These days, when someone hears “American Exceptionalism“, they think of some form of national superiority. This is a popular but dangerous appeal to pride. An excess of pride leads to arrogance and complacency. This is not, however, the original meaning of the expression.The phrase was taken from comments by a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed that we enjoyed the advantages of an Old World country without the disadvantages, that we were in the unprecedented position of starting as a modern (at the time) industrial and agricultural country without having to build our way up to it. Without the problems of limited land and well-established neighboring countries. He saw us as having purged ourselves of entrenched aristocracy
In 1831-1833, he traveled through the United States, officially studying the prison system while personally studying American society. He published his observations in his book “[Of] Democracy in America”, part 1 published in 1835 and part 2 published in 1840. Chapter 9 of part 2 is where he made his reference to “American Exceptionalism”. He does not actually say “American Exceptionalism”, he states that:
“At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly distinguished one, to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. Amongst this people they found distinguished men of science, artists of skill, writers of eminence, and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without requiring to labor in amassing them. I cannot consent to separate America from Europe, in spite of the ocean which intervenes. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World; whilst the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote its energies to thought, and enlarge in all directions the empire of the mind. The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin—their exclusively commercial habits—even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts—the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism—a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important—have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward: his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.”
He was clearly not referring to the achievements of Americans, but in the uniqueness of their circumstances. I say “their” instead of “our” because, like adolescence, it was a point in our history that we have outgrown.
We began as English colonies. Everyone “knows” this, but how many understand the significance? Unlike other English colonies, we did not exist as a subjugation of an indigenous people. We were a part of England transplanted into virgin wilderness. We were all one People, with a shared culture, technology, and laws.
Tocqueville noted that it is inevitable for a nation to delve into science and the arts, that it was needful for the advancement of a people. He said, in effect, that we were in the unique position of being able to import our advances in science and the arts, what he called “the pleasures of the mind”, without the need to invest a portion of our efforts in such advancement. We could devote all our energies into business and the creation of wealth.
This exceptionalism was the result of a number of factors. Tocqueville noted that their lack of cultural diversity, which concurred with an observation John Jay made in Federalist 2, was one of those factors. We are now, of course, the most culturally diverse nation in the world.
Another was our essentially parasitic approach to science and the arts. How odd it is that those who most vigorously wave the flag of exceptionalism, embracing policies that undermine the advancement of arts and sciences, also take pride in the role of leadership that we enjoy but is incompatible with those policies.
Next time someone talks about American Exceptionalism, ask them what, precisely, they mean by it.
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