restricted access Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity (review)
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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 3.4 (2000) 667-670



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Book Review

Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity


Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity. By Philip Abbott. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1999; pp. x + 251. $26.95.

Since the founding, scholars have debated the unique qualities and distinctions that define our nation--that make America exceptional. After all, the extent to which we see ourselves as similar to or different from other countries frames our national identity and our notions of what it means to be American. In his latest work, Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity, Phillip Abbott, a political scientist, broadens the debate surrounding American exceptionalism in a way that is potentially useful to scholars interested in rhetoric, history, American culture, social change, and political theory. Through an analysis of 13 different texts, [End Page 667] ranging from key moments in public address to founding documents to radical literature, Abbott advances his claim that "America is exceptional because its texts are exceptional" (7). Readers of Rhetoric & Public Affairs will find Exceptional America a provocative examination of the way central American texts still have an influence in shaping our national identity.

Abbott begins his book by discussing the concept of American exceptionalism as an ideal framework to analyze his selected texts, because it harbors two core terms, "newness" and "oldness." He argues that the tension between the old and the new are central to "all American texts"(40-41). "American Exceptionalism," he writes, "though with very different emphases and purposes, forms a structure by which authors delineate their own vision of America" (5). In the remaining chapters, Abbott provides an analysis of some of America's most formative texts, including Notes on the State of Virginia, Walden, Winter in Taos, Democracy in America, The Souls of Black Folk, I'll Take My Stand, The Unpossessed, Oasis, and Vida. In addition, Abbott draws a useful guide to understanding current and past positions on American exceptionalism. He maps each text along two axes--critical/celebratory and utopian/ideological--that indicate a position in the matrix of American exceptionalism. These quadrants, he argues, represent the totality of American exceptionalism in American discourses. Each of these categories privileges different aspects of the old and new, but all of these texts, he claims, are characterized by this tension. Such a framework has great heuristic and explanatory value for future analyses of American discourse. Of all the texts Abbott examines, he advances two texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers, as the "sine qua non of American identity"(7). The following chapter descriptions briefly illustrate Abbott's central claim.

"The Sacred Text: What's New in the Federalist Papers" begins by defining the Federalist Papers as central to American political thought. Abbott attributes this text's significance to its artful maneuvering between the old and the new, with an emphasis on utilizing the old in order to invent the new. This tension is "key to interpreting this exceptional text," Abbott writes, "for it is on precisely these terms that Publius himself framed his arguments, as did those who opposed the second founding" (72). Abbott explains how Publius contends that the Constitution is a manifestation of its "'oldness' since it reflected long historical experience" and criticizes the "utopianism of its detractors" (72). Throughout the Federalist Papers, Publius moves from the old to the new, creating a "genre" of narratives "distilled from Republican political thought" (74). In these ways, Publius establishes himself as the "authority of the new," articulating when "newness is rashness and when it is prudent innovation, when it is exceptional and when it is tragic, when the new is vigorous, young, and fresh, and when it is raw, untested, and unsophisticated" (91). Publius provides us with a map to guide from the old to the new, and we must follow his directions, not failed past histories, to salvage our fate as Americans. Abbott [End Page 668] claims it is this old/new frame that "has been the driving force in interpretations of the Federalist Papers," and that accounts for their present "venerable status...


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