Exceptionalism - The roots of exceptionalism




The idea of America as an exceptional entity dates back to colonial times. Its roots 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. The earliest expression of this belief that continues to live on in American public memory comes from John Winthrop, a Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Winthrop delivered a lay sermon aboard the Arbella, during its passage to New England in 1630, in which he declared that his fellow settlers "must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us." Winthrop's words were circulated in manuscript form and have since become one of the main formative texts of American self-identity and meaning. Inherent in this notion of the city on a hill is the belief that the American colonists, and those who have followed them, were uniquely blessed by God to pursue His work on Earth and to establish a society that would provide this beacon for the betterment of all humankind.

American exceptionalism, however, has not only religious but also secular roots. The American Revolution and the formative years of the new Republic reinforced the idea that the United States was a chosen nation which would be an experiment in human society. In his influential revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine argued that it was America's separateness and difference from the Old World that demanded its independence. Paine saw America as a special land where humankind could "begin the world over again" by establishing a political society built on new, progressive ideas. The framers of the Constitution built on this idea in 1787. Theirs was to be an ambitious political experiment. The United States would be a society based on a republican system of government ensuring the preservation of certain individual rights. Although they were relatively pessimistic about its chances, the framers' greatest hope was that the constitutional framework they had created would allow the United States to develop over time into the most perfect republican society in the world. The geographic isolation of the American continent from Europe seemed to offer hope that the United States could protect itself from falling prey to the degenerative nature of the Old World. As Thomas Jefferson observed in his First Inaugural Address (March 1801), the United States was "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of others." Jefferson and others did not suggest that Americans would be immune from temptation, but they did indicate that, with eternal vigilance, the United States could be prevented from succumbing to the same vices that had destroyed other great nations.

Providential and republican ideology thus combined to firmly entrench the idea of exceptionalism at the center of American national identity. In these early forms it was initially the exemplar strand of exceptionalism that clearly dominated. The United States would provide a model of freedom, liberty, and democracy from which the rest of the world could learn. It would be an example, a beacon of light—a city on a hill. In early U.S. foreign policy, the notion of the United States as a separate, aloof nation was also dominant, but would come to be challenged by a growing missionary spirit as the Republic became stronger and more successful.

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Hanna T.
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Aug 18, 2014 @ 5:05 am
Dear writer of the text "Exceptionalism - The roots of exceptionalism",
I'm a German student from Munich and I'm writing a seminar paper for my graduation at school about American foreign policy.
I just wanted to assure myself whether this text might also be written by Mr. Trevor B. McCrisken, because I've used some information from it. Thank you very much! :)
greetings from Munich
Hanna T.

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