The term “American exceptionalism” is used to describe the belief that the United States occupies a special position in history and on the global stage by virtue of certain characteristics held to be unique to the United States. This belief has undergone a number of incarnations since it developed in the 1800s, and there are both supporters and critics of American exceptionalism. Since it plays a role in political thought in the United States, understanding exceptionalism and the roots behind the idea is important for people interested in history and politics.
This concept appears to have been first put forward by Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America. Tocqueville pointed to the United States as a highly successful emerging representative democracy and suggested that the relatively new nation must have had some exceptional characteristics to succeed.
Several theories have been posited to explain American exceptionalism. One theory, based in the Puritan origins of the United States, suggests that the religious faith and commitment of early settlers may be involved. Another theory is that the unique environment of the United States is the cause. The size of the nation and the relatively untamed nature of the environment are credited for rewarding innovation, determination, and courage, all of which are said to be important components of American exceptionalism.
At various points in history, people have also suggested that exceptionalism has its origins in genetics. Many of these theories had a distinct whiff of eugenics, suggesting that the United States thrived and was so successful from the start because it reflected a blend of the best of European races. Others have pointed to the “melting pot” environment of the United States to argue just the contrary, that the United States thrives because of its racial and ethnic diversity.
Proponents of American exceptionalism may ignore the fact that the early origins of the United States are paralleled by those of many former colonies. Manifest Destiny, the sense that the nation is destined and entitled to expand, is sometimes described as a uniquely American phenomenon when, in fact, many European nations exhibited similar attitudes when colonizing other regions of the world. Likewise, many other nations are racially diverse, were founded by religious groups, have diverse or harsh environments, and have revolted to establish democracies.
Opponents sometimes describe American exceptionalism as a myth and argue that it contributes to Americentrism and the belief that the United States is above the law. These critics believe that the concept of exceptionalism feeds the belief that the United States is uniquely qualified to serve as an arbiter in global conflicts or that people in the United States are superior to those elsewhere.