- Anglo-American Exceptionalisms
In 2013 Timothy Roberts and Lindsay DiCuirci served as general editors of a four-volume collection of thematically organized primary source materials on American exceptionalism that the London-based company Pickering and Chatto published. Their editorial apparatus included a general introduction, introductions to each volume, biographical sketches, headnotes, and endnotes as well as a consolidated index. Readers of this remarkable treasury of American exceptionalist tracts might wonder why the editors undertook this project when the prevailing historiographical mood has decisively shifted to transnational inquiries into US culture and experience. Over the past two decades American studies scholars have impugned American exceptionalism as an ethnocentric relic of the Cold War chiefly responsible for the denial of the long history of US imperialism. The British American studies scholar Paul Giles recently gave representative expression to this mood when, after listing foundational tropes of the exceptionalist paradigm—Puritanism, the frontier, Manifest Destiny—as examples of what American studies scholars should ostensibly no longer take as objects of study, he admonished that only by replacing these remnants of [End Page 197] an ahistorical fantasy will “transnational” and “transhemispheric American studies” plant a “stake through the heart of the unquiet corpse of American exceptionalism.”1
But American studies scholars’ demand for its expulsion from respectable scholarly discourse has coincided with a spectacular upturn in the usage of the term within the public domain. According to Jerome Karabel, print media references to American exceptionalism increased from 2 in 1980 to a stunning 2,580 in 2012.2 Republican candidates for presidency supplied one rationale for this disconnect when they characterized anti-exceptionalist, left-leaning academics and the Democratic political candidates they supported as anti-American.
The term that had formerly been restricted in its usage to political scientists and American studies scholars took conceptual center stage when the Homeland Security apparatus occasioned difficulties for distinguishing the United States as a nation from a global empire. American exceptionalism became the default category that politicians and policymakers took up to manage citizens’ understanding of the contradictory relationship between US nationalism and US imperialism in a transnational epoch.
Rather than disagree with scholars who set the transnational and the exceptional in a relationship of irremediable antagonism, Roberts and DeCuirci concede “that scholarship with a national focus misses America’s historical connections with the world” (1:ix). But they turn this concession into a rationale for the pertinence of the question that has animated their project: “Why has the myth of American exceptionalism, characterized by a belief in America’s highly distinctive features or unusual trajectory based in the abundance of its natural resources, its revolutionary origins and its protestant religious culture that anticipated God’s blessing of the nation—held such tremendous staying power, from its influence in popular culture to its critical role in foreign policy?” (1:ix).
In response, the editors turn “America’s highly distinctive features” into thematic rubrics—Land and Prosperity, the American Revolution, Millennial Aspirations, and Providentialism—that organize the first three volumes of the set of four. The editors then sort various “source documents” under each rubric. Traversing three centuries, these works include academic essays, congressional addresses, sermons, juridical briefs, orations, and funeral sermons. Individually and collectively these entries cross cultural, economic, and political terrains and promise to transform the received understanding of American exceptionalism.
Although this compilation “focuses on the discourse’s changing contours, rather than elements shared with other nations’ exceptionalist claims,” the [End Page 198] editors insist that it “nonetheless . . . offers a rich opportunity to study exceptionalism from a comparative perspective, a topic that has received little attention, [and] that the time is ripe to undertake a comparative history of various national ‘exceptionalisms’” (1:xviii). Following this account of its significance to...