Brian chats with historian Paul Kramer about a late nineteenth century debate: was America exceptional, or were Americans exceptional because they descended from England?
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.