"The great Bartholdi statue, Liberty enlightening the world," Currier & Ives, 1885 (Library of Congress).

City Upon a Hill

A History of American Exceptionalism

In his final State of the Union address, President Obama called America “the most powerful nation on Earth,” saying, “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.” This praise is hardly the first or most impassioned example of American “exceptionalism” in the country’s history. But just how “exceptional” are Americans? And why does it matter? In this episode of BackStory, we’ll go behind the rhetoric to unpack the history and meaning of the term. From the Puritan vision of a “city upon a hill” to the 19th century concept of manifest destiny, we’ll explore the ways Americans have invoked history to justify their sense of superiority in the world, and assess the changing meanings of “exceptionalism” over time.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days. But there’s one issue that transcends the partisan divide.

As President Obama put it in his final State of the Union Address this month:

BARACK OBAMA: Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period. Period.

PETER: Talk of American exceptionalism is nothing new. Some trace it all the way back to the famous image of a city on a hill. But ‘a city on a hill’ meant something quite different when it was first used back in 1630.

MARK PETERSON: We shall be as a city upon a hill is a phrase that is not about a glowing example for the rest of the world. It’s a phrase that describes the exposed position that the settlers are going to be in as they set out upon this venture.

PETER: Today on BackStory, the history of American exceptionalism.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: Earlier this month, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address. He used the speech to tout his Administration’s various accomplishments. But he also gave a shout-out to the American people.

BARACK OBAMA: Our unique strengths as a nation—our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery, our diversity, our commitment to rule of law—these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come. In fact, it’s in that spirit that we have made the progress these past seven years.

BRIAN: In the official Republican response, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also sang the country’s praises. She called America “the last, best hope on earth.”

NIKKI HALEY: Our forefathers paved the way for us. Let’s take their values, and their strengths, and rededicate ourselves to doing whatever it takes to keep America the greatest country in the history of man. And woman.

BRIAN: Haley and Obama’s upbeat tone stood in stark contrast to the rhetoric from the Republican presidential candidates. In their campaign speeches Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—among others—have argued that America’s greatest days are in the past.

JEB BUSH: Our friends no longer think we have their back, and our enemies no longer fear us.

TED CRUZ: President Obama is not protecting American workers and we are getting hammered.

DONALD TRUMP: Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people, and yes I am angry.

BRIAN: But between the lines there is a promise that those candidates can restore the country’s preeminence. Donald Trump claims he can “Make America Great Again.” In fact, that’s his official campaign slogan.

DONALD TRUMP: And we’ll do it. We will make America great again, I promise.

BRIAN: Plenty of American politicians have used this kind of language before. Citing America’s greatness has become as standard as kissing babies and wearing a flag pin. It’s as American as apple pie. We’re special. Unique. In a word…Exceptional. Just listen to this cable news exchange from a few years back parsing this very same language.

MALE SPEAKER: Are we exceptional?

MALE SPEAKER: Yeah, we’re exceptional.


MALE SPEAKER: The truth of the matter is—I mean, we defeated fascism and communism in a single century. That’s pretty exceptional.

PETER: This whole issue raises one pretty basic question. What is American exceptionalism? Until a few years ago, that phrase, if not the sentiment behind it, was mostly confined to academic circles. Microsoft Word still doesn’t recognize exceptionalism as a properly spelled word. But whether or not we can spell it or define it, it’s clearly part of this country’s political culture.

BRIAN: And so for the rest of the hour today, we’re going to see if we can make some sense of this idea of American exceptionalism, the idea, in short, that because of something about its own history, America has a unique– some might say God-given, many would say superior, but definitely a unique– place in the flow of world history.

As we do each week on the show, we’ll be dividing and conquering. I, Brian, will be covering the 20th century.

ED: While I, Ed, will take care of the 19th century.

PETER: And I, Peter, will do the heavy lifting for the 18th century.

ED: Which, if I’m not mistaken Peter, is where our story today begins.

PETER: You bet, Ed. And let’s, uh– let’s talk about it for a few minutes. Now, what I want to say is there’s tremendous anxiety among the founders about whether or not their experiment in self-government will succeed and whether or not they really are a people. Because remember, the big claim Americans make is to popular sovereignty. The sovereignty part– we should govern ourselves– oh, that make sense. But who’s the people?

And to make the American people feel that they are distinct and have this sense of patriotic identification, you’ve got to ratchet it up, and you’ve got to say, look, this is a revolution for all mankind.

BRIAN: Yeah, so Peter–

PETER: We’re showing the way.

BRIAN: In the 20th century, we’d say, we’re special.

PETER: Oh, yeah. We’re very special. And I’d say the specialness of Americans from the beginning has been their obsession with being special.

BRIAN: Right.

PETER: I mean, it sounds a little circular, I understand–

BRIAN: No, no.

PETER: But they need to have this kind of cosmic frame, this notion that God has chosen them, and that their success is the success of mankind. That hubris, that sense that we’re better– that really betrays, as a modern psychologist might suggest, a little bit of anxiety about maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re inferior after all. And Americans were inferior in the early period as a second-class power. It’s a bunch of provinces of the old British empire that declared their independence, and, well, they protest too much.

BRIAN: Ed, do they keep that protest going throughout the 19th century?

ED: Ah, you know the did. They are so worried that this nation is going to fall apart, no sooner do they build it then they start worrying about that it’s going to end. Peter’s man, Thomas Jefferson, 1820, already sees the beginning of the end.

PETER: Right, right.

ED: With the Missouri Compromise, right? So there’s never a time when they think it’s secured. The Civil War comes. Then, OK, now, we’ve gone through a great failure. Perhaps, like the story of the chosen people, maybe we’ve been tried, and now we can get going. But there’s not much projection of America in the world, because we’re still licking our wounds and trying to put things together.

BRIAN: Ah, but Ed, that’s where we’re fortunate that we have the 20th century. By the 1890s, the turn of your century to mine, the 20th century, we get these large corporations. We get people like Ford, who come up with a unique form of manufacturing, which can, they argue, be spread around the globe, just like the idea of the Republic. And by the 1930s, we forge the mass entertainment industry so we can be unique in spreading this culture of capitalism and goodness around the world.

And there’s only one missing piece to this exceptionalist 20th century story, as you guys know. That’s military might. As the story goes, it’s our intervention into World War I that makes–

ED: That makes the world safe for democracy.

BRIAN: Exactly. And that military exceptionalism is truly consolidated in the wake of World War II.

PETER: Yeah. Brian, I think that’s right. That’s a description, this notion of American exceptionalism. You’re not really thumping your chest anymore. You’re just saying, this is the way it is. This is the American century.

BRIAN: That’s right.

ED: Look around.

PETER: I think exceptionalism today is different than that mid-century–

BRIAN: Agree.

PETER: –triumphalism. Exceptionalism today has a deep strain of nostalgia. Exceptionalism today is really based on a reading of history, on a fantasy of returning to an original moment when things were great. Now, I think the original moment is probably mid-century– the mid 20th century.

BRIAN: Right.

PETER: But it takes the form of going back to 1776 and 1797.

BRIAN: And you know what drives that, Peter, in my opinion? Is the need to get rid of one of the key factors that got us to all this power, and that’s the government. We want to be as wealthy as we are. We want to be as powerful as we are. But we want to have that small republic–

PETER: I think that’s exactly right.

BRIAN: –that your founders gave us.

PETER: And it wasn’t just the small republic, Brian. I think that’s so right. It’s also a republic that was uniquely favored by God.

BRIAN: Great point.

PETER: And that’s the centrality of the notion of the United States as a Christian nation– as if we could go back to win the genius of this great experiment in self-government was launched, at that moment, and if we can recapture that, we can get our country back, which is one of the phrases of modern exceptionalists.

BRIAN: Well, Peter, when you put it that way, Ronald Reagan just springs to mind. He’s the person who I most associate with American exceptionalism, at least in the last 30 or 40 years. He was a master of doing exactly what you’re talking about– invoking history to bolster the idea of America’s God-given destiny. But Reagan didn’t just go back to the founders. He went all the way back to the Puritans.

RONALD REAGAN: The past few days, when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I thought a bit of the shining city upon a hill. The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early pilgrim, an early freedom man.

BRIAN: This is Reagan’s farewell speech in 1989.

RONALD REAGAN: I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life. But I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall, proud city build on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds, living in harmony and peace.

PETER: The city upon a hill– it’s a favorite image of modern exceptionalists, and it was certainly one of Reagan’s favorites. And it dates back to 1630– specifically to a sermon delivered by this fellow John Winthrop on the boat ride over from England.

Winthrop was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the sermon is commonly understood as a kind of blueprint for the great, glorious nation that the United States would come to be. There’s only one problem. There’s no evidence that Winthrop delivered the sermon on board that ship– in fact, there’s no real evidence he delivered it at all. We do know that he wrote it, but if it was circulated, well, it certainly doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash.

MARK PETERSON: In all of the surviving material from colonial New England, there is no mention of Winthrop’s text. There’s no sign that this document played any kind of important role in this time period, at least to the colonists in America.

PETER: This is Mark Peterson, a historian at U Cal Berkeley. He’s done a lot of sleuthing around the origins of Winthrop’s text. And so I asked him to explain where he thought it was actually coming from.

MARK PETERSON: My own suspicion is that the document was written for and possibly spoken aloud to a combined group the actual colonists who were crossing the ocean along with the investors and their supporters, family, friends, et cetera, who were not going ahead, and that it was written in order to describe for them or lay out for them what the challenges ahead were going to be like.

And it should really be remembered that every English colonizing venture from the 1580s onward, up until this point, in the late 1620s, had been pretty much an unmitigated disaster. Death rates were enormously high. Most of the colonies failed entirely. So no one was under any illusion that this was not a risky thing to do.

And so that phrase, we shall be as a city upon a hill, is a phrase that is not about a kind of guaranteed exceptional future prophecy of wonderful success and a kind of glowing example for the rest of the world. It’s a phrase that describes the exposed position that the settlers are going to be in as they set out upon this venture. If things go badly or if they make poor choices or if they turn upon each other in internecine conflict or anything like that, then not only will it be a disaster, but it will be a disaster that everybody will know about– that a city upon a hill cannot be hid, as the line from the Sermon on the Mount goes that Winthrop was half-quoting when he wrote this phrase.

PETER: That’s historian Mark Peterson. In a minute, we’ll hear more from him about how the city upon a hill became a household term. But first, it’s time for quick break.

ED: If you have thoughts about American exceptionalism, this would be a good time to drop on over to our website and leave us a comment. You’ll find that at backstoryradio.org.


BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th Century History Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, your 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century History Guy. Today on the show, we’re taking on the idea of American exceptionalism.

ED: Now, in case you need a refresher, American exceptionalism is the notion that, from the very beginning, the United States has had a special, and some might say superior role in the world.

PETER: Before the break, we were hearing from historian Mark Peterson about the true origins of the phrase city upon a hill. It’s one of the catch phrases of American exceptionalism. He was telling me that it’s author, Puritan John Winthrop, intended it not as prophecy, but rather as a sort of warning to his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world were upon them.

But the second interesting thing Peterson told me was that the text doesn’t show up at all in the historical record until 200 years later. That’s when a hand-written copy of it was found in a New York City attic.

BRIAN: This particular copy was discovered in the early 19th century, in the early 1830s, among a collection of papers that belonged to one of John Winthrop’s very distant descendents. In 1838, this document was published for the first time by the Massachusetts Historical Society, in their ongoing series of publications of important documents in Massachusetts history.

PETER: So why should the Massachusetts Historical Society and readers of this document think it was so prescient and prophetic? What was it about the 1830s that shaped the reception of this document?

MARK PETERSON: Well, this is a time in which there is a great deal of attention being paid in the United States to its earlier history– largely driven by the growing sectional conflict between the Northern and the Southern states at the time. And of course by the 1830s, with the rise of abolitionism in Boston, the publication of William Lloyd Garrison’s famous abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, the beginnings of major slave revolts in the south, like Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, these issues are becoming more and more inflamed. And as the two sides differentiate themselves from each other in political and intellectual terms, there’s a kind of contest to seize the mantle of history, to prove that one side versus the other is–

PETER: Well, slow down. Mark, Mark, Mark.


PETER: This is the great statement of American exceptionalism now, and modern American presidents invoke it all the time.


PETER: And you’re telling me it really comes out of a Yankee nationalism that is America is New England writ large?

MARK PETERSON: That’s exactly right. And in fact in the 19th century, after Winthrop’s text comes to light, it’s not something that’s embraced by Southern Americans by the future Confederacy. Rather, it’s part of the kind of historical mythology that New Englanders build around themselves. It’s of a piece with the development of Thanksgiving as first a regional and then, eventually, a national holiday. But, of course, as I assume your listeners will know, Thanksgiving is not a national holiday until President Lincoln declares it to be one in the midst of the Civil War in 1863. Before that, it had been pretty exclusively a New England regional celebration.

PETER: When do you think that that phrase became a patriotic nationalistic text that it is today? Was that in the 19th century, or is it only in the 20th century that it begins to take on that powerful meaning?

MARK PETERSON: Well, as far as I can tell, it really is a 20th century phenomenon. And part of the reason for that is that despite many of the efforts of 19th century sort of patriotic New England historians to promote the idea of kind of American origins in the founding of Massachusetts, there was a kind of equal and opposite fear of and loathing of and detestation of puritanism.

And so a lot of the scholarship of the 19th century tended to suggest that a lot of what more sort of progressive or liberal people thought was wrong with the American character could be traced to the sort of meanness and anti-life qualities, if that’s a phrase, of puritanism.

And so I think it was really with the scholarly recovery–

PETER: Interesting, yeah.

MARK PETERSON: –of the complexity and richness of puritanism in the 20th century that many of these texts like Winthrop’s came to the forefront. And so on this particular case, the city upon a hill phrase, I actually would have to pin the blame on Perry Miller, the great Harvard literary scholar.

PETER: Oh my goodness– one of our great historians, a literary scholar. Yeah.

MARK PETERSON: Right. But as brilliant as Miller was, this particular phrase he treated rather sloppily. And in an extremely influential and well-known essay that he wrote called “Errand into the Wilderness”, he actually suggested that John Winthrop, in using that phrase city upon a hill, he was quite literally suggesting that Winthrop was being prophetic. He said something like, here, John Winthrop had a preternatural sense of the future greatness of America.

He was wrong. He was not doing his homework on this particular text as well as he should have, but it is the case that Miller was the predominant intellectual figure interpreting American history and culture at the time that John Kennedy was a Harvard undergraduate.

PETER: That’s right.

MARK PETERSON: And so I’m not particularly surprised that Kennedy gave a famous speech in Massachusetts to his supporters in which he invoked that phrase in much the way that Perry Miller had used it.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arabella 331 years ago.

MARK PETERSON: And I think once Kennedy did it and it worked its way from there into politics, the media, journalists and the like, there was no turning back from that.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: –that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. Today–

PETER: That’s Mark Peterson. He’s an associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley. We’ll post a link to the full text of Winthrop’s sermon at backstoryradio.org.


BRIAN: So far, we’ve been talking about the idea of exceptionalism, tracing its roots. But for all the talk of cities on hills, I don’t think that either Winthrop or JFK used the word exceptional to describe the United States. So I want to turn for a minute to where the actual phrase American exceptionalism comes from.

ED: Well Brian, it’s a 19th century visitor to the United States who’s most often credited with creating that language. That would be Alexis de Tocqueville, who reported back to his fellow Frenchman in 1840 that Americans democratic politics made their country unique. But even though Tocqueville did use the word exceptional, he didn’t actually use the word exceptionalism, and we want to get things right here on BackStory.

So we need to jump forward to the 20th century, specifically to a political organizer who is jotted down some notes on the state of the American economy in 1927.

BRIAN: It is a basic fact that American capitalism is still on the upward trend, still in the ascendancy, much more than any other capitalism in the world.

ED: Now, here’s the catch. To this guy, this was bad news. See, Jay Lovestone was the head of the Communist Party of America, and he had spent the last few years watching as economic chaos in post World War I Europe led to rising class tensions and rampant inequality. His comrades in Europe thought the proletarian revolution was just around the corner.

BRIAN: But back here in America, the economy was booming, and that made Lovestone very nervous. The United States was the most advanced capitalist economy in the world. According to Marxist theory, that meant the revolution should be hitting America first. So like, where were the barricades? Where was even the protest?

ED: So in 1929, Lovestone finds himself with an awkward job. He has to account for the absence of American socialism to none other than the top dog of the communist international. That would be Joseph Stalin– if you could imagine trying to explain something to Joseph Stalin. And the explanation that Lovestone came up with was basically this. America is different from other countries.

PETER: The international revolutionary leaders have always recognized the special conditions under which the American labor movements have developed.

BRIAN: He pointed to the history of frontier living, the lack of a feudal past, the social mobility here. All these things, Lovestone explained, had created a unique society in which workers were more tolerant of economic inequality. So Marx’s theory, well, it didn’t quite apply here.

ED: As you can imagine, Joseph Stalin was not compressed. And his response? He demanded that Lovestone quote, end this heresy of American exceptionalism.

MALE SPEAKER: Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. That is he. Zinoviev defied me. That is he. [INAUDIBLE] defied me. There is he. And you, who are you? Yes. You will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives.

BRIAN: And so that’s how the term American exceptionalism came in to being– not with the founders, not with Tocqueville, not with any of the intellectual forefathers of today’s political leaders. Instead, it was with Joseph Stalin.

PETER: So guys, what happened to Lovestone, and what happened to American exceptionalism?

ED: Well, Lovestone is pretty quickly moved to the margins of the Communist party. That’s immediately followed by the great crash of 1929, which makes the whole idea of America being immune from the currents of world history look ridiculous. And so in 1930, at the Communist Party Convention, they underlined just how wrong this whole idea of American exceptionalism was.

BRIAN: The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism.


PETER: So Brian, we’re in the heart of your century– the 20th century. What happened after the war to the idea of American exceptionalism?

BRIAN: Well, what happened, Peter, was a very odd story. Because what had been really the charge of the left– that America was exceptional because it did not have socialism– got flipped into America was exceptional because it could stand up to socialism, which seemed to be dominating the world. The Soviet Union thrived after World War II. It served as a model to many lesser developed countries as to the kind of political and economic system they wanted.

And exceptionalism became that claim of those who were looking for more enduring American qualities that got defined as precisely the opposite of those contained in the Soviet Union. America believed in God. The Soviet Union was godless. America was built on capitalism. The Soviet Union issued capitalism. America was a nation that believed in voting, in democracy. The Soviet Union was autocratic.


ED: So we’ve been talking so far about the way American exceptionalism developed in the early 20th century. But back at the beginning of the century, there was another kind of exceptionalism. Now, you’ve got to keep in mind around the turn of the 20th century, the American empire was having its moment in the sun. The United States has just taken control of Hawaii and Puerto Rico and Cuba and the Philippines, and Americans invoke– you guessed it– exceptionalism to justify these land grabs, but not the way you might expect.

JOSIAH STRONG: It seems to me that God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come than this race of unequaled energy, the representative of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization will spread itself over the Earth.

ED: That’s Josiah Strong, a Protestant minister writing in 1891. Now, you’ll notice that he didn’t actually mention Americans in that passage. Instead, he talked about the Anglo-Saxon race– basically English people and their descendants. In his mind, US expansion was a natural result of America’s Anglo-Saxon heritage, it’s Englishness.

PETER: And Ed, can you explain what would have been so great about the English at this point in time?

ED: Peter, you’re kind of still holding that grudge from the Revolution, I can see.



ED: But in the 1890s, Britain is the biggest imperial power in the world. They control territory from Canada to South Africa to India to Australia. So it makes sense that the United States would look the British power and think, hey, we’ve got British blood in our veins. We could do that, too. This argument was called Anglo-Saxonism. And today, we can see this is another variety of exceptionalism– in this case, racial exceptionalism.

BRIAN: Not everyone buys into Anglo-Saxonism. There’s a group of anti-imperialists– Mark Twain is the one that I know the best– and they say America fought a war to be free from the British empire. Now we’re going to create an empire of our own? That’s just not what America’s all about. In other words, the anti-imperialists use American exceptionalism to argue against racial exceptionalism. I talked this through with Paul Kramer, a historian at Vanderbilt.

So lay out the basis for the exceptionalist argument against imperialism.

PAUL KRAMER: I mean, the exceptionalist argument against imperialism at the 1898 anti-imperialists defined it hinges on the notion that part of what makes America a free society is that it has managed to avoid the risk of militarism, which they define as the building up of a permanent and expensive military establishment that can curtail the capacity of the citizenry to express its will.

And when they look at Europe, the kind of traditional foil for– or, one of the traditional foils– for American exceptionalism, militarism and imperialism are among the defining features. And so they don’t want to the US to be the kind of world power that requires these kinds of institutions, which they’re afraid will undermine the defining freedom of American society.

Some anti-imperialists are concerned about what this will mean for Filipinos and another potential victims of American empire, but many are not, and, in fact, the core of anti-imperialist discourse is really about what will happen to the American people in their institutions if the US becomes this kind of global military empire.

BRIAN: Well, who wins this struggle of exceptionalism, if you will? Do those who argue that we’re racially exceptionalists, or do those who say, hey, what really makes us special, what really makes us exceptional, are our Republican institutions and the fact that republics do not go out and colonize other peoples?

PAUL KRAMER: In some ways the irony of what happens during and after 1898 is that the anti-imperialists lose the battle in many respects, and that the US goes on and becomes a colonial power and will be a colonial power until the present– in the Philippines until World War II. The irony, though, is that, in a sense, they win the war rhetorically. That by 1905 or so, just a few years into the building of a colonial state in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the governments there are not talking in terms of Anglo-Saxonism anymore. They’re really talking about the unique virtues of American styles of empire building. What they’re doing is, in a sense, taking the national exceptionalism that had really been the strong card of the anti-imperialists and they’re making it their own.

And they’re saying, yes, there was skepticism about the turn of the century, about whether Americans were cut out for this empire-building business. And yes, we thought we were going to have to look to our Anglo-Saxon blood and to British traditions, but, in fact, Americans have a unique genius for this kind of work. And they make the argument that they’re giving power to local peoples much more readily and rapidly than the other empires, and that this is a sign of the US’s democratization impulse.

By the 1930s, this has really become the dominant approach. And to whatever extent there is a Anglo-Saxonism circulating, it’s pretty much in the background in terms of descending American colonialism.

BRIAN: That’s Paul Kramer. He’s an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University.

ED: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll talk about a few verses of the song “America the Beautiful” that you’ve probably never heard.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: Welcome back to BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Brian Balogh, the 20th Century Guy, here with Ed Ayers–

ED: The 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: –And Peter Onuf.

PETER: The 18th Century Guy. We’re talking today about American exceptionalism– the belief that the United States is and has been the greatest nation on Earth, and the belief that it is great because of the way in which it was first created.

BRIAN: As we do in the lead-up to each week’s show, we’ve been inviting you listeners to leave your comments and questions about today’s topic on our website. Today, we’re calling up a few the folks who left us a note.


PETER: Hey, guys. Gather around. We have a call from Dean at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Dean, welcome to BackStory.

DEAN: Thank you. Good morning. The reason I’m calling in is I want to explain my vision of American exceptionalism and see what your thoughts would be on that.

PETER: OK, great.

DEAN: I have sort of an unusual background. My father was born in the city of Lahore when it was still part of the English colonial empire. And my mother’s parents came from Eastern Europe as Jews prior to World War I. I served in the military. I was a prosecutor for four years.

And I firmly believe that America is great because our Founding Fathers decided, with a very strong sense of consciousness and knowledge of the historical import of what they were doing, they decided to abandon the model that existed for so long in Europe in which heredity and social position bound people and limited them, and they decided to create a nation in which men and women would be judged solely as individuals, and they would be permitted to succeed or fail based upon individual merit and accomplishment rather than on their heredity.

PETER: Well, Dean, I think that really eloquently summarizes the vision of American revolutionaries in the late 18th century. I guess the question is whether having embraced those ideas Americans then become different. There’s sort of a paradox in this. Are we a special kind of people because we live under this kind of regime?

DEAN: Well, I think one concept that people often overlook about American exceptionalism is it’s not really a basis to boast. It’s more of a constant about what makes America have unique potential that it does have. It’s a state that is defined by a unique fusion of culture, traditions, beliefs, love of country that is really unlike the traditions of any other state in the world, and you can truly become an American if you accede to those traditions in a way that you could probably never become a Frenchman or Englishman or a German, even if you become a nominal citizen of those nations.

PETER: Yeah.

BRIAN: Yeah, uh, Dean, I’m afraid I have to interfere with this love fest and ask about all of those folks that did not become Americans in the full sense of citizenship, and by that I’m talking about those who arrived enslaved or were enslaved. You mentioned men and women– surely women were not treated as though they were simply a matter of realizing their potential. Their rights were severely limited for centuries.

I agree with what you said as long as you talk in terms of an ideal. I do think that’s what distinguishes America from many nations. But, then again, ideals don’t mean that much when they are respected only in the breach. And I think they were respected only in the breach for the vast majority of Americans for much of American history.

DEAN: Well, I think that’s an extremely cynical view of American history. I happen to disagree. I think that the greatness of America is not in its perfection, but in its promise. And the Founding Fathers created that promise.

PETER: Well, guys, I hear both of you saying really complimentary things. I think actually Brian, our 20th Century Guy, is extremely idealistic. He holds onto that idea that you’re articulating, Dean, and suggesting, we’ve still got work to do. And I think, Brian and Dean, the key thing is that Americans, in 1776, were other-oriented. They were not looking at their own navels. They were looking for recognition. They were looking for respect.

They want to appeal to the world to say, hey, we have a notion of universal rights, of natural rights of all people. They wanted to please and gain the respect of a candid world. That’s crucial. And as long as Americans worry about how the world thinks about America, then we won’t take ourselves too seriously.

BRIAN: Dean, I’d be curious to hear what you think of all of this.

DEAN: I think that principle can certainly be taken too far when we leave our own concept of what’s right and what’s wrong and our uniquely American traditions based upon the vision of the Fathers, and we start looking to the world– for example, the United Nations– and we engage in cultural relativism and we say, well, how would we be judged by the standards of other people? I think we have to also be careful that we are judging ourselves in accordance with our own standards. And our own standards, critically, have to be high.

PETER: My only quarrel with you, Dean, is that those standards are universal standards. That’s what the Founders claimed. They didn’t say, these are ideas that work for Americans because we’re better than everybody else. It’s instead that these are universal ideas. These are natural rights. There’s nothing relativistic about that at all.

DEAN: I agree with that.

PETER: This is, in fact, the best of the Enlightenment, and it’s not our enlightenment. We took those ideas from Western civilization. And I think that’s the danger of sliding into a self-satisfied complacency about how we figured it out and other peoples haven’t.

Throughout American history, a lot of Americans have thought that way, Dean. They’ve thought that we have a unique racial Anglo-Saxon endowment, that we have a unique environment, that there’s nobody who could ever be like us. And that’s, I think, the thing that we have to worry about. To what extent are we congratulating ourselves? To what extent are we trying to rise to a higher standard? I think this is an ongoing discussion that we need to keep going. Thanks for your thoughts.

DEAN: Thank you.

BRIAN: Thank you, Dean.

ED: Thanks, Dean.

DEAN: Appreciate it. Thank you very much.

PETER: And we have another call ready to go here, and it’s from Nate in Missoula, Montana, the Big Sky state. Welcome to BackStory, Nate.

NATE: Thanks. It’s great to be here. How are you guys?

PETER: Well, we’re good, and we’re eager to talk with you about American exceptionalism.

NATE: If I were to build a case that America is an exceptional nation, I would build it on the same platform that America itself was built on, which is our land, and basically the quantity and it’s the quality of it, which are both big and good. And the question I’d like to ask you guys is, how has our land and sort of our relationship with it, our expansion into it, our development of it– how has that kind of helped define who we are as Americans?

PETER: Yeah, that’s a great–

NATE: Is it an exceptional quality?

PETER: Yeah. You know what’s surprising to me every time I go to another country? That they actually got beautiful places there. [LAUGHING] You know? It is. Those other places are beautiful, too. Now, that’s really a silly thing to say. But I’m actually reflecting.

I think the spirit of your question is that we do embrace the land as if it were the source of something. And that goes back to the American revolutionaries because of what they thought was in that land and the possibilities that were imminent in a bountiful landscape. There was a whole idea in the 18th century among enlightened philosophers about national character and what made peoples distinct. And all had to do with climate, land, and regime– that is, the nature of the government– and how they were all part of what made a people distinctive.

And I think what’s exciting about America for enlightened people– and we have to remember the Enlightenment marks the beginning of America, that’s the moment– is here’s for the first time in history that national character is not the given of a long history. Its the prospects of a glorious future so that land is not a kind of destiny, land is more an opportunity.

BRIAN: Yeah, Nate. This is Brian, 20th Century Guy. And it’s almost a parlor game to identify the turning point of American history.

PETER: 1893.

BRIAN: Well, although people would say the end of the frontier, when the Census declares that there is no frontier. From that point on, Americans begin to fret about how it will affect the American character. And part of the romance of John F. Kennedy’s quest to land a man on the moon had to do with a nostalgia for returning to a sense of a new frontier.

What do we call the Kennedy administration? The new frontier? And that claiming– the land on the moon, planting the American flag, and all of that– I think really helped translate some of the sense of importance of the land to a whole new frontier for the United States, which, of course, Kennedy metaphorically applied to a set of social programs in urban eastern settings. But this is confirming your point that at least Americans believe that it is the bountiful, beautiful, and enriching land that really makes them exceptional.

ED: You know, it’s interesting, Brian, that the exact time that the frontier became sealed off or disappeared, people began creating these national parks and sort of preserving sort of the element of– in kind of a paradox– preserve forever the idea of an undeveloped wilderness. And when Peter’s surprised that they have pretty places elsewhere– I remember living in Europe, and you’d see the guidebooks of the United States. And they were always either of New York City or of the Grand Canyon and the West. And that’s the way that people imagined the bounty of America. That’s why the West– nobody ever mentions the South. That’s not what people picture as the boundless possibility of hundreds of years of slavery.

But I think we have to agree in whatever our century that the land seems to be wedded entirely to this sense of American exceptionalism, which is a country with an infinite future.

PETER: Well, Nate, thank you for calling.

NATE: Well, thank you.

BRIAN: Thank you, Nate.

NATE: I appreciate it. Take care.

BRIAN: American exceptionalism may be most obvious when talking politics. But you’ve probably heard more than a little exceptionalism in American music.


BRIAN: “America the Beautiful” was originally written as a poem in 1893 by Kathy Lee Bates. She was traveling from Massachusetts to Colorado and was inspired by America’s exceptional landscape.

PETER: The poem has gone through three revisions in all, the one we sing today being the third version. And it’s been so popular throughout the 20th century that, to this day, lots of people want it to be our national anthem.

BRIAN: On the surface, it’s a song about American beauty. But underneath that surface, if you listen carefully, it’s a far more complicated story. All three versions, the original poem, it’s revision, and the song we know today, have verses critiquing the American way of life.

Kathy Mizell is a professor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University and a writer for Slate. She studied these lesser-known versus and is here to walk us through some of them. Kathy, welcome to the show.

KATHY MEIZEL: Thank you.

BRIAN: Well, let’s just jump right into it. What are some of the lyrics that we don’t sing today?

KATHY MEIZEL: Well, my favorite verse that we don’t sing today is from the first version. And this is the third verse, and it ends with the words, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee til selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free.”

BRIAN: [LAUGHING] So, yeah. You don’t hear many anthems talking about selfish gain. What is that all about?

KATHY MEIZEL: Well, in 1893, when Katharine Lee Bates wrote these words, the country was in the middle– or at the beginning, I guess– of a very serious financial crisis that is now known as the Panic of 1893. And it’s considered to have been caused largely by the over-extension of the railroad industry and over-spending. And so many people look at this verse as a critique of robber barons and irresponsible uncharitable spending. So like many of our most famous patriotic songs, this poem contained a bit of a criticism.

BRIAN: Yeah. I think I’ve spotted another criticism. You tell me. “Oh beautiful, for glory-tale of liberating strife, when once or twice for man’s avail, men lavished precious life.”

KATHY MEIZEL: In 1893, you’re talking about 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. You’re talking about a little over 50 years since the Trail of Tears. And you know, Lynn Sherr, who has written a really wonderful book about “America the Beautiful”, she suggests that on her way out to Colorado, Katharine Lee Bates was made more aware of the way that Native American communities and peoples had been decimated and abused throughout US history.

BRIAN: So obviously the original poem contained quite a bit of criticism of the United States, yet “America the Beautiful” really has become an anthem for American exceptionalism.

KATHY MEIZEL: Yes. It’s happened over and over again. This is not the only song where we see this history. Maybe the most famous one is “This Land is Your Land”, which was written by Woody Guthrie in 1940 as a socialist’s critique of capitalist America. And it actually became an anthem for American exceptionalism around the same time that “America the Beautiful” did in the ’80s, . And it became a part of Republican campaign stops, actually. I think it became part of Reagan’s campaign, and George Bush Senior’s campaign.


KATHY MEIZEL: Actually, and it’s a little bit similar to “America the Beautiful”, too, that kind of proclaimed the beauty of geography, of American geography. And that’s really interesting, too.

BRIAN: So Geography is nonpartisan.

KATHY MEIZEL: Geography is nonpartisan, exactly. And it’s part of what makes nationalism, because you have to define your country geographically to make it a nation, right?


KATHY MEIZEL: I think the best exceptionalist songs have this balance of praise for the nation and critique of the nation because if you go back to what scholars often pinpoint as the rhetorical beginning of American exceptionalism– although, it could be, of course, argued– which is John Winthrop’s city on a hill speech.

That speech was not only positioning the new colony as a beacon of freedom, a role model for the rest of the world, but it also was a warning. It was, we have a covenant with God, and if we don’t make good on that covenant, God will punish us. It will give God a bad name, and no one will want to have a covenant with God. So it’s actually a big, big responsibility.

BRIAN: It is. And it’s a critique at the same time, right? It’s be good. It’s not about how wonderful we are. That, to me, is absolutely primary in our understanding of Americaness, and we get that in spades in this song.


BRIAN: Kathy Meizel is a professor of musicology at Bowling Green State University. She’s the author of the book, “Idealized– Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol”. Kathy, thanks so much for joining us today.

KATHY MEIZEL: Thank you.

BRIAN: And that is all the time we’ve got for today. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s show. You can post a comment at backstoryradio.org. There you’ll find plenty of background reading on the history of exceptionalism. You can also find links to our past shows and subscribe to our free podcast.

PETER: Again, that’s backstoryradio.org. We’re also on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Emily Charnock, Nina Earnest, Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Andrew Parsons, and Tony Field, with help from Frank Surello. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.