Studying America’s exceptionalism

Proponents of American exceptionalism say the U.S. stands unique among nations.
Proponents of American exceptionalism say the U.S. stands unique among nations.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma recently joined officials in Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee and elsewhere in trying to prohibit high schools from adopting new American history Advanced Placement exams. These critics charge that the latest version teaches a “revisionist” view of the American past, one from which, in the words of Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, “every trace of American exceptionalism has been scrubbed.” Few making this argument, however, realize the peculiar origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” or the idea’s troublesome implications.

The concept at the heart of this controversy – American exceptionalism – at first glance possesses no clear meaning. All nations, after all, are unique. Each has its own currency, constitution, founding figures, flag and anthem. But as used by its proponents today, the notion extends well beyond the idea that the United States is a singular country to suggest that it possesses, as the opening paragraph of the 2012 Republican platform puts it, “a unique place and role in human history.”

The phrase itself was coined in the 1920s, as American leftists, many of them associated with the Soviet-led Communist International, struggled to explain why the United States had not embraced communism. For those who used it, the phrase was a term of derision, suggesting that there was something defective about the U.S.

Current proponents of American exceptionalism have turned the critique of the 1920s on its head. For them, what makes the U.S. a model for the rest of the world is its commitment to liberty as well as, according to Oklahoma legislator Dan Fisher, its “representative form of limited government,” and “free-market economic system.”

Although it goes almost unnoticed by current supporters, the notion of exceptionalism implies comparison. To make a compelling case that the U.S. is unique, one needs to contrast its history with that of other nations.

Yet current proponents of the exceptionalist position have gone in the opposite direction, dismissing the need for any detailed consideration of other places or peoples, because of the United States’ supposedly special position in the world.

To make a claim of American exceptionalism without encouraging the essential comparative work is to make a claim of historical accuracy without actually using the historical process.

In addition, the elements of U.S. history that exceptionalists seek to emphasize do not exist as discrete objects of study that can be easily isolated from the rest of the American story. The ideals of freedom that underpin the American Revolution evolved in counterpoint to the practice of chattel slavery.

The nation’s diffuse pattern of property ownership was made possible through the expropriation and redistribution of Native American and Mexican lands.

Many times, history has been used as a tool of indoctrination, designed to teach blind authority to the powers that be. In Josef Stalin’s Russia, all studies of the past were forced to fit into predetermined politics.

It would be sad if today’s renewed preoccupation with American exceptionalism ends up sacrificing the freedom it purports to be preserving for a similarly fixed and incurious vision of the world.

Karl Jacoby is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History.”