Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg: What They Really Mean by "American Exceptionalism"

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University and coauthors of "Madison and Jefferson."]

Newt Gingrich can't get enough American exceptionalism. In "A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters," due out soon, the former House speaker and prospective Republican presidential candidate gives a new definition to the term, linking it directly to conservatives' understanding of the importance of the individual relative to the power of government. "That is why President Obama and the Left hate American Exceptionalism," he writes. They hate it because it stops them from expanding government power? That’s a pretty crazy argument.

Gingrich holds a Ph.D. in history, so he shouldn't mind if we investigate where the notion of American exceptionalism came from as we track what it has come to mean. Let’s begin with some early examples of the phenomenon:

In 1771, Connecticut clergyman and future Yale president Timothy Dwight published a poem that spoke to a continent's promise. "AMERICA’S bright realms arose to view, / And the old world rejoic'd to see the new." The newness of America, its unexplored expanse, produced a kind of ecstatic expectation among Revolutionaries, which enlarged as Britain acknowledged independence in 1783. In that year, another of Yale's presidents, Ezra Stiles, proclaimed that a "great people" would arise in America; and that by the year 2000 they would outnumber the Chinese, as a nation "high above all nations which [God] hath made."

In his momentous First Inaugural Address in March 1801, Thomas Jefferson called America "the world’s best hope." That same month, to Dr. Joseph Priestley, scientist and theologian, he wrote, even more sublimely: "We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our republic is new." Jefferson and his peers were men of the 18th-century Enlightenment, at once idealists and pragmatists. Their complete adoration of science augmented a belief that the world would improve as tyranny was overthrown, the cause of education promoted, religious superstition undone, and the lives of all people enriched. Americans rejoiced in calling theirs an "infant empire," morally strong and liberty-loving....

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