What is “American exceptionalism?” What are the origins of “American exceptionalism” and what does it mean? The origins of the phrase may sometimes be debated; the definition has become largely subjective to represent one’s personal viewpoint, political agenda, and/or world ideology. With this in mind, let’s examine the where the phrase came from, along with a commonly accepted and a couple of alternative definitions.
The origins of “American exceptionalism” is often traced back to the French writer and political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville.
Mr. Tocqueville explored and wrote extensively about the United States. In his book titled, Democracy in America Part II, Social Influence of Democracy, Tocqueville addresses and explains that the European view Americans as possessing a diminished interest in high culture and scientific discipline. In the United States, such interests were merely not a function of American equality, but in spite of culture, democracy was not turning the Americans into barbarians. Tocqueville explains, “[America’s] Puritanical origin…commercial habits… divert their minds from…science, literature, and the arts… [However, European] proximity…allows…thousand special causes…to view all democratic nations under the mask of the American people” (Tocqueville 36-37).
Tocqueville points to Americans being an “Old” people in a “New World.”
He also will contend that Americans did not need to discover the origins of science but only had to develop practical uses within their new land. Additionally, Americans were different–their land was not distributed on an equal basis but acquired through individual achievement. Thus, Americans were more focused on seeking and developing personal wealth than the European cultures.
Then Tocqueville boldly states, “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one” (36-37). The previous Tocqueville statement is commonly accepted as the origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism.” But this assumption is incorrect.
Although Tocqueville may have been the first to highlight America as exceptional—he did not coin the phrase “American exceptionalism.”
Nope, that distinction is owed to someone else—and it was not intended to be a compliment.
The term “American exceptionalism” originated from a well-known anti-American and successful communist, Joseph Stalin. In 1929, Stalin was being briefed by Communist Leader Jay Lovestone. Lovestone explained to Stalin that Americans were different than the rest of the world and would not fall to communism.
Lovestone pointed out “leftism would be a hard sell stateside…[as] Americans were different” … Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” And just like that, this expression was born” (The Atlantic).
So, what is “American exceptionalism?”
The most agreeable meaning for “American exceptionalism” is that the United States of America formed under exceptional circumstance. As the blend of the Old and New Worlds just happened to occur in a perfect location with an abundance of natural resources. These conditions allowed for a new form of democracy and a way of life being spawned that was a truly exceptional.
Years later, the term would be modified to either serve as a rallying cry to justify America’s strength or in support of American interests abroad. It would also be a point of ridicule from critics that claim American foreign policy guided under “exceptionalism” was real “exemption-ism.” Meaning that America would claim superiority to justify acts of aggression toward other sovereign nations. Thus, “American exceptionalism” can be defined in a variety of ways and is in the eye of the beholder.
My eyes behold “American exceptionalism” as meaning America is indeed exceptional. What makes America exceptional? It’s simple, all around the world America holds one truly exceptional and unique trait not seen in other countries. That is diversity.
Most countries in the world are far more homogeneous with little deviation among the people and within the society. The fact remains, no other country on Earth has such a variety of peoples joined within its borders. America is a melting pot of different people, beliefs, and cultures. If America loses sight of this, it will no longer be exceptional; without exceptions, the matter is that simple.