American Literature American Exceptionalism
Donald E. Pease
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0176


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.

    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).

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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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