American Exceptionalism

Posted: February 6, 2011 in 4) American Expectionalism, Category - Renewing America's Leadership


IV. American Exceptionalism — America’s Unique Culture And Achievement

Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity.

Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

So what did later Americans make of the opportunities the founding fathers had offered them? Were the founders’ dreams for the future of America vindicated? —–We will examine the unique culture of freedom and opportunity that developed in America; how free land and the experience of living on the frontier, as that line moved across the continent, molded American attitudes for three centuries. Then we’ll summarize the unparalleled economic and cultural success that resulted from America’s implementation of the founders’ vision of virtuous individual initiative, girded by limited government and the rule of law.

Visitors and Emigrants Describe The New Life in America

The first person to refer to the United States as “exceptional”—qualitatively different from other countries—was a visitor, the brilliant French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his great work Democracy in America (1835).[1] But people who moved here permanently had recognized they were building something distinctively new from the beginning. They often wrote back to Europe to try to explain what they were experiencing. The most famous was Jean de Crevecoeur, whose Letters From An American Farmer (1782), posed the classic question: “What then is an American, this new man?” They soon discovered that he had become new creation. Americans were neither feudal nor postfeudal, like modern Europe, where echoes of old attitudes and obligations still add tinctures to daily life. Crevecoeur emphasized that Americans behaved differently than other nationalities. Their “dictionary” was “short in words of dignity, and names of honor,” through which the lower strata expressed their subservience to the higher.[2]

Catherine Drinker Bowen’s classic Miracle in Philadelphia illuminates America’s striking contrasts with Europe as the Constitution was being drafted. As she explains, For English visitors as well as French, it was hard to understand a people who had no tradition of feudality, no loyalty of peasant to lord who protected him, or of tenant to landlord. Not only were the Americans without this tradition, handed down through the generations, but they had no acquaintance with it. Although born as colonials they seem to have been born free of the class above them[3]… French noblemen who had served as officers under Washington were amazed to find retired captains and majors keeping inns, even an apothecary who had been a general. In Europe, war was a profession; a gentleman bought his commission as he would buy a place in the government. War moreover was a policy of princes, an instrument of power continually in use, to be reckoned with by men of ambition. And how, pray, could the American General Knox, a former bookseller, have functioned so well as an artillery commander during the strife with England? ‘These things, wrote Lafayette, ‘are very different from Europe.’[4]

Birth and Destiny

Scholar and author Dinesh D’Souza, who immigrated to the U.S. from India as a teenager, writes in What’s Go Great About America, that in traditional societies, “the phrase that encapsulates life is ‘birth is destiny.’… In America, by contrast, you get to write the script of your own life…In America your destiny is not prescribed; it is constructed. Your life is like a blank sheet of paper, and you are the artist. This notion of you being the architect of your own destiny is the incredibly powerful idea that is behind the worldwide appeal of America…”

He explains, The phrase that captures this unique aspect of America is the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul analyzes the concept this way: ‘It’s an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.’[5]

Bowen quotes Thomas Cooper, a highly educated scientist and theologian, who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1790s, who reported that the very term farmer had a different meaning in America than in Europe. Whereas in England it signified a tenant, paying heavy rent to some lord and occupying an inferior rank in life, here in Pennsylvania a farmer was a land-owner, equal to any man in the state, ‘having a voice in the appointment of his legislators, and a fair chance of becoming one himself. In fact nine-tenths of the legislators of America are farmers.’[6]

Europeans Mystified

The Marquis de Barbe-Marbois was the French consul-general in Philadelphia at the time of the constitutional convention. Bowen quotes an anecdote of his that is wonderfully illustrative of the incomprehensibility of the American condition to a highly placed European. One fine September day in Massachusetts, he and his French companion walked from their country inn to a nearby valley, where numbers of men were busy getting in the harvest. Barbe-Marbois selected one of them—a well-clothed fellow, he said, probably the head farmer—and put a series of questions. Who possessed the high and low justice in his district, how much rent did he pay to the lord of the village, who had the right to payment of a fifth of a fifth? Was he allowed to hunt and fish, were the cider press, the tower and the mill far away, was he allowed to have a dovecote, was the tithe heavy and forced labor frequent and painful? How many bushels of salt was he obliged to consume, how much was the tax on drinks, and was there capital punishment for those who were convicted of having tobacco plants in their gardens. There is an element of fantasy to the scene: the sweating farmer, the two Frenchmen, polite, careful not to patronize. ‘At all these questions,’ Barbe-Marbois continues, the man ‘started to laugh… He told us that justice was neither high nor low in America, but perfectly fair and equal for everyone, and we could not make him understand at all what sort of beings lords of the village were. He continued to think that we were trying to talk to him about a justice of the peace, and he could not distinguish the idea of superiority from that of magistracy.’[7]

Even so, Bowen dutifully reports that this new land was no Garden of Eden, at least in the eyes of European visitors. Instead of the glen, the rill, the zephyr, they met with an uneven climate, incredibly bad roads, or no roads beyond a forest trail, swollen rivers unbridged, and everywhere the unsightly two-foot high tree-stumps which Americans looked on with indifference or even pride, symbolic of the forest conquered[8]. …Filth was thrown into the streets, wells contaminated by back yard privies. Typhoid, malaria, small pox the bloody flux, the putrid sore throat (diphtheria) swept though the cities like a scythe…A Virginia innkeeper and his wife told Castellux they had had fourteen children, none of whom lived to the age of two.[9]

And yet, Michael Novak reports that “Tocqueville observed how all through the United States a kind of spiritual energy coursed through mechanics and artisans, farmers and carpenters, men and women of every station who felt charged to make their own world.”[10] Ken Burns’ documentary on building the Brooklyn Bridge in 1871, describes the same characteristic American energy and work ethic: “People in every country in Europe received letters back from recent emigrants, all making the same point: “Well, it’s true you can make yourself rich in this new country. But if we had ever worked this hard back home, we’d have gotten rich there as well!”[11]

The Significance of Religious Voluntarism and Christian Sects in America

In 1996, the late American sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset, published a valuable survey of American’s unique culture, American Exceptionalism, a Double Edged Sword.[12] Lipset offers a perceptive insight into the distinctive form of religious practice that emerged in America, which explains so much of the nation’s distinctive culture:

Tocqueville noted, and contemporary survey data document quantatively, that the United States has been the most religious country in Christendom…The American religious pattern, as Tocqueville emphasized in seeking to account for American individualism, is  voluntary, in other words, not state-supported. All denominations must raise their own funds, engaging in a constant struggle to retain or expand the number of their adherents if they are to survive and grow… The United States…is the only country where most churchgoers adhere to sects, mainly the Methodist and Baptists, but also hundreds of others. Elsewhere in Christendom the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox churches dominate. The churches are hierarchical in structure, and membership is secured by birthright. Parishioners are expected to follow the lead of their priests and bishops. Sects, by contrast are predominantly congregational, each local unit adheres voluntarily, while the youth are asked to make religious commitment only upon reaching the age of decision. Churches outside of the United States historically have been linked to the state; their clergy are paid by public authorities, their hierarchy is formally appointed or confirmed by the government, and their schools are subsidized by taxes.”[13]

He continues: State churches [in Europe] have not only legitimated government, for example the divine role of kings; they have invariably approved of the wars their nations have engaged in, and have called on their people to serve and obey. And the citizens have done so…Americans, however, have been different. A major anti-war movement sprang up in every conflict in which the United States has been involved, with the notable exception or World War II, which for the country began with an attack. Americans have put primacy not to ‘my country right or wrong,’ but rather to ‘obedience to my conscience.’ Hence, those who opposed going to war before it was declared, continued to be against it after Congress voted for war. [14]

Lipset cites recent historical research to demonstrate that religious affiliation and belief in America was actually much higher in the 20th century than it had been in the 19th century, and did not decrease in the post World War II era. [15] Such quantitative data indicate the continued validity of Tocqueville’s statement: ‘There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.’ In doing so, the United States contradicts a statistically based generalization ‘that economic development goes hand in hand with a decline in religious sentiment,’ or the agreement among sociologist and Marxists that religion declines as a society modernizes.[16] But if various historians and scholars have made valuable contributions by collecting and chronicling America’s exceptionalism, the great prophet of that cause is still Frederick Jackson Turner, the late 19th and early 20th century professor and historian who transformed the study of American history in ten relatively short essays between 1891 and 1925.

Frederick Jackson Turner: Prophet of the Frontier and American Exceptionalism

The Intellectuals’ Racist Fixation

After crushing and humiliating France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck completed his unification of Germany. This historic achievement, along with his energetic and ruthless central planning, his cartelization of the German economy, and his innovative social welfare initiatives, fired the imaginations of intellectuals in Europe and America. They were looking for models of “scientific” governance in the new age of Darwin, and Germany seemed to offer exactly that. Moreover, the shared Germanic origins of both Prussia and Anglo-Saxon Britain offered a tempting, racial explanation for the preeminence of these two nations in the late 19th century.

In his Social Darwinism in American Thought, American sociologist Richard Hofstadter describes the source and the prevalence of this racial attitude among American intellectuals: The Darwinian mood sustained the belief in racial superiority which obsessed many American thinkers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The measure of world domination already achieved by the [Anglo-Saxon] ‘race’ seemed to prove it the fittest…For a time American historians fell under the spell of the scientific ideal and dreamed of evolving a science of history comparable to the biological sciences.[17]

Turner’s Thesis

Against this tide, an obscure professor from an undistinguished state university in Wisconsin rose to offer his first professional paper at the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in Chicago in 1892. While the audience’s reception to his paper was tepid at best, they had just heard the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history.[18]

According to the late historian William Appleman Williams, “[Turner’s] thesis rolled through the universities and into popular literature as a tidal wave.” By 1910, the year Turner assumed a chair at Harvard University and the presidency of the American Historical Association, his observation had become the commanding view of the American past, a position it held for more than half a century.[19] As late as 1964, a survey of historians found Turner’s ideas “still dominant.”[20]

In his thirty-page paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner stated his thesis in a single sentence: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”[21] He went on to sketch some of the complexity of the process and its repetition: “Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area.”[22]

As he explains, industries such as fur trading, mining, and farming were on the march toward the West, impelled by an irresistible attraction. Each passed in successive waves across the continent…The unequal rate of advance compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader’s frontier, the rancher’s frontier, or the miner’s frontier, and the farmer’s frontier. When the mines and the cow pens were still near the fall line, the traders’ pack trains were tinkling across the Alleghenies, and the French on the Great Lakes were fortifying their posts, alarmed by the British trader’s birch bark canoe. When the trappers scaled the Rockies, the farmer was still near the mouth of the Missouri.[23]

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward, with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.”[24]

Turner says, the true character of the American people was forged by this process: To the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good or evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity.[25]

Racialism Replaced

Since a subtopic of his talk was the need for a new approach to studying American history, Turner took a well-deserved swipe at the prevailing theory of racial Anglo-Saxonism. “Too exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic origins, too little to the American factors. The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization.”[26] Turner then destroyed the racial explanation for America’s governing consensus by simply reminding his audience of the diversity of the original settlers—a diversity that had only increased throughout the 19th century:

the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was preponderantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across to the free lands. This was the case from the early colonial days. The Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans, or ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,” furnished the dominant element in the stock of the colonial frontier. With these peoples were also the freed indentured servants, or ‘redemptioners,’ who at the expiration of their time of service passed to the frontier…Very generally these redemptioners were of non-English stock. In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race. English in neither nationality nor characteristics. The process has gone on from the early days to our own. [27]

Here at last was Crevecoeur’s “new man.” He was a person of mixed and composite ethnicity, who believes passionately in the American ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and has been enabled to do so by the providential emergence of a republic like no other in the world.

The American Concept of “Westering”

A recent review of a newly issued compilation of Turners’ essays summarizes his impact: Despite criticisms, through at least the 1950s, Turner’s vision of the frontier reigned supreme as an underlying definer of American character. It conjured up an image of self reliant Americans moving westward in sweeping waves of discovery, exploration, conquest, and settlement of an “untamed wilderness.” And in the process of movement, the Europeans who settled North America became an indigenous American people. In Turner’s characterization, the frontier concept has always carried with it the ideals of optimism, democracy, and meritocracy. It also summoned in the popular mind a wide range of vivid and memorable tales of heroism, each a morally justified step toward the modern democratic state. The popular conception of “westering” and the settlement of the American continent by Europeans has been a powerful metaphor for the uniqueness of America in the twentieth century.[28]

The Amazing Success of the American Republic

Dinesh D’Souza writes: “The moral triumph of America is that it has extended the benefits of comfort and affluence, traditionally enjoyed by very few, to a large segment of society[29]…In America, the life we are given is not as important as the life we make.”[30] For the first three hundred years of American settlement the opportunity to forge your own destiny was founded on the availability of farmland that was both fertile and free. In The Victory of Reason, his groundbreaking study of Christianity’s role in spawning freedom and capitalism, sociologist Rodney Stark writes: “Good farmland was so abundant and so cheap that even those who arrived in America without any funds could, in several years, save enough to buy a farm.”[31] Paul Johnson comments on how unprecedented this was: “Never in human history, before or since, has authority gone to such lengths to help the common people to become landowners.”[32]

Industry and Trade

Having such a high percentage of its population aggressively striving to better themselves and their families gave the United States an enormous advantage in agriculture, trade and manufacturing. Michael Novak reports that in 1800, there were more private business corporations in the infant United States than in all of Europe combined.[33]

In his History of the American People, Paul Johnson explains what happened in the following decades: Up to the decade of the Civil War, the United States, though already the wealthiest country in the world, in terms of the living standards of most of its inhabitants, was in many ways what we would now call a Third World country—that is, it exported primary products, such as cotton and tobacco, and imported most of its manufacturers. The Civil War, by giving a huge impulse to American industry, changed this position dramatically, and the United States became largely self-sufficient. Between 1859 and 1914, America increased its output of manufactured goods in value, no less than eighteen times, and by 1919, boosted by World War One, thirty-three times.[34]

Rodney Stark confirms this point, using statistics produced by the League of Nations in 1945: In 1870, the United States was a manufacturing giant, second only to Great Britain and towering above Germany and France in terms of manufacturing output. In another thirty years (1900) the United States had far surpassed Britain and was creating more than a third of the world’s manufactured goods, more than twice as much as Britain. By 1929 the United States dwarfed the world as a manufacturing power, producing 42.2 percent of all goods, compared with Germany’s 11.6 percent and Britain’s 9.4…[35]

Stark explains the unique American economic impetus for this unparalleled growth: A primary reason for the rapid industrialization of the United States was very high labor costs. One might think that high labor costs would have impeded the growth of factories, given the need to compete in the international market. In fact, high labor costs impelled American capitalists to invest in technology to make their workers so productive as to offset their high wages, from which everyone benefited…American wages were high because employers had to compete with exceptional opportunities of self-employment in order to attract adequate numbers of qualified workers.[36]

Paul Johnson reports that America’s manufacturing preeminence persisted, right up to the 1970s: In 1968, US industrial production was still more than a third (34 percent) of total world production. The American GDP, which had doubled during World War Two, doubled again by 1957, and yet again by 1969. That was why President Nixon, on December 15, 1970, was able to celebrate the registering, by the Commerce Department’s ‘GDP Clock,’ of a ‘trillion dollar economy,’ which moved at the rate of $2,000 a second.[37]

American Individualism and Private Philanthropy

The exceptional culture and legal structure of America not only generates a disproportionate percentage of the world’s goods and services, it also produces the world’s highest rates of private charitable giving and philanthropy. Contrary to the widely asserted fallacy, in America, individualism strengthens the bonds of civil society rather than weakens them. National surveys by Robert Wuthnow reveal a positive relationship between self-oriented values and placing importance on charitable activities. In other words, people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.[38]

Compilations of the private philanthropy and benevolence of Americans confirm this. In 2007 Americans gave $306 billion to charity, with 88 percent coming from individuals and the remainder from foundations. As a percentage of GDP, Americans are the most generous in the world, giving twice as much as the British and over 10 times as much as the French.[39]

Voluntary Action

As Seymour Martin Lipset reports, Americans not only remain the most religious and most devout people in Christendom; they also are still the most participatory, the most disposed to belong to and be active in voluntary associations.[40] Global management guru Peter Drucker puts this into perspective: “Outside the English-speaking countries there is not much of a voluntary tradition. In fact, the modern state in Europe and Japan has been openly hostile to anything that smacks of voluntarism.”[41]

With the Original Frontier Closed, is America Now Thrown Back on Itself?

Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier essay had been occasioned by his observation that the Census of 1890 was the first that could not identify a specific line where the frontier could be identified. He suggested the frontier process may have come to a close. And if it had, he asked what would replace it in the continuing development of the American character?

Turner was wary of the trend he saw toward larger and more intrusive government. But he was fundamentally optimistic. He had great faith in both the character and the “destiny” of the American people. In a 1914 essay, “The West And American Ideals” he wrote: Bearing in mind the far-reaching influences of the disappearance of unlimited resources open to all men for the taking, and considering the recoil of the common man when he saw the outcome of the competitive struggle for these resources as the supply came to an end over most of the nation, we can understand the reaction against individualism and in favor of drastic assertions of the powers of government.

Legislation is taking the place of the free lands as the means of preserving the ideal of democracy. But at the same time it is endangering the other pioneer ideal of creative and competitive individualism. Both were essential and constituted what was best in America’s contribution to history and to progress. Both must be preserved if the nation would be true to its past, and would fulfill its highest destiny. It would be a grave misfortune if these people so rich in experience, in self-confidence and aspiration, in creative genius, should turn to some Old World discipline of socialism or plutocracy or despotic rule, whether by class or by dictator. Nor shall we be driven to these alternatives. Our ancient hopes, our courageous faith, our underlying good humor and love of fair play will triumph in the end.[42]

Preserving the pioneer ideal of “creative and competitive individualism” in order to fulfill America’s “highest destiny,” demonstrates Turner’s belief that keeping faith with America’s past is the key to her future. It also illustrates the continuing relevance of “manifest destiny.” If America’s manifest destiny had been merely a geographic concept, that destiny would have been fulfilled in the 1840s when the United States acquired California and the Oregon Territory. But America’s manifest destiny was always about more than simple geography. Both the founders and a long line of visionaries like Frederick Jackson Turner saw America and its ideals as a beacon of hope for all of mankind. They believed there were millions of people around the world who would love to embrace American style freedom and ‘pursuit of happiness’ if they ever had the opportunity.

That faith would be tested severely in the twentieth century with the rise of the Progressive Movement and a series of utopian totalitarian regimes, all of whom rejected the cultural and limited government vision of America’s founders. We will examine that chapter of our nation’s development as part of our consideration of “What Has Gone Wrong?”

1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vols. I & II, Alfred A Knopf, NY 1948
2. Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism, A Double Edged Sword, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996, pg 34
3. Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia, Book of the Month Club edition, 1986, Little, Brown and Co. Boston, MA; pg 155
4. Bowen, ibid
5. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About America, Regnery Publishing, Inc, Washington, D.C., 2002, pgs 82-85
6.Bowen, pg 156
7. Bowen, ibid
8. Bowen, pg 146
9. Bowen, pg 163
10. Novak, pg 91
11. Brooklyn Bridge. Ken Burns. PBS Home Video, 1981.
12. Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism, A Double Edged Sword, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996
13. Lipset, pg 19
14. Lipset, pg 20
15. Lipset, pg. 62, citing a study by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America,
1776-1990:Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers university Press, 1992), pgs 15-16.
16. Lipset, ibid
17. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, revised edition, The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, pg 172
18. Turner, pg 1
19. Turner, ibid
20. Turner, pg 2
21. Turner, pg 31
22. Turner, pg 32
23. Turner, pg 39
24. Turner, pg 32
25. Turner, pg 59
26. Turner, pg 33
27 Turner, pg 47
28 Roger D. Launius, Amazon Book Review, (
29. D’Souza, pg 78
30. D’Souza, pg 193
31. Stark, pg 224
32. Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, Harper Collins, NY, 1997, pg 515
33. Novak, pg 17
34. Johnson, pg. 531
35. Stark, pg 222
36. Stark, ibid
37. Johnson, pg 914
38. Lipset, pg 277
39. Roth-Furchtgott, Diana, “Keep the Charitable Tax Deduction”, from Reuters Online, April 2, 2009.
40. Lipset, pg 277
41. Lipset, ibid
42. Turner, pg155


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