American Exceptionalism as a Foundation for the American Consciousness


Patrick Gathara claims that American exceptionalism ‘is predicated 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 can first contextualise and set up the notion of American exceptionalism from a constructivist framework. Afterwards, it would current a case research 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 via 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 display the lasting legacy of Puritan morality in American tradition. The purpose right here is to intensify the core components 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 can argue that whereas Gathara is correct to hint the roots of American exceptionalism to colonial misconceptions, he reverses the order by 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 is just not 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 might be higher understood as being basically based mostly on the colonial false impression that ethical superiority bestows energy.

In his 1840 ebook ‘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 have a look at American exceptionalism from a constructivist-cultural-identity lens and discover the phenomenological notion that People 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 mentioned that exceptionalism influences how People see their very own nation and the world. On this manner it’s a part of the American id.

Inside this framework, it’s irrelevant whether or not America is actually distinctive. What’s necessary is how People understand their very own nation and traditions: ‘America is outstanding so long as People 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. Based on Trevor McCrisken, there’s a rising group of teachers who see that the best way decision-makers assume and talk about America’s distinctive id has a serious influence on US overseas coverage (2003: pp.1-8). This level will develop into extra salient once we contemplate it within the context of Johnson’s rhetoric on Vietnam.

The background to America’s distinctive id can roughly be divided into two components. On the one hand there’s a political ingredient, on the opposite a spiritual ingredient. Some authors see these components as myths (Walt, 2011), others as state-formed fantasies (Pease, 2009). The expansion of those concepts is complicated and might not be completely separate from one another’s growth.

The primary ingredient is the assumption in political exceptionalism. An necessary facet of that is the assumption that People have the most effective 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 via its well-known paperwork, solid a nation out of concepts’ (2012). In different phrases, a nationwide id was constructed from a shared ideology somewhat than from a shared historical past, as within the case of the European nation-states. It follows that American id is just not 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 a substitute, it informs a way of exemplary ethical obligation in the direction of the remainder of the world within the implicit assumption that American values are or should be common values.

The second ingredient is a spiritual delusion. This delusion is centred round the concept 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 outstanding Puritans had been already preaching concerning the exemplary position of the fledgling New England (1979: pp.10-11). Right here, it’s once more necessary 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 regarded themselves a group of the elect. To implement their message, Puritan ministers usually took a three-pronged method, emphasising the successes of the devoted first, then highlighting intimately how the parish had just 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 hitch within the trigger (1965a). Johnson’s parish had gathered that day on account of protests that obtained 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 a 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 mistaken, to do justice, to serve man.’ And if the People as soon as once more adhered to these beliefs, the US would be capable of 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 might 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 develop into 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 follow. 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 supposed finish end result was nothing lower than the start of a ‘new world’ by which ethical and religious wants could possibly be on an equal footing with the pursuit of fabric prosperity. On this manner, the Nice Society was not solely offered as a bundle of coverage measures, however Johnson introduced his agenda as the place to begin for a benign transformation of American society, after which the US 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 tackle 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 decisions. 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 will come about via of the ethical beliefs of the Nice Society (1964).

Related moralisms might 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’. Against this, ethical milestones – comparable 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, the US would deploy its army not just for geopolitical functions, but additionally to advertise the ethical enchancment of a world Struggle on Poverty.

Whereas his Nice Society was to result in a change of American society, Johnson recommended that his Vietnam coverage was the idea for a considerable metamorphosis of worldwide politics. He argued that his era dreamed of a world by which conflicts had been resolved solely by peaceable means and expressed his hope for a ‘world with out battle’ (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 the US 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 id actors ascribe to a state (on this case Johnson and the Puritans to America) in a given spatial-temporal context, informs the broader id 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 the US – 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, nonetheless, reverses the order by 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 mentioned ethical excellence impels it to discover components of its home tasks 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 to be able 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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