Segment from City Upon a Hill

Listener Calls

The hosts answer questions from listeners.

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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.