America used to be truly exceptional. In some respects it still is. But whereas today’s America may be exceptional in terms of material wealth and human capital, the exceptionalism of past was in thought. It was in the way people felt about themselves, their neighbors, the state, and how they were all related. In many ways the exceptional material aspects of today’s America are leftovers from the exceptional thought of its earlier inhabitants.
Now, I know that today it’s not exactly politically correct to speak about America as exceptional or as having had an exceptional history. But like all PC vendettas, this is just silly. The concept of American Exceptionalism originally (and still today by most historians or social scientists) did not imply any sense of superiority or positivity. It was simply a term used to describe the different path and development that America underwent due to being disjointed from the aristocracy and political/sociological/economic systems of Europe. But I, however, am using the term to imply something positive.
What was truly exceptional about American culture was the idea of the individual being sovereign and superior to the state. The founders were far from perfect and the Constitution did indeed do much to destroy the revolutionary individualistic nature of both the Declaration of Independence and the rebellion alike (for more information see this), but the overall guiding principle began conceptually with the individual and went from there.
And aside from politics, the individualistic culture of Americans persisted strongly up until the Progressive Era of the late 19th and early 20th century. This revolutionary idea that you were the supreme judge in the conduct of your own affairs and the government was there for a specific job – security and arbitration – and if they left those boundaries you would feel justified in defending yourself and acting outside the rules of the state.
We see the individualistic and rebellious nature reflected in Shay’s Rebellion, The Whiskey Rebellion, the refusal of state militias to take part in the invasion of Canada in The War of 1812*, the refusal of funds to finance The War of 1812 by Northeastern Banks**, the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina, stiff resistance to a central bank, the Texas Revolution, abolitionist activity in defiance of State and Federal laws, the secession of the Southern States, The 1863 New York City Draft Riots, homesteading, and countless other examples. These instances – all of which the US (Federal, State, and local) government attempted to crush – are indicative of the exceptional way of thinking that many Americans of that time held. Individuals were supreme in their judgment and decisions and were willing to fight to maintain that supremacy.
And this brings us to the sister point of American Exceptionalism that works in tandem with the idea of individual sovereignty. And this is the idea that, regardless of political rhetoric from the time, America was less a nation or country than simply a spot on the Earth where individuals could be free to pursue their own ends – and to their own success or peril.
The government was only as good to people as its ability to protect their personal interests, and terms like nation or country (when used the same as nation) had little real meaning. In history this made America exceptional because of the regular occurrence of rebellions of a very individualistic nature. The instances listed above were made possible by the thinking that one’s own mind, values, and interests were above all other, mystical and collective considerations.
Two telling examples of this idea of America being less a nation than a geographical haven for freedom seekers is the extensive history of homesteading and the migration to Texas. Homesteading is the principle by which someone gains ownership of a previously unowned resource. It’s the Lockean idea of original appropriation – that if something is in the state of nature, i.e. unowned, then you gain ownership by mixing your labor with it and making active use of it.
The United States had a succession of "Homestead Acts" from the 1860s to the 1890s which opened up the West to settlement. Thousands of people left their neighbors, their security, their government – essentially their "nation" – in order to live free lives as they saw fit. The idea of having some mystic, nationalist connection to other Americans seemed to be thrown by the wayside if it indeed even existed.
The emigration to Texas and subsequent revolution are other great examples of Americans’ tepid connection to any sort of nation or country. Throughout the 1820s and early 1830s thousands of Americans poured into northern Mexico. Why did they go? Because of their love of Mexico and dislike of America? Not so much. They left because there was opportunity – land, timber, game, fresh starts, and huge fortunes to be made.
They were tied to the geographical spot named America only so long as it allowed them to pursue their goals most successfully. If another spot on the Earth allowed them to do so better then they had few qualms about leaving America behind. When their liberty was impinged upon by the Mexican government they revolted, and when it looked as though the American government could best protect their liberty and interests, they joined the Union.
This is what made America exceptional – that rugged individualist and rebellious nature that the culture and people brimmed with. Divorced from the mysticism of Europe, individuals set out to confidently build their life as they envisioned it. Though people used terms like "nation" and "country" they bore little semblance to the terms as they were used in Europe or how they are used in America today. Earlier they were just convenient language mechanisms when talking about people as a group, while today they embody the very mysticism that people used to come to America to escape.
To be sure, there have always been some tendencies in US history that were not exceptional (in either a positive or neutral sense of the term). Old world tendencies of state power, cronyism, slavery, and ethnic cleansing were always present. I am in no way trying to discount the cruelty of American slavery, racial division, or forced relocation and slaughter of Native Americans. But it is important to understand that these great injustices were present throughout all of human history and in all corners of the globe. This doesn’t excuse it, it just makes it a fact of a history and a warning to freedom seekers that state power is violent and is always seeking to grow.
By the beginning of the 20th century, and culminating in the Post War Era those statist tendencies had all but killed our earlier mentality. Today most of us view the US as a nation in the European sense of the term. As being part of a mystical group and having a duty to serve it just by virtue of sharing a language or geographic location. As a collective or entity that can act in its own right as deemed necessary by the government. As something to be proud of not for the values and what those values allow you to accomplish for yourself, but for some unexplainable, unconditional feeling of pride that we experience when we hear the word "America".
The result was that many people became more concerned with the business of others and the state of imagined collectives than with themselves and their own affairs. This in turn led to the many horrors of the 20th century. Eugenics, Japanese internment, prohibition, censorship, the Cold War, massive state involvement in our everyday lives, and the devastation of nearly unending warfare are all products of state power and collectivist thinking.
The events of the 20th century are proof that we’ve strayed from our path. What we call America is no longer viewed simply as a geographical spot on the map where individuals could be free, but as an entity that can act independent of individuals and in which some are controlled and dictated by others. The newness of the New World collapsed and assimilated to the old. We are still able to live off the fruits of our ever dimming exceptional aspects – but not for long.
We need to return to viewing ourselves individually as paramount, to dealing with others on the basis of mutual respect and mutual benefit, and viewing America less as an entity than as a place on the Earth where people can live out their lives as they want – free to succeed or fail. Productivity, creativity, responsibility, respect, liberty, and the supremacy of the individual. These are the values we need to once again embody. These are what will make America truly exceptional once again.
*Militias traditionally were not obligated to operate on foreign soil. Officers tried to have them take part in the invasion of Upper Canada but they refused.
**Northeastern bankers and merchants had close ties to Britain and depended on the British for their livelihoods. They were very reluctant to go to war and avoided contributing to the war effort any way they could.