

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    John L. O’Sullivan published an editorial in the New York Morning News on 27 December 1845 claiming that it is the right of the United States’ manifest destiny to take possession of the Oregon territory disputed by the British. Manifest destiny consolidates a miscellany of notions—geographic determinism, providential election, white privilege, America as an “empire of liberty,” and romantic nationalism—as warrant for the belief that Divine Providence has entrusted the United States as the exemplar of world liberty and democracy.

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  • Sombart, Werner. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? White Plains, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1976.

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    Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? is the most influential explanation of the absence of an effective trade unionist movement in American labor history. According to Sombart, Americans’ belief in unrestricted opportunity constitutes an effective substitute for socialism. In Sombart’s view, the abundance of land fostered the American worker’s belief in social mobility and limitless possibility.

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  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Paper presented at the Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association held in Chicago, 11–13 July 1893. In Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893. Edited by the American Historical Association, 199–227. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894.

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    In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which he first delivered as an address at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Turner argues that the westward expansion of the republic should be considered the defining aspect of US history. The frontier experience was definitive, Turner argues, because American democracy was animated by the power of the frontier line exerted to liberate American pioneers from European manners and customs.

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  • Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3d ser. 7 (1630): 31–48.

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    In this sermon that has become American exceptionalism’s scene of origin, Winthrop articulates the credo that God promised the New World to an elect group of believers destined to become a guiding light for all mankind: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” (p. 47).

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Reference Works

The idea that America is fundamentally distinct from other nations has dominated American culture since the 18th century. The theological, philosophical, geographical, cultural, and political assumptions embedded in this notion have solicited descriptions from a wide range of cultural, political, and disciplinary perspectives. The effort to codify and curate these contesting perspectives has inspired the production of informative reference volumes of collected essays written by contributors from across academic disciplines and coordinated by editors to engage American exceptionalism’s disparate characteristics. The editors who have compiled the essays in the following reference volumes aspire to provide informative assessments of the complex interaction of American exceptionalism with the cluster of related terms—competing national exceptionalisms (Shafer 1991), imperialism (Kaplan and Pease 1993), foreign policy (Adams and van Minnen 1994), socialism (Lipset and Marks 2001), human rights and rule of law (Ignatieff 2005), sports and popular culture (Carson and Söderlind 2011), nationalist rhetoric (Edwards and Weiss 2011), the American Century (Bacevich 2013), American prospects for global leadership (Dunn 2013), Anglo-American exceptionalism (Roberts and DiCuirci 2012)—with which the term has been articulated.

  • Adams, David, and Cornelius van Minnen. Reflections on American Exceptionalism. Papers delivered at the conference for American Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective held in Middleburg, The Netherlands, 21–23 April 1993. Staffordshire, UK: Ryburn, 1994.

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    This volume gathers the proceedings of the 1993 European Historians of the United States conference. The selection of essays includes “The Turner-Thesis Revisited,” “James Bryce and Harold Laski,” “The Exceptionalist Syndrome in US Continental and Overseas Expansionism,” “World War One and Wilsonian Exceptionalism,” and “The Gulf War and the New World Order.”

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  • Bacevich, Andrew, ed. The Short American Century: A Postmortem. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

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    This collection of essays emanated from a lecture series Bacevich organized at Boston University in 2009–2010 to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Luce’s famous essay. Bacevich’s concluding essay elucidates the near identity between the American Century and a crusader-like understanding of American exceptionalism and cautions against the continuation of Luce’s missionary exceptionalism in the 21st century.

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  • Carson, James Taylor, and Sylvia Söderlind. American Exceptionalisms: From Winthrop to Winfrey. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

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    In this selection, North American and European American studies scholars trace the rhetoric of exceptionalism through a variety of artifacts drawn from religious, political, and popular culture. The essayists select key historical moments in the development of this belief—from John Winthrop’s the “city upon a hill” and early exploration narratives in the 17th century to the War on Terror and Oprah Winfrey’s “Child Predator Watch List” in the 21st century.

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  • Dunn, Charles W., ed. American Exceptionalism: The Origins, History, and Future of the Nation’s Greatest Strength. Summit, PA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

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    The volume gathers position papers by scholars involved in intense debates on the cultural, economic, political, and social implications of American exceptionalism. While some of the contributors describe the policies and ideology of American exceptionalism as antiquated, others reaffirm the exceptional purpose and prospects of the United States. In his integrating essay, the editor, Charles Dunn, maps out the origins, history, and future of American exceptionalism in the 21st century.

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  • Edwards, Jason A., and David Weiss, eds. The Rhetoric of American Exceptionalism: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

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    This volume of critical essays explores rhetorical iterations of changing notions of American Exceptionalism across a range of cultural contexts, including religion, economics, presidential politics, sports, journalism, foreign policy, and American history. The editors’ introduction provides a distilled account of how the principles of American exceptionalism have been adapted, criticized, and rejected by its advocates and detractors.

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  • Ignatieff, Michael, ed. American Exceptionalism and Human Rights. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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    The contributors invoke the juridical aspects of American exceptionalism to explain and/or justify the United States’ exemption from the international human rights laws and conventions that it enforces. Ignatieff’s coordinating essay elucidates the juridical and political stakes of the arguments among the contributors.

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  • Kaplan, Amy, and Donald E. Pease. Cultures of US Imperialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

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    This collection begins with essays on 15th-century Mexico and Cortez and covers a breadth of issues about postcolonial America up through the Gulf War. The editors interconnect domestic racial issues with broader foreign policies to provide the basis for critiquing the imperialistic tendencies of American exceptionalism previously hidden from histories underpinned by Cold War ideologies.

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  • Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Gary Wolfe Marks. It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

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    This survey returns to the question Werner Sombart asked in the 1920s: Why didn’t working-class radicalism take root in the United States? Lipset and Marks offer a “political sociology” of socialism’s failure in America. The authors specify the diversity of the American working class, individualism, and American socialists’ refusal to ally with the labor and other political parties as the chief reasons why “it didn’t happen here.”

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  • Roberts, Timothy, and Lindsay DiCuirci, eds. American Exceptionalism. 4 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012.

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    This compilation of primary sources on the subject of American exceptionalism includes pamphlets, sermons, and newspaper and magazine articles from the colonial period to 1900. The editors organize these materials into volumes titled Land and Prosperity, The American Revolution, Millennial Aspirations and Providentialism, and Anti-exceptionalism that promote and support the editors’ correlation of American exceptionalism to British exceptionalism.

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  • Shafer, Byron, ed. Is America Different? A New Look at American Exceptionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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    Shafer collects a selection of papers from scholars in history, politics, economics, and sociology. The contributors who acknowledge the many distinctions between the United States and other nations question whether such differences constitute a case for exceptionalism. The volume includes revisionist essays by Seymour Martin Lipset (“American Exceptionalism Reaffirmed”) and Daniel Bell (“The ‘Hegelian Secret’: Civil Society and American Exceptionalism”).

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American Exceptionalism and Foreign Policy

The architects and agents responsible for the construction and revision of US foreign policy have treated the credo of American exceptionalism as crucial to this enterprise. Hunt 1987 notes that it is because American exceptionalism furnishes the core transhistorical elements of American national identity that US leaders have perforce taken up to articulate, explain, legitimate, and, on occasion, guide the nation’s foreign policy. Dallek 1983 adds that from the nation’s beginning, US foreign policy was influenced by contradictory representations of what renders the United States exceptional. Stephanson 1995 names these competing definitions “exemplarism” and “expansionism.” Wood 2006 discerns the site of origin for the tension between the isolationist and inteventionist strands of American exceptionalism in George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address that warned Americans against agreeing to “permanent alliances.” Hietala 1985 locates the origins of the doctrine of manifest destiny in the assertion from Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 Inaugural Address that the United States was “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe.” Drinnon 1980 states that the expansionist aspect of exceptionalism decisively supplanted the exemplarist strain when President James K. Polk declared war on Mexico in 1846. Written in the aftermath of the Iraq War, however, Ceasar 2012 uncovers seeds of American expansionism germinating in what Tuveson 1968 characterizes as 17th-century Puritans’ belief in their redemptive mission. McKenna 2007 summarizes the findings of a cohort of like-minded foreign policy scholars—as presented in Davis and Lynn-Jones 1987, Noll 1988, and Kane 2003—who designate the colonial settler mentality from the Puritan era as the seedbed of both the exemplarist and expansionist strains of US foreign policy. The antagonism between these national self-representations became glaringly evident when the United States entered into a series of international wars from 1846 to the 21st century.

  • Ceasar, James W. “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.” American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture 1.1 (Spring 2012): 3–28.

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    Ceaser isolates the sense of mission as the distinguishing trait of American exceptionalism. He devotes his attention to the various permutations—from the Puritans’ “Errand in the Wilderness” to the contemporary crusade against the axis of evil—the notion of mission has undergone throughout American history.

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  • Dallek, Robert. The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

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    Dallek argues that unresolved political and social domestic problems have figured importantly in the shaping of American foreign policy in each of the significant periods in US history—from the expansionism of the Spanish-American War and the American entrance into World War I, to American-Soviet relations during World War II, the Cold War period that followed, and American involvement in Korea and Vietnam. Arguing that the nation’s foreign policy reflects US concerns at home, Dallek interprets US actions abroad as symbolic extensions of domestic hopes and fears.

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  • Davis, R. Tami, and Sean M. Lynn-Jones. “City upon a Hill.” Foreign Policy 66 (1987): 20–38.

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    Davis and Lynn-Jones claim that because Americans lack a common ethnic or linguistic heritage, they construct an attitude toward other nations structured in the belief that America occupies a higher moral plane than other countries.

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  • Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

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    Drinnon tracks the interrelationship of racism with colonialism from the massacre of the Pequots to the horrors in My Lai and discerns similarities between the slaughter of bison on the Great Plains and the scorched-earth policy in Vietnam, showing how Indian-hating became a national pastime.

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  • Hietala, Thomas. Manifest Design: American Exceptionalism and Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

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    After analyzing the complex factors behind the policies that took place under the aegis of manifest destiny, Hietala argues that these policies were motivated by territorial and commercial greed rather than pioneer adventures or foreign threats.

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  • Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

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    Hunt describes three exceptionalist principles and ideas that lie behind foreign policy: (1) America’s vision of national greatness, (2) America’s propensity to view the world’s population in a hierarchy of race and culture, and (3) America’s disappointment at the failed democratic revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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  • Kane, John. “American Values or Human Rights? US Foreign Policy and the Fractured Myth of Virtuous Power.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 33 (2003): 772–800.

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    Kane asserts that critics of American exceptionalism fail to understand how it explains the United States’ peculiar attitude to supposedly universal Enlightenment values. In keeping with this assertion, Kane concludes that American exceptionalism should be construed as the basis for the legitimation of the nation’s geopolitical actions as opposed to their doctrinal motivation.

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  • McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

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    McKenna traces the 350-year genealogy of American patriotism from its scene of origin in Reformation Protestantism and its mutation into the eschatological violence released through the American Puritans’ belief in their providential “errand.” Contemporary forms of American patriotism continue to draw upon what McKenna calls the dark side of the nation’s patriotism—a tendency toward nativism and a prejudice against immigrants.

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  • Noll, Mark. One Nation under God? Christian Faith and Political Action in America. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

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    Noll is particularly valuable for the subtlety and nuance of examination of the relationship between politics and religion in the US “civil religion.” Noll argues that their Christian values do the most good when Americans remember the difference between their country and God’s kingdom.

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  • Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

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    Stephanson follows the itinerary of manifest destiny from the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” through Ronald Reagan’s struggle against the “evil empire” to underscore the two competing definitions of manifest destiny—exemplarism and expansionism—informing the nation’s international policies.

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  • Tuveson, Ernest Lee. Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

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    Tuveson persuasively demonstrates that the idea of the redemptive mission motivating the US foreign policy coincides with the mythological foundations of the republic. He traces the development of this figure of the nation as a millenarian ideal from its Puritan beginnings through successive stages of American history.

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  • Wood, Gordon. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin, 2006.

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    Wood devotes a chapter to each of eight founders—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr—to show how these figures established a meritocracy during an age of aristocracy.

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US-Mexico War to the Civil War

President James K. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to lead an “observatory force” to claim a US boundary at the Rio Grande in February 1846. As Johannsen 1985 demonstrates, the ensuing war enabled the growing army of Polk’s critics, including Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Herman Melville, to base their opposition to the war on the same American exceptionalist precept that encouraged Polk’s advocates like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman to endorse it, namely, that the United States was the guardian over the ideals of liberty that it was commissioned to propagate throughout the world. Greenberg 2012 provides corroborating evidence for Johannsen’s description of the US-Mexico War as a veritable coming-out party for exponents of American exceptionalism. As the first military campaign in which soldiers marched to the tempo of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and fought under the “stars and stripes,” the US-Mexico War inspired the journalists who supported it to propagate the fiction that the war would result in the fulfillment of the founders’ ideals. In cautioning against this understanding of the war’s significance, Horsman 1981 points to Mexico’s abolition of slavery as one of the unacknowledged causes of the war. Along the same lines, Saldívar 1997 draws attention to the fact that during the US-Mexico War, Americans had decided that blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans were incapable of democratic governance. Potter 1976 designates the contestations over whether the territory ceded by Mexico in the 1846 Treaty of Guadalupe would be slave or non-slave as a causal agent for the Civil War. McPherson 1983, Baptist 2014, Davis 2006, Horton and Horton 2005, and Blum 2005 discuss the importance to the national self-representation of the changes from 1846 to the aftermath of the Civil War in US citizens’ attitude to the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Diggins 2000 recalls that Abraham Lincoln, along with Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and other soldiers and politicians destined to play leading roles in the Civil War, launched his career in the US-Mexico War. Warren 1961 proposes that the Civil War left Northerners with a legacy of moral narcissism that afforded the designers of the nation’s foreign policy with the warrant for the declaration of ethno-genocidal wars.

  • Baptist, Edward. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

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    In The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptist takes issue with the assumption that slavery was an inherently inefficient economic institution to argue that slavery was an inextricable aspect of early-19th-century transnational capitalism.

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  • Blum, Edward J. Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

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    To explain why Northern abolitionists failed to pursue racial justice and permanent reform during Reconstruction, Blum shows how Northern Protestantism conflated the concepts of whiteness, godliness, and nationalism into the distilled image of a “white republic.”

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  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Davis celebrates the age of emancipation as a benchmark of willed moral courage. Exploring how the Haitian Revolution once haunted the antislavery debates, Davis analyzes the significance of the project to move freed slaves back to Africa and the importance of freed slaves to abolition.

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  • Diggins, John Patrick. On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

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    Diggins underscores the central tenets of Lincoln’s political ethos—the redeeming value of labor and the rights to property and self-determination—as the extraordinary values that guided his aspiration to unite the nation.

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  • Greenberg, Amy. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

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    Greenberg examines the historical significance of four political figures who opposed the US-Mexico War: Henry Clay, Polk’s opponent in the 1844 election; Nicholas Trist, who negotiated the peace treaty; Abraham Lincoln; and Lincoln’s Illinois political rival, John Hardin, who was killed at the Battle of Buena Vista.

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  • Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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    Horsman argues that the racial ideology of US Anglo-Saxonism originated during the English reformation and was influenced by Enlightenment ideas. He proceeds to show how Americans used their belief in the racial inferiority of blacks, Native Americans, and Mexicans to justify slavery and Indian removal as well as the war with Mexico.

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  • Horton, James Olive, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    This book covers familiar events like the Dred Scott case and John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry as well as less-well-known facts. The Hortons focus in particular on the slaves who had been military leaders in Africa and whose ability to mount successful slave rebellions utterly terrified Southern slave owners.

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  • Johannsen, Robert W. To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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    Drawing on military dispatches, newspaper accounts, and local histories, Johannsen examines the place of the Mexican War in the popular imagination of the era. Johannsen’s monograph is an especially valuable recovery of the war’s affective reach—the fervent sense of mission and patriotism—as it was shaped by American writers.

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  • McPherson, James M. “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism: A New Look at an Old Question.” Civil War History 29 (1983): 230–244.

    DOI: 10.1353/cwh.1983.0011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McPherson shows how, prior to the Civil War, it was the North, rather than the South, that was “exceptional,” that is, a deviation from what the United States traditionally had been and valued.

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  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America before the Civil War, 1848–1861. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1976.

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    Potter explores the legislation that heightened feelings against slavery in the North, from the 1848 end of the Mexican War and Kansas-Nebraska to the Dred Scott decision and the firing on Fort Sumner in 1861. He is especially astute in his representation of the Free Soil Party as driven by the racist aim of keeping blacks out of the territories.

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  • Saldívar, José David. Border Matters: Remapping American Cultural Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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    In Border Matters, José Saldívar applies borderlands and diaspora theory to corridos, novels, poems, and short stories, and explains how they exerted social and political force across a new terrain that reshapes received understanding of US-Mexico relations.

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  • Warren, Robert Penn. The Legacy of the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

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    In this monograph, Robert Penn Warren examines the manifold ways in which the Civil War brought about a permanent change in the United States moral disposition, remarking that the war bequeathed northerners with a sense of moral self-righteousness that fostered a foreign policy conducted in the erroneous belief in the United States’ ability to bring about the spiritual rehabilitation of other nations.

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Spanish-American War to World War I

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a flashpoint in American history. May 1961, Healy 1976, and Maier 2007 report that in in the 1890s, every US citizen seriously considered the question as to whether the United States should enter the ranks of the European imperial powers. Nichols 2011 and Hilfrich 2012 rehearse the debate that ensued when the Spanish-American War of 1898 answered the question with the United States’ inauguration of successful colonial-imperialist wars in Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam. Kramer 2006 explains that US imperialists justified the newly acquired colonial empire by inventing racial ideologies adapted to accommodate the policies of annexation and anti-colonial resistance alike. Imperialist expansionists and anti-imperialist isolationists both believed they were arguing for conduct consistent with the idea that the United States was an exceptional nation. Kaplan 2005 and Harris 2011 recollect Mark Twain’s eloquent opposition to the US expansionist ventures with the warning that the United States could not be both a republic and an empire. Beale 1956 cites Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine as historical warrant for Roosevelt’s assertion of the United States’ right to exercise international police power to safeguard the welfare of countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Ryan 2000 makes evident Woodrow Wilson’s implementation of this provision to justify the use of military force to decide which Latin American governments were legitimate. Ninkovich 1999 contends that in the aftermath of World War I, Woodrow Wilson discovered the use of economic, political, and cultural influence (“soft power”) to guide the United States through the “crisis internationalism” of the long 20th century.

  • Beale, Howard K. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956.

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    Beale explores Roosevelt’s role in America’s emergence as a world power and is especially astute in his assessment of Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas and his readiness to go to war to prevent Germany from establishing a foothold in South America.

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  • Harris, Susan K. God’s Arbiters: Americans and the Philippines, 1898–1902. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199740109.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A Twain scholar, Harris draws materials from an extensive archive to uncover the racialized religious discourse with which turn-of-the-century Americans deliberated over the annexation of the Philippines. Harris makes deft use of excerpts from Twain’s writings to elucidate how and why he constructed the persona of God’s arbiter to devise criteria with which to adjudicate the disputes between expansionists and anti-annexationists.

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  • Healy, David. US Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

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    Americans who compared the United States to the dynamic European powers such as Germany, France, and particularly Great Britain began to consider colonial imperialism desirable. Healy examines the writings of five political figures—James Harrison Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Charles Denby, and Charles Conant—to analyze the forces that shaped America’s imperialist drive.

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  • Hilfrich, Fabian. Debating American Exceptionalism: Empire and Democracy in the Wake of the Spanish-American War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230392908Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hilfrich shows how participants in the national debate over the Philippines just after the Spanish-American War construed US foreign policy as indicative of the nation’s essence and purpose. This book explains why the belief in exceptionalism still serves as the basis of US foreign policy in spite of more recent military failures.

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  • Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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    Kaplan examines novels, newspapers, films, political speeches, and legal briefs to elaborate connections between American efforts to defeat anarchist formations abroad and the emergence of anarchic forces within the United States’ domestic sphere. Kaplan shows how key tropes of American exceptionalism—from “Manifest Destiny” to the “American Century”—profoundly shaped these formations at home and abroad.

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  • Kramer, Paul A. The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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    In examining the racial ideologies US policymakers forged to justify the imperial conquest of the Philippine Republic, Kramer shows how US empire building influenced ideas of race and nation in both the United States and the Philippines.

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  • Maier, Charles S. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

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    Observing that in the 1890s the issue of empire was an urgent concern of every citizen, Maier situates the emergent American empire in historical context. Maier’s comparatist study establishes a distinction between “being” an empire (as Rome was) and “having” an empire (as Britain had) and concludes that the US citizens aspire to emulate Britain’s imperial style.

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  • May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.

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    In this comparatist history of the origins of the Spanish-American War, May investigates an array of sources to explain the significance of America’s newly acquired colonies for US domestic politics and its European policy.

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  • Nichols, Christopher McKnight. Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674061187Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Nichols traces the history of isolationist and internationalist ideas from the 1890s through the 1930s by resurrecting this heated debate in the writings of Henry Cabot Lodge, William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, Randolph Bourne, William Borah, and Emily Balch.

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  • Ninkovich, Frank. The Wilsonian Century: U. S. Foreign Policy since 1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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    In an effort to offer an alternative approach to the “realist” and “objectivist” models used to explain the United States’ foreign policy decisions, Ninkovich shows how Wilson devised a policy of “crisis internationalism” to guide US foreign relations through a century of global turbulence.

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  • Ryan, David. US Foreign Policy in World History. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    Ryan brings US policymakers’ ambitions to bear in this two-hundred-year grand narrative of the nation’s perceived mission to spread liberty and democracy across the globe from the revolutionary era to the Persian Gulf War.

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World War II to the Cold War

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 led the United States to pursue a foreign policy of activist internationalism. Schlesinger 1967 and Gaddis 1997 cite plentiful historical documents—including a Foreign Affairs article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (Kennan 1947); the monograph The Vital Center (Schlesinger 1949); and the iconic 1950 document NSC 68—to substantiate the consensus that after World War II, President Truman decided to inaugurate a Cold War that replaced one global totalitarian enemy with another. More than forty years of US Cold War containment policy was supported by a public consensus underwritten by what Fousek 2000 describes as an ideology of “American nationalist globalism” (p. 5) that was rooted in the expansionist strand of American exceptionalism. Diplomatic historians recall that Cold War ideologues elevated American exceptionalism into a doctrine that explained why the United States was exempt from the incursions of Marxian communism. The growth of American political, economic, social, and cultural power after World War II inspired the most impassioned exponents of American exceptionalism to develop a “consensus history.” In the transition from World War II to the Cold War, Schlesinger 1949, Hartz 1955, Bell 1962, and Lipset 1997 appropriate tenets from canonical versions of US exceptionality to construct representations of national uniqueness out of whose narrative themes US citizens constructed imaginary relations to the Cold War state. Following the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, a series of revisionist historians published works that discredit the historical findings of consensus historians. Kolko and Kolko 1972 argues that the United States’ superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union was an ideological mask for the nation’s unbridled greed; Westad 2005 accuses the United States of having used the Cold War rivalry to engender a global Civil War among Third World nations. Lepgold and McKeown 1995 provides a wholesale debunking of American exceptionalism’s influence on the construction of US foreign policy.

  • Bell, Daniel. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1962.

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    Bell postulated that the world-encompassing grand ideologies of communism and capitalism were exhausted, and would be replaced by pragmatic secular dispositions. He argues that “sensible” people consider political ideology irrelevant, and that the polity of the future would be guided by American pragmatism and technological know-how.

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  • Fousek, John. To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

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    Through close readings of artifacts from popular culture that range from popular tabloids and labor union debates to presidential speeches, Fousek argues that the Cold War foreign policy discourse was founded upon cultural ideas about the nation’s greatness, its providential mission, and its manifest destiny to assume leadership of the free world.

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  • Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

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    Gaddis utilizes freshly released resources to corroborate his contention that Communist ideology played a central role in shaping the policies and actions of Soviet Union leaders. As evidence for this claim, Gaddis argues that in their interactions with Fidel Castro, the Soviet leaders’ desire for a revolution led them to overlook the geographical problems posed by their support for a nation in the Western Hemisphere.

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  • Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955.

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    Louis Hartz repurposed the arguments of de Tocqueville, Turner, and Sombart to claim that the absence of class conflict from a liberal capitalist order had rendered impossible the emergence of socialism within US territorial borders. As a non-feudal society, the United States lacks a “genuine revolutionary tradition” (p. 5), Hartz noted approvingly. In contrast with Europe, America is a democracy of consensus, where “liberals” and “conservatives” are both subsets of an overarching liberal mentality affirmative of individualism and property rights.

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  • Kennan, George. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Foreign Affairs 25.4 (July 1947): 566–582.

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    At the conclusion of this groundbreaking article, Kennan defined the ideological basis of the containment policy when he asserted that “the issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation” (p. 582).

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  • Kolko, Joyce, and Gabriel Kolko. The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1954. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

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    The Kolkos argue that the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet campaigns were merely rhetoric and that the most important factor driving the Cold War was America’s effort to spread capitalism. They support this representation of the Cold War through analyses of key moments in Cold War history: the creation of NATO, the implementation of the Marshall Plan, and the Korean War.

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  • Lepgold, Joseph, and Timothy McKeown. “Is American Foreign Policy Exceptional? An Empirical Analysis.” Political Science Quarterly 110.3 (Fall 1995): 369–384.

    DOI: 10.2307/2152569Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Lepgold and McKeown examine several commonly held views about the exceptionalist disposition undergirding American foreign policy: (1) that American foreign policy is exceptionally moralistic, (2) that policymakers are judgmental about the domestic affairs of other countries, and (3) that they are mistrustful of entangling alliance. After garnering empirical evidence that exposes these beliefs as either utterly inaccurate or greatly exaggerated, Lepgold and McKeown offer an alternative frame for the exceptionalist debate.

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  • Lipset, Seymour. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

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    The title of Lipset’s second book on the topic, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, succinctly recapitulates his central thesis. American exceptionalism authorizes incommensurable facets of its distinctiveness: the praiseworthy (voluntarism, individual initiative, personal responsibility) and the disreputable (self-serving behavior, disregard for the common good). These contradictory representations contribute to a dichotomous international outlook: an isolationist foreign policy tradition and an interventionist foreign policy tradition.

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  • Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1949.

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    Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. unapologetically defended liberal democracy and a state-regulated market against the communist totalitarianism. Maintaining that citizens of a liberal democracy needed to face the “anxiety” of modernity and look neither to the left nor the right for solace, Schlesinger aspired to revive vitally centrist beliefs in civil liberties, in constitutional processes, and in the democratic determination of political and economic policies.

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  • Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. “Origins of the Cold War.” Foreign Affairs 46 (1967): 22–52.

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    In this seminal work, Schlesinger maintains that the Cold War was the necessary and natural outcome of the global disagreements between the two superpowers. To garner scholarly support for the Cold War, Schlesinger sets “good American” policymakers in opposition to Kremlin functionaries who think “only of spheres of influence” (p. 29).

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  • United States Department of State. United States Objectives and Programs for National Security. National Security Council Paper NSC 68. Washington, DC: United States Department of State, 1950.

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    This 1950 document defines US Cold War policy by stating that “our position as the center of power in the free world places a heavy responsibility upon the United States for leadership.” The authors of this policy describe the Cold War as “a basic conflict between the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin.” Since it is “imperative” that the forces of “freedom” prevail, the United States must, therefore, build up its political, economic, and military strength to take up the mantle of the leader of the free world.

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  • Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511817991Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Westad has two major aims: to call attention to the areas of the world that had been marginalized during the Cold War, and to explain how the Cold War was responsible for introducing long-standing problems into these regions. Westad specifically argues that the United States and the Soviet Union brought about a semipermanent state of civil war in these areas.

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Vietnam War to 9/11

By the late 1960s, military actions in Vietnam prompted large numbers of Americans to question the direction of US Cold War foreign policy. President Johnson had explained the US intervention in Vietnam in exceptionalist terms as an effort to liberate the Vietnamese people from Communist tyranny. But as Baritz 1985 notes, the war’s atrocities, the Watergate scandal, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kent University massacre caused many Americans to doubt whether the nation’s actions could be taken to be consistent with the nation’s exceptionalist principles. Following the fall of Saigon, the sociologist Daniel Bell published an essay titled “The End of American Exceptionalism” declaring the American Century the unacknowledged casualty of the Vietnam War (see Bell 1975). However, McCrisken 2003 espies an afterlife of the American Century throughout the post-Vietnam era when a succession of presidents referenced the war to describe the lessons they learned to prevent recurrence of the Vietnam syndrome. Logevall 2012 remarks that the Vietnam syndrome thereafter acted as a guarantor of the continued acceptance of the nation’s belief in American exceptionalism. Skinner, et al. 2001 examines Ronald Reagan’s prescription of a heavy dosage of exceptionalist symbolism and imagery to heal the nation’s Vietnam syndrome. McEvoy-Levy 2001, Patman 2006, Lieven 2004, and Kagan 2012 track the usage to which a succession of post–Cold War presidents from George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton to George W. Bush and Barack Obama put the language of American exceptionalism to inaugurate a “New World Order.” Pease 2009 examines the revisions to the discourse of American exceptionalism that US presidents authorized at key historical moments in the nation’s post–World War II history.

  • Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. New York: W. Morrow, 1985.

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    Baritz contends that our enemy fought a political and psychological war against American culture; we fought a conventional war and were trapped by our own cultural assumptions of American invincibility. Baritz believes that American foreign policy is driven by our cultural myth of America. Americans see themselves as God’s chosen people; they see America as the City on a Hill. Because the North Vietnamese understood American culture, they believed they could win if they could outlast American patience. The failure to achieve a swift, decisive victory assured defeat.

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  • Bell, Daniel. “The End of American Exceptionalism.” The Public Interest (Fall 1975): 193–224.

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    Following the fall of Saigon, the sociologist Daniel Bell published an article titled “The End of American Exceptionalism” to complain that the Vietnam irrefutably destroys belief in American exceptionalism. Bell also qualifies this assertion with the proposition that the images of the nation’s losses in Vietnam should incite future presidents to renew belief in American exceptionalism. Reprinted in his The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys, 19601980 (Cambridge, MA: Abt, 1980).

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  • Kagan, Robert. The World America Made. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

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    Rather than accepting “decline” as an accurate representation of the United States in the 21st century, Kagan warns that affirming the proposition that America is in decline will help promote the perception. Kagan’s argument is not only that US power is not in decline, but also that US power is beneficial to the peoples of the world, and in fact makes the world system work far better than would any other world power.

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  • Lieven, Anatol. America, Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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    Lieven argues that normative American patriotism harbors a historical monster—a militaristic nationalism that imagines America in an apocalyptic struggle against the savages. After 9/11, the Bush administration awakened a paramilitary, Christian-fundamentalist “base” in waging the struggle against the “evil-doers” in a quasi-catastrophic War on Terror. Rather than rallying to the Redeemer Nation, other nations now feel terrified by America’s hyper-puissance.

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  • Logevall, Fredrik. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. New York: Random House, 2012.

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    Logevall frames the Vietnam War within the context of colonial modernity as the Vietnamese struggle with a colonial oppressor. In this comprehensive analysis, Logevall excavates the debates among US decision-makers that he regards as crucial to understanding the significance of the Vietnam War to American politics and foreign policy.

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  • McCrisken, Trevor B. American Exceptionalism and the Legacy of Vietnam: U.S. Foreign Policy since 1974. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403948175Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McCrisken examines the continuing influence of the Vietnam syndrome on the American exceptionalist underpinnings of US foreign policy. McCrisken offers impressive evidence to buttress his contention that the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations deployed the Vietnam syndrome to fashion a set of procedures that reflected exceptionalist ideals.

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  • McEvoy-Levy, Siobhán. American Exceptionalism and US Foreign Policy: Public Diplomacy at the End of the Cold War. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780333977835Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McEvoy-Levy examines the combination of soft and hard power stratagems that the Bush and Clinton administrations extracted from the discourse of American exceptionalism to build a post–Cold War domestic and international consensus. She is especially astute in her analysis of the role of rhetoric in instrumentalizing public diplomacy.

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  • Patman, Robert G. “Globalisation, the New US Exceptionalism and the War on Terror.” Third World Quarterly 27.6 (2006): 963–986.

    DOI: 10.1080/01436590600869046Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Patman argues that the concept of American exceptionalism in US foreign policy has not changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Isolating the revival of religious fundamentalist rhetoric, Patman offers numerous examples of Bush Jr. administration’s adoption of the trope of America’s “divine mission” to conclude that the United States must soften its rhetorically militant stance to retain the support of other Western powers.

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  • Pease, Donald E. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

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    Pease analyzes the revisions to the discourse of American exceptionalism that US presidents authorized at key historical moments in the nation’s post–World War II history from 1945 to 2008. According to Pease, when one version of American exceptionalism no longer suits extant geopolitical demand, policymakers reconfigure its elements to address the change in geopolitical circumstances.

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  • Skinner, Kiron K., Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, eds. Stories in His Own Hand: The Everyday Wisdom of Ronald Reagan. New York: Free Press, 2001.

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    This collection of his writings includes the journal entries and short radio commentaries Reagan recorded during the prepresidential period (1975–1979) that faithfully recorded his thoughts on the issues of the day in some form. The editors believe Reagan’s own writings reveal deeply held convictions about foreign policy and the economy.

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The Transnational Turn after American Exceptionalism

Throughout the Cold War, US dominance was sustained through the US representation of itself as an exception to the rules through which it regulated the rest of the global order. But with the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the formation of the European Union, the United States lost its threatening socialist-totalitarian-Russian antagonist as well as its destabilized dependent European ally. After the United States lost the geopolitical rationale for the representation of itself as an exception to the laws of nations, the United States lost the putative right to establish the rules for the global order. Iriye 1989 correlates the dismantling of the exceptionalist paradigm with the fundamental reshaping of academic accounts of US society as well as the United States’ place in world history. American exceptionalism had legitimated the US global sovereignty by basing it upon representations of a dichotomized world order over which the United States exercised the legal power to rule. Ross 1991 and Appleby 1992 claim that after the conditions that lent the exceptionalist frame its plausibility disappeared, the disremembered underside of US exceptionalism—multiple interconnected and heterogeneous populations—emerged into view that were irreducible to the Cold War’s macro-political dichotomies. Tyrrell 1991 argues that in the aftermath of the Cold War, the demands of a newly globalized world order required historians to attend to the United States’ embeddedness within transnational and transcultural forces. Whereas Thelen 1999 contends that a transnational perspective offers historians a scholarly means of avoiding the pitfalls of nationalism and exceptionalism, McGerr 1991 and Rodgers 2000 claim Americans received images of American uniqueness from European observers who perceived the nation’s deviation from European norms. Pease 2011 argues that the versions of transnational American studies that emerged in the wake of the Bush administration’s global War on Terror strengthened the administration’s effort to undermine the normalizing powers of the discourse of American exceptionalism.

  • Appleby, Joyce. “Recovering America’s Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism.” Journal of American History 79.2 (1992): 419–431.

    DOI: 10.2307/2080033Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Appleby describes American exceptionalism as an ahistorical, grand national narrative that perforce excludes ethnic, racial, gender, and regional minorities from historical representation. She specifically argues that it excludes Native Americans, African Americans slaves, and white women. To remedy this situation, she calls for a new multicultural history that will recover and expand the public memory.

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  • Iriye, Akira. “The Internationalization of History.” American Historical Review 94.1 (1989): 1–10.

    DOI: 10.2307/1862075Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Iriye argues that the study of the history of the United States’ international relations must be liberated from a uni-national focus and calls for transactions in which American historians from the United States come into contact with historians who think of American history as an aspect of world history.

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  • McGerr, Michael. “The Price of the ‘New Transnational History.’” American Historical Review 96.4 (1991): 1056–1067.

    DOI: 10.2307/2164994Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Michael McGerr criticizes Tyrrell for creating a false antagonism between reactionary exceptionalist American historians and progressive transnational American historians, citing recent scholarship that shows how Americans received the image of American uniqueness from European observers’ recognition of the nation’s deviation from norms of Europeanness.

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  • Pease, Donald E. “Introduction.” In Re-framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies. Edited by Winfried Fluck, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowe, 1–46. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2011.

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    Pease argues that the versions of transnational American studies that emerged in the wake of the Bush administration’s formation of global state of exception complied with the administration’s effort to undermine the normalizing powers of the discourse of American exceptionalism. In calling for a wholesale dismantling of American exceptionalism, transnational Americanists have failed to see that transnational American studies produced the version of American exceptionalism without exceptionalists that the transnational state of exception required.

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  • Rodgers, Daniel T. Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

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    Rodgers argues 20th-century American social welfare politics were the outcome of a transatlantic dialogue between American policymakers and their European counterparts. Rodgers describes exceptionalism as a kind of solipsism that had the unwanted effect of situating Americans within a strictly imaginary America.

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  • Ross, Dorothy. The Origins of American Social Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    Intellectual historian Ross criticizes the way that the ideology of American exceptionalism shaped the development of the modern social sciences (economics, political science, and sociology) in the early 19th century. In the course of this reflection, she comes to terms with the effect of the ideology of American exceptionalism on her own disciplinary projects.

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  • Thelen, David. “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History.” Journal of American History 86.3 (1999): 965–975.

    DOI: 10.2307/2568601Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Thelen looks for common ground with transnational historians. After observing the importance of challenges posed to historians of United States history by historians with trans- and subnational perspectives, he recommends that historians interrogate the state and nation to determine what the nation-state has done well and poorly through its political institutions.

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  • Tyrrell, Ian. “American Exceptionalism in an Age of International History.” American Historical Review 96.4 (1991): 1031–1055.

    DOI: 10.2307/2164993Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In this lead article of a 1991 American Historical Review forum, Tyrrell decries exceptionalist histories as the result of Cold War–consensus historians’ pathological preoccupation with American uniqueness. As Tyrrell argues, American historians have too often assumed that the United States is exceptional and written accordingly. In so doing, they perforce marginalized transnational perspectives.

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