Home News American Exceptionalism as a Foundation for the American Consciousness

American Exceptionalism as a Foundation for the American Consciousness


Patrick Gathara claims that American exceptionalism ‘relies on the previous colonial false impression that energy bestows ethical superiority’ (2019). This essay, then, seeks to scrutinise this declare and uncover how this notion of exceptionalism manifests itself within the American consciousness. It is going to first contextualise and set up the notion of American exceptionalism from a constructivist framework. Afterwards, it’s going to current a case examine of Lyndon B. Johnson’s rhetoric on The Nice Society and Vietnam, and the colonial jeremiads of the Puritan Fathers. The overarching theme of Johnson’s speeches is explored by the lens of three recurring ethical themes: the condemnation of social injustice, the affirmation of exceptionalist discourse, and the emphasis on fault traces in historical past. This may reveal the lasting legacy of Puritan morality in American tradition. The goal right here is to intensify the core parts and order of magnitude of American exceptionalism. Lastly, with this framework in thoughts, this essay will try to revise Gathara’s claims on the substrate of American exceptionalism by contemplating it in mild of Johnson’s rhetoric on Vietnam and the Nice Society and its parallels with the sermons of the Puritan Fathers. It is going to argue that whereas Gathara is correct to hint the roots of American exceptionalism to colonial misconceptions, he reverses the order through which energy and ethical superiority manifest themselves within the American consciousness. Certainly, each the Puritan Fathers and Johnson confused that continued American flourishing hinges on sustained ethical excellence: America just isn’t morally superior as a result of it’s highly effective, it’s highly effective as a result of it’s morally superior. Appropriately, then, this essay will conclude that American exceptionalism could be higher understood as being essentially based mostly on the colonial false impression that ethical superiority bestows energy.

In his 1840 guide ‘Democracy in America’, Alexis de Tocqueville described US  ‘exceptionality’, with none point out of ‘superior’, compared to the remainder of the world. He thus laid the inspiration for the idea of American exceptionalism (Tocqueville, 1994). In what follows, this essay will predominantly take a look at American exceptionalism from a constructivist-cultural-identity lens and discover the phenomenological notion that Individuals have concerning the distinctive historical past of the US, their position on this planet, and the best way this lens drives their home and overseas coverage. It focuses on the underlying myths and the rhetoric employed. A number of authors inside this framework regard American exceptionalism as an ideology, a cognitive scheme or a notion (Hunt, 2009; Schafer, 1999; Lipset, 1996; Wilson, 1998). Taken collectively, it may be stated that exceptionalism influences how Individuals see their very own nation and the world. On this manner it’s a part of the American identification.

Inside this framework, it’s irrelevant whether or not America is actually distinctive. What’s essential is how Individuals understand their very own nation and traditions: ‘The US is outstanding so long as Individuals imagine it to be distinctive’ (Restad, 2012). For our intents and functions, it doesn’t matter whether or not the underlying claims are true or false. In response to Trevor McCrisken, there’s a rising group of lecturers who see that the best way decision-makers assume and discuss America’s distinctive identification has a significant influence on US overseas coverage (2003: pp.1-8). This level will turn out to be extra salient after we take into account it within the context of Johnson’s rhetoric on Vietnam.

The background to America’s distinctive identification can roughly be divided into two parts. On the one hand there’s a political component, on the opposite a non secular component. Some authors see these parts as myths (Walt, 2011), others as state-formed fantasies (Pease, 2009). The expansion of those concepts is advanced and will not be totally separate from one another’s improvement.

The primary component is the idea in political exceptionalism. An essential side of that is the idea that Individuals have one of the best structure on this planet, which additionally describes an important American values (Migranyan, 2013). Hilde Restad factors to the significance of those enlightened values: ‘Its Enlightenment ideas, expressed by its well-known paperwork, cast a nation out of concepts’ (2012). In different phrases, a nationwide identification was constructed from a shared ideology relatively than from a shared historical past, as within the case of the European nation-states. It follows that American identification just isn’t decided by an individual’s place of origin, however by the ethical values that an individual subscribes to (Lipset, 1996: pp.18-19). What’s attention-grabbing to notice, right here, is that this sense of ethical superiority takes priority over any notion of energy. As an alternative, it informs a way of exemplary ethical obligation in direction of the remainder of the world within the implicit assumption that American values are or must be common values.

The second component is a non secular delusion. This delusion is centred round the concept that America has a divinely appointed position on this planet. Sacvan Bercovitch traced the widespread use of morality in American politics to the colonial period, when distinguished Puritans had been already preaching concerning the exemplary position of the fledgling New England (1979: pp.10-11). Right here, it’s once more essential to notice that these early colonial fathers already thought they had been distinctive, not as a result of they’d any energy, however as a result of they possessed a superior sense of morality. These Puritans noticed their colony as a Metropolis on a Hill and thought of themselves a group of the elect. To implement their message, Puritan ministers typically took a three-pronged method, emphasising the successes of the devoted first, then highlighting intimately how the parish had lately fallen into ethical decline. Lastly, there was a hopeful name to as soon as once more maintain on to the unique Articles of Religion. Solely then would the Puritan colony be preserved for all eternity.

Bercovitch in contrast this method to the hearth and brimstone sermons of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah and described this rhetorical technique because the American Jeremiad. He additionally claimed that variations on this technique had been utilized in American politics effectively after the colonial interval. For instance, in March 1965, President Lyndon Johnson equated American curiosity with that of ‘the destiny of democracy’ and, as if a priest main prayer, requested his viewers to affix within the trigger (1965a). Johnson’s parish had gathered that day because of protests that received out of hand in Selma, Alabama, the place native police had cracked down on peaceable protesters from Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Motion. From his pulpit within the Home of Representatives, Johnson preached clear phrases: ‘There isn’t any trigger for delight in what has occurred in Selma’ (1965a).’

Nonetheless, Johnson known as for religion in American democracy. In his position as a secular pastor, he proclaimed the nation’s distinctive mission: ‘to proper incorrect, to do justice, to serve man.’ And if the Individuals as soon as once more adhered to these beliefs, america would be capable to depart the darkish shadow of racism behind for good – a message summed up by the president within the pledge ‘we will overcome’ (1965a).

President Johnson’s so-called ‘We Shall Overcome’ speech could be seen as a secular twist on the Puritan jeremiad of previous. Like his Puritan predecessors, the president praised the historic successes of American society and described how ethical abuses had turn out to be a part of social actuality, threatening the American Mission. Lastly, Johnson adopted the instance of seventeenth-century pastors by promising ethical restoration if the core beliefs of the group had been as soon as once more put into observe. Right here we’re as soon as once more confronted with the priority of morality over energy and the way the previous informs the latter.

 Johnson additionally defined the Nice Society using such ethical convictions. The Nice Society – which was formally launched at a marketing campaign speech in Michigan within the spring of 1964 – was emphatically promoted by Johnson as an ethical necessity, and consisted of quite a few reforms aimed toward poverty alleviation, social safety, and environmental regulation (1964). The meant finish consequence was nothing lower than the start of a ‘new world’ through which ethical and non secular wants might be on an equal footing with the pursuit of fabric prosperity. On this manner, the Nice Society was not solely offered as a package deal of coverage measures, however Johnson offered his agenda as the place to begin for a benign transformation of American society, after which america would as soon as once more be thought to be a morally exemplary Metropolis on a Hill (Johnson, 1964).

As well as, Johnson made use of the optimistic Zeitgeist throughout his tenure and proclaimed the era of the Nineteen Sixties to be an distinctive one in historical past. In his inaugural handle of January 1965, he argued that ‘For each era there’s a future’ (1965b). Whereas some generations had been on the mercy of the unchanging course of historical past, the era of the Nineteen Sixties had the distinctive alternative to make its personal selections. And through his ‘Nice Society’ speech on the College of Michigan, the president claimed that ‘for the primary time in human historical past’ a era had the chance to form its dream society: a society that may come about by of the ethical beliefs of the Nice Society (1964).

Comparable moralisms could be present in Johnson’s overseas rhetoric. When the president was compelled to publicly justify his slowly escalating Vietnam insurance policies in March 1965, he fell again on ethical points. He referred to the prevailing poverty in Southeast Asia and confused the American obligation to do one thing about it. The speech additionally contained a pacifist message. The clatter of weapons was nothing greater than a ‘image of human failure’. In contrast, ethical milestones – akin to constructing dams, rural electrification, or enabling high quality training – had been spectacular and would underpin Johnson’s plans for Vietnam (Johnson, 1965c). In different phrases, america would deploy its navy not just for geopolitical functions, but in addition to advertise the ethical enchancment of a global Warfare on Poverty.

Whereas his Nice Society was to result in a metamorphosis of American society, Johnson steered that his Vietnam coverage was the idea for a considerable metamorphosis of worldwide politics. He argued that his era dreamed of a world through which conflicts had been resolved solely by peaceable means and expressed his hope for a ‘world with out conflict’ (1965c). In a speech on the United Nations, he additional condemned the historic practices of discrimination and human rights violations and requested his overseas colleagues to comply with the American instance to finish this completely (1965d).

Johnson’s claims bear a resemblance to the Puritan perception within the exceptionality and morally exemplary position of the American colony and the way this ethical exemplarity informs their position on this planet. Just like the Puritans aboard the Mayflower, the thirty-sixth president of america sketched utopian vistas of fault traces with the ‘previous” world’, and like his Puritan predecessors, the president positioned the North American continent because the territory of the New World.

All through our dialogue of American exceptionalism in Lyndon B. Johnson’s rhetoric, we’re compelled by a constructivist framework and confronted by how the identification actors ascribe to a state (on this case Johnson and the Puritans to America) in a given spatial-temporal context, informs the broader identification of a state and governs its home and overseas coverage. The overarching morality and accompanying exceptionalism – each so attribute of nationwide and overseas discourse in america – are equally rooted within the traditions of colonial New England. Gathara, then, is correct to hint the roots of American exceptionalism to colonial misconceptions (2019). He, nevertheless, reverses the order through which energy and ethical superiority manifest themselves within the American consciousness. Each the Puritan Fathers and Johnson stress that continued American flourishing hinges on continued ethical excellence. America’s notion of itself as morally exemplary and the way its energy is contingent on stated ethical excellence impels it to discover parts of its home initiatives in its overseas coverage, not as a result of, as Gathara’s assertion implies, America thinks its energy justifies its self-image as morally superior and entitles it to venture itself, however as a result of, because the ethical beacon of the world, it’s their God-given obligation to be highly effective as a way to guarantee ethical excellence in the remainder of the world.


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Written at: Royal Holloway, College of London
Written for: Dr. Michelle Bentley
Date written: November 2020

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