Lawmakers in Oklahoma recently joined officials in Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Nebraska, Tennessee and elsewhere in trying to prohibit high schools in their states from adopting the new American history Advanced Placement exams. These critics charge that the latest version of the College Board’s test teaches a “revisionist” view of the American past, one from which, in the words of Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, “every trace of American exceptionalism has been scrubbed.” Few making this argument, however, seem to realize the peculiar origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” or the idea’s troublesome implications for the study of history.
The concept at the heart of this controversy — American exceptionalism — at first glance possesses no clear meaning. All nations, after all, are unique. Each has its own currency, constitution, founding figures, flag and anthem. But as used by its proponents today, the notion extends well beyond the idea that the United States is a singular country to suggest that it possesses, as the opening paragraph of the 2012 Republican platform put it, “a unique place and role in human history.”
The precursors to this idea have been with us a long time. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that what set the U.S. apart from his native France was its absence of feudal traditions. Half a century later, historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the United States’ distinctive character could be attributed to its frontier experience. Yet neither thinker necessarily saw these conditions as cause for celebration. Tocqueville worried that the nation’s fixation with egalitarianism encouraged mediocrity and anti-intellectualism, while Turner was concerned that the end of the frontier threatened the American future.
Moreover, neither Tocqueville nor Turner framed their theses using the expression “American exceptionalism.” The phrase itself is of more recent vintage, coined in the 1920s, as American leftists, many of them associated with the Soviet-led Communist International, struggled to explain why the United States, the world’s leading industrial economy, had not embraced communism, as the Marxist theory of history would seem to predict. For those who used it, the phrase was a term of derision, suggesting that there was something defective about the U.S. that prevented it from ushering in a glorious proletariat revolution.
Current proponents of American exceptionalism have turned the critique of the 1920s on its head. For them, what makes the U.S. a model for the rest of the world is its commitment to liberty as well as, according to Oklahoma legislator Dan Fisher, its “representative form of limited government,” and “free-market economic system.” For all the change in rhetoric, though, supporters of American exceptionalism have left the term’s rigid view of history untouched.
Among the new AP frameworks that critics object to are those concerning westward expansion. The College Board proposes that students study how the transcontinental railroad brought more settlers west, leading to military conflict with American Indians, the near-extinction of the buffalo, and other policies that “reduced the number of American Indians and threatened native culture and identity.” In another section, the College Board describes Manifest Destiny as built on “a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.”
To detractors such as Robbins, such frameworks downplay the technological achievement the railroad represented and the democratic aspects of Manifest Destiny.
Although it goes almost unnoticed by current supporters, the notion of exceptionalism implies comparison. To make a compelling case that the U.S. is unique, one needs to contrast its history with that of other nations. Even the term’s originators gestured toward this approach when they compared communist organizations in Russia and elsewhere with what seemed to them an anemic left-wing movement in the United States.
Yet current proponents of the exceptionalist position have gone in the opposite direction, dismissing the need for any detailed consideration of other places or peoples, because of the United States’ supposedly special position in the world.
The modern steam engine, for instance, was invented in Britain in the early 19th century. If one wants to study the transcontinental railroad as an American achievement, how is it possible to do so without exploring the technology’s European origins or the effect the railroad has had on other parts of globe?
History’s power as a discipline rests on its empiricism — the marshaling of evidence to support a sustained analysis. To make a claim of American exceptionalism without encouraging the essential comparative work is to make a claim of historical accuracy without actually using the historical process.
In addition, the elements of U.S. history that exceptionalists seek to emphasize do not exist as discrete objects of study that can be easily isolated from the rest of the American story. The ideals of freedom that underpin the American Revolution evolved in counterpoint to the practice of chattel slavery, an institution that made manifest to all Americans the very real hazards of being deprived of one’s liberty.
The nation’s diffuse pattern of property ownership, which included the bestowing of millions of acres of free farmland on newly arrived immigrants, many brought west by the railroad, was made possible through the expropriation and redistribution of Native American and Mexican lands. The rise of capitalist industry in the antebellum U.S. was fueled by the era’s boom in slave-grown cotton. The formation of representative government pivoted on contentious questions of whether women, nonwhites or those without property should be allowed to vote.
At Manifest Destiny’s peak in the 1840s, women could not vote anywhere in the U.S., nor could the overwhelming majority of African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. Whatever democratic institutions the U.S. was spreading at the time were thus deeply interwoven with ideas about racial and gender hierarchy.
Many times, history has been used as a tool of indoctrination, designed to teach blind authority to the powers that be. This was certainly the case in the Soviet Union, the country that inspired so many of those who first coined the term “American exceptionalism.” In Josef Stalin’s Russia, all studies of the past were forced to fit into predetermined politics. It would be sad if today’s renewed preoccupation with American exceptionalism ends up sacrificing the freedom it purports to be preserving for a similarly fixed and incurious vision of the world.
Karl Jacoby is a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of “Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History.”