Skip to content
Culture & Religion

Retooling The Idea Of American Exceptionalism

“The South was kissed by God.” This was what a woman I work with told me last week while extolling the geographic virtues of the South. It wasn’t the just the words that made me open my eyes wide, but the pregnant pause that had preceded it, when she looked knowingly over her glasses before making her pronouncement. Even though I understood that she was really talking about the terrain and not the South’s history, nevertheless, it tapped directly into the sentiment that had been rising all week during discussions at my house during the nightly news denouncing the idea of American exceptionalism.   

The things that seem to undergird the historical definition of American exceptionalism – the development of a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire – all sound pretty good until you realize that this only applied, until very recently, to the fairer skinned inhabitants of this nation.

In reality, we have never been just a city on a hill. A few years after Governor Winthrop uttered his famous words, the people in the city on a hill moved out to massacre the Pequot Indians. Here’s a description by William Bradford, an early settler, of Captain John Mason’s attack on a Pequot village.

“Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”

The kind of massacre described by Bradford occurs again and again as Americans march west to the Pacific and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Power and the Glory: Myths Of American Exceptionalism    Howard Zinn

The context in which American exceptionalism is most popularly used, when it becomes a political euphemism for American superiority, troubles me greatly.

To me, an exceptional America would have understood that the Indians could have been an asset instead of an enemy to be slaughtered and butchered, their survivors corralled onto reservations. An exceptional America would have recognized the sin in the ownership of human flesh earlier, acknowledged the importance of black labor to the growing American economy, and eradicated the social barriers to entering mainstream society back in the middle of the 19th century instead of the 20th. An exceptional America would realize how illogical it is to demonize the same illegal immigrants we depend on to build our houses, harvest our food, and staff our most labor intensive industries and figure out a logical way to incorporate these productive elements of our economy into our society as swiftly and as legitimately as they dispatch their daily tasks.

An exceptional America would have learned by now that on the international front, democracy cannot and should not be stage managed to produce an outcome favorable to American interests.        

What typically happens here, because I have just rejected in wholesale fashion the idea of American exceptionalism as it is currently understood, is the tendency for a reader to then conclude that I am anti-American. As a descendant of people who died building and defending this country, even when it relegated them to second class citizenship, nothing could be further from the truth.

The America I idolize is the not the America says do as I say, not as I do”, but the America that scrupulously upholds the tenets of the age-old idiom “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” The America I know we can be is not the America that sees the things we’ve achieved to date as a destination to be immortalized, but the America who accepts each new day as a launching pad from which we can redouble our efforts to truly create a society which reflects our ideals. 

The America I revere is the America that can look in the mirror and accept itself as it is, flaws and all.


href="" target="_blank">



alt="hit counter for tumblr" >


Up Next