- Exceptionalism, Agency, and the Misunderstood Origins of American Culture
Under the aegis of American exceptionalism the eighteenth century might as well be dubbed the age of agency. In that narrative of American history the American Revolution has often been cast as the story of the assertion, finally, of human agency. Americans chose not only to separate from the mighty British Empire but to form a new kind of government based on the principle of individual choice and ultimately the premise of self-determination. That these ideals only applied to property-holding white males was an inconvenient (and perhaps temporary?) detail that would be remedied over time (more or less time depending on one’s political inclinations, racial and gender ideologies, or tolerance for change). We can see this notion of collective agency in active verbs punctuating the preamble to the US Constitution and informing, more explicitly, Alexander Hamilton’s description of the momentous occasion afforded by that document in the first number of The Federalist (1787):
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era [End Page 191] in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.(1)
Hamilton here echoes Thomas Paine’s earlier remarks to the same effect in Common Sense (1776), where Paine contends that “[m]ost nations have let slip the opportunity [of forming themselves into a government], and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves” (82). In Hamilton and Paine’s respective origin stories the question becomes a matter of asserting human agency on a broad scale: will the Americans choose their government or have one imposed upon them?
The collective version of this conception of self-determination is built upon a presumption of individual agency. The nation, that is, has been conceived as a version of the individual writ large. Often, as so many scholars have pointed out in recent decades, the irony is that the metaphor for the nation is of a woman (Columbia in the case of the United States), when women weren’t afforded the kind of individual agency that the rhetoric of patriots like Hamilton and Paine was ascribing to the state. But I digress. The most urgent narrative of liberal individualism, which American exceptionalism places at the center of American history—and identifies as the defining characteristic of a transhistorical and immanent Americanness—emerges in the eighteenth century, when the very idea of the modern individual emerges and with it the modern understanding of agency in which persons are able to assert some control (depending on your ideological or political commitments the degree of control might vary) over the outcome of their life by making choices. To make the tautology clear: this idea is thus understood to be particularly American and to signal, to some degree, the advent of the modern subject. One way out of the circular logic of this exceptionalist narrative can be found in Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse’s The Imaginary Puritan (1992), where they route the advent of the individual through the Atlantic circuit as it moves from colonial New England to England and back again through the figure of Mary Rowlandson. Theirs is a story of adaptation and translation rather than imitation; but upon closer reflection we can see the kinship between the two. Translation and adaptation, that is, are close cousins to imitation and dependency, only without the pejorative connotations. [End Page 192]
Benjamin Franklin, of course...