'American Exceptionalism' -- What, Who, Why and Really?

By Rob Kyff

November 13, 2019 3 min read

Pundits, professors and presidents have been batting around the term "American exceptionalism" like a beach ball for the past 60 years. It's been cited to justify everything from military intervention to space exploration to the global proliferation of McDonald's restaurants.

American exceptionalism denotes the concept that the United States is unique in its advantageous geography, its origin as a self-created nation, its divine blessing and its special mission to transform the world.

Historians cite many antecedents for these ideas, including the Puritan concept of building a "city on a hill" for others to emulate, Thomas Paine's revolutionary assertion that the creation of the U.S. represented "the birthday of a new world," and the notion that it was America's God-given "manifest destiny" to overspread the continent. Quite an ideological pedigree, indeed.

But who coined the term "American exceptionalism"?

Some researchers credit Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who toured the U.S. during the 1830s. While it's true that his 1840 book "Democracy in America" did describe America's lucky combination of a favorable geographic location and British political heritage as "exceptionelle," Tocqueville never used the word "exceptionalism."

Other scholars have proposed that the first person to use the term was, of all people, Joseph Stalin. The story goes that in April of 1929, when the American Communist leader Jay Lovestone reported to Stalin that the American working class had no appetite for proletarian revolution, the Soviet dictator told him to "end this heresy of American exceptionalism," meaning that America was not immune to the inexorable force of worldwide communist revolution.

So did Stalin invent the phrase? Nyet. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term had already appeared in the American Communist newspaper The Daily Worker on Jan. 29, 1929, three months prior to the Stalin-Lovestone exchange.

To complicate matters further, Fred Shapiro, editor of "The Yale Book of Quotations," has recently found this reference to the American Civil War in the Aug. 20, 1861 issue of the London newspaper The Times: "It is probable that the 'exceptionalism,' if one may use the word, on which the Americans rather pride themselves, will not prevail in the case of the struggle between North and South."

Perhaps it's fitting that this most American of terms traces its lineage to France, Russia and Great Britain. Sometimes other nations see us — and understand us — more clearly than we do.

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: DzidekLasek at Pixabay

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