Segment from City Upon a Hill

Tracing It Back

Peter, Ed, and Brian talk through the changing meanings of “exceptionalism” in American history.

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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.