Louisiana State University professors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg explore the history of American exceptionalism and claim that Newt Gingrich’s use of the phrase does not always comport with the way the term has been used in America. Here is a small taste:
Early Americans’ sense of their exceptionalism conferred collective self-confidence. They saw America as fresh, unsullied and unique in its mission; its political culture, more humane than any other on earth. They wrote, in a maritime era, of American merchant seamen going ashore in distant lands and spreading the word of American liberty. It made good copy, reassuring them that their countrymen stood as moral exemplars everywhere. Liberty was infectious: They would bring new life to the effete Old World and encourage political progress there.
The cosmopolitan Enlightenment had morphed into democracy’s worship of individual and collective acquisitiveness. In his recently published book, “The Citizenship Revolution,” historian Douglas Bradburn writes: “The cosmopolitanism of the Revolutionary Age dissipated in the Romantic exceptionalism of the nineteenth century. With the opening of the boundaries of the United States into the vast space beyond the Mississippi, the country turned its mind away from Europe and began a century of precocious aggression and expansion within its own hemisphere.” The secular missionaries of the founding era easily graduated to “benevolent exploitation” of America’s wild, privileging the “infant empire’s” vision of growth over the rights of “less civilized” Indians and Mexicans. Romantic novels about proud Western pathfinders fed the spirit of exceptionalism.
And so it was until the imperial age that succeeded the Civil War, as the U.S. competed for colonies. Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba were just the beginning. A modernizing military was dispatched overseas to match, and finally exceed, what the European powers had been doing all along. The degree of confidence in America’s superior system continued to enlarge, as political and economic freedom produced invention and industrial combinations that government used to grow its military and extend its reach abroad.
Tom Van Dyke says
You owed this pap a fisking, John, not an uncritical advert for it.
“the core values of the secular Enlightenment that gave birth to the idea of America”
You know this isn't true. The idea of America is Winthrop in 1630, when there was barely an “Enlightenment” to speak of.
The “city on a hill” that America was to be was a grave responsibility to do the right thing before God and man.
Of course, Gingrich’s premises are wrong: Exceptionalism made convenient use of, but did not need, God; and it was never about left versus right.
Made use of? Both Washington and even Madison credited the Almighty for the Founding [Washington his “Hand,” Madison a “finger”].
“Rescuing” American exceptionalism from the Right? More like trashing the idea completely, from the Left.