Art by William N. Copely (1967)
American exceptionalism is a very familiar— almost intrinsic— aspect of being an American. It is the very patriotism that inspires pride and intense love for the country in the grand majority of American citizens. However, how justified are we in exalting our great nation, and appointing it as “the best?” Although there is no direct singular cause or reason for America’s persisting success, it can be argued that above its “superior morality,” “special genius,” “sustained altruism”, or “mandate of heaven,” if there is one triumphant source in the establishment of America as the greatest of all great nations, it’s plain old luck.
We see ourselves as more loving of peace, liberty, law, and justice than other countries, but neglect to account for the fact that perhaps we have been able to make our bearings in these values and sustain them throughout history because we have been uniquely lucky enough to have rarely been in situations where neglect or violation of them was critical to our safety and longevity. In reality, America was conceived at the “right place and right time,” in a fertile continent laden with resources/rivers, and conveniently, whose only inhabitants were “unadvanced” and particularly susceptible to European disease. This region was also blessed with the geographic features of having a natural sea barrier and being separated by great distances from the turmoil and chaos in the Eastern Hemisphere. For these advantages, we have reaped the benefits of effectively avoiding direct conflict for a great part of our history, and therefore, having less “blood on our hands.” Our preservation of values like liberty and justice is based on the fact that they have never been seriously challenged.
However, our strategic location and terrain could not save our founders from all evils— as many were carried out by their will. We secured the land by purging native inhabitants from it, in an act of genocide, and continuously nullified the rights and livelihoods of these peoples when they posed threat to our success ( e.x, relocating Native Americans onto reservations when the land that we had promised was “theirs forever” was vital to the construction of railroads and to the acquisition of gold). We continued to ensure our ownership of the land “from sea to shining sea” through the Mexican-American War and Annexation of Texas. These are just some of many examples of American abuse, with the other most prominent being defined by the institution of slavery, the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and excessive civilian injury during World War 2. However, because these atrocities (for the most part) worked for a self-bettering/preserving end, we excuse the abominable means. Not only do we excuse them, but we rewrite them out of history, as they soil or threaten our reputation of enduring morality and goodness.
Because we had the luxury of easily obtaining land and consequently, power, we were able to focus our efforts in the societal lives and rights of humanity as well as the quality of life, as our economy was steady and we were not constantly threatened by neighboring powers. Because of this general adherence to individual prosperity and the “pursuit of happiness,” we often see ourselves as the most civil and advanced of all other nations, and the most qualified to ensure the fate of countries that we deem subservient. This gives us an automatic right to meddle in foreign affairs, and assume credit for any successes. Although there are many examples of our beneficial presence in foreign delegation, they are usually encumbered with an underlying note of selfishness. For example, the Marshall Plan is one of the most famous examples of our nation’s altruism, however, it wasn’t as selfless or generous as it was strategic and indispensable to our economic safety. The public propagated this great deed, in which we donated 13 billion dollars to refinancing and reconstructing European economies post-war. This was an ultimately beneficial act to the struggling European nations, but it is important to note that it also served the American motive to secure a market for U.S. commerce.
It is also important and valuable to assess the implications and consequences of American Exceptionalism throughout our history and development as a nation. Throughout the entirety of the 17th, 18th, and a great part of the 19th centuries, British-born men struggled with mistreatment and inequality in the face of their English counterparts. The “Englishmen” in America felt as though they were not enjoying the freedoms and respects of their fellow englishmen across the sea. These feelings of inferiority were actually quite valid, as the British legitimately did view the colonists as of lesser stature than them. The discrepancy in merit or status between the British and not-yet-Americans was not so unintentional either, as those selected to “brave the rugged frontier” were generally convicts or disgraces to British society. The valiant, wealthy, and respected men of British society were NOT the men who were colonizing America. It is likely that the belittling nature in which British men treated the colonists forged strong nationalism and confidence in the colonists, as their objective was not only to survive but to spite their “bullies.” It is understandable to trace exceptionalism to these colonial roots, as colonists had to propagate a strong sense of patriotism and esteem, as a defense and survival tactic for their people. Need or strong desire for power and greatness is often bred from feelings of oppression or inferiority. Perhaps our demand for exceptionalism and superiority is the presentation of an ancient and long endured pattern of insecurity.
We must then account for how American Exceptionalism plays a role in our lives and our history. Yes, it may have led politicians to uneducated decisions and blinded us to the raw severity of many situations, but it can also be argued that exceptionalism was and is very vital to our progression. Patriotism and confidence are crucial traits in the workforce, as they motivate civilians to put their effort toward their country. Especially in wartime, America (most notably) has been able to stimulate impressive production and catapult our economy toward prosperity. In World War II specifically, had people not cared so much for the country and our ultimate success, many people would not have been as willing to sacrifice their expenditures and intake, and the country would not be able to arm/equip and support our military as effectively. In addition, exceptionalism spurs communal ties and plays a big role in unification. Many Americans feel very connected and allied because of this mutual understanding that we all contribute to this spectacular “big picture.” We feel that we are all a part of something great. It is clear that exceptionalism and success are directly intertwined, as increased exceptionalism increases success, and increased success perpetuates stronger feelings of exceptionalism. If the same cyclical behavior is applicable to a decrease of exceptionalism, it is understandable why American politicians and citizens are so fearful of “losing” our "superiority", as it would inevitably inhibit our cumulative progress. •