At a moment when many are questioning America's intentions in the world, at a time when many Americans wonder about the costs of shouldering the burden of the globe's lone superpower, it is easy to focus only on the stumbles, the scandals, the political tit for tat that consume our 24-7 media marketplace. In examining what it is that makes America unique, by the same token, it is easy to indulge in a certain amount of chest thumping and self-congratulatory hoo-ha.
For obvious reasons, the term "American exceptionalism" causes many, even friends and allies of long standing, to wince. And yet, there it is. A Frenchman no less, Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the most perceptive observer of the American character, defined it as a thing wholly new and "unknown in the old aristocratic societies."
But how to define it? In the pages ahead, a team of U.S. News writers and editors explores these questions and offers some profound food for thought. We hope you enjoy the issue.
A place like no other
Every nation is different, but as an example to others, America remains truly unique
Those rugged individuals
Our utopian vision claims, each of us has the ability to make our dreams come true
Agreeing to disagree
America is a country–and a culture–founded on dissent
The faith of our fathers
Among advanced industrialized countries, America is easily the most religious
A nation on the make
From our tenuous beginnings has arisen the most innovative and wealthy society the world has ever seen
Whoever we want to be
In the rush to reinvent ourselves, we may lose perspective on where we've come from
Our exceptional innocence
American tradition often condemns the individual sin without necessarily demanding that the evil policy be changed
A place like no other
By Michael Barone
Every nation is unique, but America is the most unique. This is the theme of the greatest book written on the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. "The Americans," Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, "have a democratic social state that has...given birth to a multitude of sentiments and opinions...that were unknown in the old aristocratic societies....The aspect of civil society has met with change no less than the visage of the political world."
Today, the United States is the third-most populous nation in the world, our economy produces nearly a third of the world's goods and services, and our military is more powerful than the rest of the world's militaries combined. We are, as political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset writes, "the most religious, optimistic, patriotic, rights-oriented, and individualistic" country in the world. At the same time, however, we are also the most materialistic, self-absorbed, and swaggering nation on Earth. When we speak of American values we are speaking of something unique, as Tocqueville observed. But they are values that are almost constantly in real or apparent conflict with one another. How, for example, can the world's most egalitarian nation allow such a yawning gap between rich and poor, a gap that grows wider with each passing year? How does a nation of immigrants, with its impulse for inclusiveness, square with its history of division and racial strife?
Seeds of diversity.Historians have been seeking the answers to such questions for almost as long as there has been an America, and there is reason for that, for a nation's beginnings tell us much about its character. "Peoples always feel their origins," Tocqueville wrote. "The circumstances that accompanied their birth and served to develop them influence the entire course of the rest of their lives." The British colonies that became the nucleus of the United States were, from the first, diverse in both culture and religion. As historian David Hackett Fischer shows in Albion's Seed, the four major clusters of colonies--New England, the Delaware Valley, the Chesapeake colonies, and the Appalachian chain--had cultures and folkways derived from the parts of the British Isles whence most of their settlers came. Their imprint can still be seen today.
Diverse Americans managed to live together, says historian Robert Wiebe, because they lived apart. Religious dissident Anne Hutchinson fled Massachusetts for Rhode Island. Benjamin Franklin left Puritan Boston for worldly Philadelphia. Daniel Boone, looking for elbow room, left North Carolina for Kentucky and Kentucky for Missouri. The frontier provided an opportunity for a new start for millions until the Census Bureau declared it was closed in 1890. By then, growing cities and suburbs were attracting the ambitious, the luckless, anyone possessed of the sense of get-up-and-go. As New York Times columnist David Brooks points out in his new book, On Paradise Drive, when Americans pulled up stakes and moved to new places, they tended to resettle with like-minded Americans: Cultural liberals flocked to the San Francisco Bay Area, cultural conservatives to Dallas-Fort Worth. We have the space we need to be the kind of Americans we want to be.
American settlers and pioneers were necessarily self-reliant: Government could neither effectively bind them nor give them aid. But they relied on one another, forming unions, associations, civic clubs. "Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite," Tocqueville observed. "Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile. . . . Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes."
To the antipodes, indeed. Far from being confined to their new continent, Americans fanned out across the globe, as missionaries and whalers, China traders and explorers, and, later on, as soldiers and administrators in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Central America. Americans like J. Pierpont Morgan imported European capital in the years before 1914; since the two world wars, Americans have exported their capital to markets around the world.
In the process, they built the world's most productive and creative economy. By the 1740s, the Colonies had the highest per-capita income in the world. In the 19th century, Americans built new businesses and promoted schemes both visionary and larcenous. Brooks calls this extraordinary American drive "energy." In his new book, Freedom Just Around the Corner, historian Walter McDougall calls it "hustle," in both the negative and positive senses.
One may or may not agree with those who, like Brooks, find a spiritual side to American production and consumption. But there is certainly a spiritual side to the American character. Many of the original colonies were founded as religious havens, for dissenting sects or for all believers. The preachers of the Great Awakening of the 1740s kindled a spirit, some argue, that helped lead to the Revolution. The evangelical movement sparked by the Cane Ridge revival in 1801 created a sort of spiritual republicanism and huge growth in the nonhierarchical Methodist and Baptist sects.
Offshore religion.America's religiosity had implications at home and abroad. Missionaries, Walter Russell Mead writes in Special Providence, helped shape American foreign policy. Later, religious enthusiasts insisted on the abolition of slavery, and later still, preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. provided the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Do America's beginnings continue to shape the nation still? In 1976, as the nation celebrated its bicentennial, many feared that America was becoming less special, that we were converging with other nations and becoming more like them. The United States and the Soviet Union, it was said, were both moving toward a similar democratic socialism; America and Europe were converging toward similar secular welfare states.
A quarter century later, it is clear, those fears have been exposed as baseless--and not just because the Soviet Union is no more. Americans have once again shown the energy and hustle to produce economic growth. "America is a country that goes every year to the doctor," Brooks wrote, "and every year it is told that it has contracted some fatal disease--whether it is conformity, narcissism, godlessness, or civic disengagement--and a year later, the patient comes back with cheeks still red and muscles still powerful." Today, the United States has not moved toward a European-style welfare state; rather, much of Europe has moved away from that model. In the late 1970s, it was still believed that the great era of American immigration was behind us. But tens of millions of immigrants have arrived since, the great majority emulating the industriousness of those who came before them.
Conventional theory has it that advanced societies become more secular as they age, but America, once again, defies convention. The past quarter century has seen a surge in evangelical Christianity, reminiscent of the Great Awakening and the Cane Brake revival--and this despite, or perhaps because of--the loosening of traditional moral strictures against abortion, divorce, and single-parenthood.
Since the Revolution, America has expanded, as George Washington and Franklin expected it would. In the process, American values have become the values of millions who are not descendants of the Americans of 1776. And we have spread those ideas around the world.
John Winthrop hoped his Massachusetts Bay Colony would be "a city upon a hill," an example to others; Abraham Lincoln called America "the last best hope on Earth." Today those examples have commended themselves to others: Many more nations are more like us, in liberty, democracy, and energy, than was true 25, 50, or 100 years ago. And Tocqueville saw it coming. "What I have seen among the Anglo-Americans," he wrote, "brings me to believe that democratic institutions of this nature, introduced prudently into society, that would mix little by little with habits and gradually blend with the very opinions of the people, could subsist elsewhere than in America." Every nation is different, but as an example to others, the United States of America remains truly unique
Those Rugged Individuals
By Joannie Fischer
No ideal may be held more sacred in America, or be more coveted by others, than the principle of individual freedom. Given the chance to pursue the heart's desires, our utopian vision claims, each of us has the ability--and the right--to make our dreams come true. This extraordinary individualism has prevailed as the core doctrine of the New World through four centuries, bringing with it an unrelenting pressure to prove one's self. The self-made man has been America's durable icon, whether personified by the prairie homesteader or the high-tech entrepreneur.
Yet, from the beginning, the idea of a community of rugged individualists struck many as an oxymoron. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the tendency of Americans to do their own thing could very likely doom the country. The Founding Fathers beseeched people to remain involved in community affairs. And today, a chorus of critics worries that the philosophy of individualism has slipped its original moorings, threatening the well-being of the nation and, ironically, individuals themselves.
When the United States first came into being, most people had never even heard the word individualism . "Our fathers only knew about egoism," said Tocqueville, who helped coin the term to capture the new way of life in the fledgling nation. Europe, where caste systems determined so much of one's fate, had never had much practical use for individualism. Born of the Protestant Reformation, the ethos was carried across the Atlantic by the Puritans, who believed that each person received marching orders directly from God. In their new society, the reformers decided, people would interact as equals, and God would reward the just. Their reasoning appealed to other groups landing in the New World, and over time, says Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, "The Puritan legacy became the American essence."
The first American individualists were thoroughly steeped in a one-for-all mentality on the assumption that all moral persons would devote themselves to the good of the group. Just before landing in Salem Harbor, John Winthrop, the soon-to-be governor of Massachusetts, reminded parishioners: "We must . . . make others' conditions our own . . . always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body." And even as Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, he pictured a nation of independent yeomen who, after tending their land all day, would gladly participate in community meetings.
Singing solo.Not until the mid-1800s did the pursuit of individual fulfillment come to connote a retreat from the group. Ralph Waldo Emerson first preached the concept in his 1841 essay "Self-Reliance." "Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members," he declared. "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." For him, the self was more important, more interesting, than the group. "I have only one doctrine," he wrote: "the infinitude of the private man." Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau went further, deeming it necessary for him to physically part with society to develop his own integrity. And Walt Whitman, in poems such as "Song of Myself," introduced to the country what Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah calls "expressive individualism," the valuing of personal pleasures such as sensuality and leisure above all else--something that would have been anathema in the religion-dominated Colonies.
This new preoccupation with private experience came at a time when the nation's urban areas were growing more crowded and dangerous and the ideal of universal self-employment was being eroded by a burgeoning underclass. Unlike Winthrop, who went broke from giving away so much of his own money, Emerson cursed himself for parting with the occasional coin, asking, "Are they my poor?" It was in this atmosphere that Horatio Alger pumped out more than 100 "rags-to-riches" tales of destitute orphans transformed into wealthy successes by ceaseless effort, ingenuity, and integrity. The moral of the story: Prosperity is possible for anyone willing to try hard enough. Even the day's most generous philanthropists bought into the notion. Andrew Carnegie, himself a rags-to-riches success, who later gave nearly $400 million to fund the arts and libraries, preached that money should never be "wasted" on the poor. This by-your-bootstraps mentality didn't soften until the Great Depression left a quarter of the nation unemployed, a harsh reality check on the naive belief that nothing could block the truly motivated individual. Since then the nation has created a vast safety net of financial aid. We still prize self-reliance, but we are a relatively generous people, with 3 out of 4 households donating to charity.
Lone heroes.Not only did insistence on a strict self-reliance soften as the 20th century progressed, but many came to fear our rugged individualism was melting into a mediocre conformity. With the 1950s came mass media, tract housing, the organization man, and the concept of the mainstream middle class. In a lightning-rod book, The Lonely Crowd, sociologist David Riesman described a shift from the self-reliant personality of the 19th century to the "other-directed" corporate worker of the new service economy. Many used his work to send an alarmist call for the revival of individualism. Out of this sentiment were born heroes like the Lone Ranger, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
The 70 million baby boomers soon to come of age would be dubbed the "me generation" for indulging in an obsessive self-interest that critics blamed for everything from rising crime and divorce rates to child abuse and urban decay. In his 1979 Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch argued that many Americans could now perceive others only as a mirror of the self. More sympathetically, in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah argued that Americans wanted to transcend their self-absorption but had become trapped by the language of individualism into seeing no point in trying to reconnect with others.
But that's exactly what we must do, say today's communitarians, not just for the health of our democracy but for ourselves. In Bowling Alone, Harvard public-policy Prof. Robert Putnam documents a huge drop in all forms of public life since the late 1960s and a corresponding rise in measures of malaise, from the use of antidepressants to suicide rates. Medical studies confirm that individuals are sicker and die sooner in direct proportion to the degree that they are isolated from others. Fortunately, says Putnam in his sequel Better Together, Americans are finding ways to re-form meaningful groups, such as using the Internet to create "virtual" communities.
Americans will no doubt continue to assume as a birthright the freedom to forge their own destinies. But a growing consensus also holds that individuals--and democracies--are far better off when people feel part of a larger whole, when they heed Jefferson's directive to "love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself."
Agreeing to disagree
By Thomas Hayden
When the Massachusetts essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau strolled from his Walden Pond retreat to the town of Concord in July 1846, he intended nothing more than a little shoe repair. He managed to complete his errand--and sparked an international movement in the bargain. Thoreau had for several years neglected to pay his poll tax (the rough equivalent of today's income tax) to protest government spending that supported slavery and the Mexican War. When the town constable asked for payment as Thoreau left the cobbler's shop, the writer flat-out refused. It may have been nothing more than a stunt--the constable himself offered to pay, and someone, most likely Thoreau's aunt, eventually did--but Thoreau insisted on spending a night in the local lockup anyway. And he leveraged the potentially minor incident into one of the most important statements of political philosophy in American history, his On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
America is a country--and a culture--founded on dissent. The nation was born in the most obvious form of protest, an armed rebellion against the legal authority of the day. Several of our national celebrations--Columbus Day, Independence Day, Martin Luther King Day, maybe even April Fools' Day--mark the power of rebellion and thumbing one's nose at the accepted order of things.
Competing impulses.But to suggest that this is a nation of dissenters is to disregard broad swaths of American history and political and cultural development. Dissent helped shape America, but America is also a nation built on cohesion and the enforcement of common goals and shared values. Those two competing impulses--which drove the Massachusetts Bay colonists to flee the religious restrictions of England and then establish one of the most strictly conformist societies in history--appear again and again throughout our history. Defining national character is never an easy task, but recognizing the sometimes schizophrenic interplay of individualistic idealism on the one hand and the recurrent desire to "go along to get along" on the other is surely a crucial part of understanding the American way of seeing ourselves and our roles in civil society.
Dissent, of course, is hardly a uniquely American province. Perhaps the most iconic single image of dissent comes from China, in the person of the lone man who stood defiantly, yet apparently calmly, blocking the advance of People's Liberation Army tanks. ("Just saying no" takes on more meaning when the consequences are more severe--it's no accident that the term "dissident" is most often used to describe those who opposed the totalitarian governments of the Warsaw Pact nations during the 20th century.) But, suggests Brandeis University philosophy Prof. Andreas Teuber, transforming a moral sense that things just aren't right into a potent political tool--and a natural right and civic duty--traces one of its meatier roots to Thoreau's stubbornness and, especially, his subsequent eloquence.
"Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?" Thoreau asked in Civil Disobedience . His conclusion, that citizens certain that the government is dead wrong on critical issues such as slavery "should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government," is "one of America's most successful political exports," says Teuber. Thoreau's ideas, he says, formed the basis for Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance to British rule in India, which later inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil rights movement. "Thoreau plants the seed in Gandhi's mind," says Teuber, "in turn transforming the lives of millions."
How then to square America's tradition of dissent with the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville? In Democracy in America, the astute French chronicler of early America wrote, "I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." The obvious fact is that this has been, at most times, a civil society more characterized by hewing to the majority opinion than by chaotic fighting for divergent personal beliefs.
The answer may lie in Teuber's observation that dissent in American history is very episodic, with short bursts of activity interspersed by long periods of going along with the prevailing conditions. "We are most active as citizens when our liberty is at stake," Teuber says. "The Minutemen were ready to take their guns down from above the fireplace, but as soon as liberty was assured, they very quickly went back to going about their business."
Citizenship, and especially active dissent, can be quite a hassle, after all. For most Americans, it takes more than a minor annoyance to move beyond yelling at the television to taking to the streets--or even the local polling station. In a way, our ambivalence about devoting much energy to active citizenship creates something of a self-regulating system. As more people stop voting (whether as an act of defiance or laziness), fewer people end up making the important decisions. That eventually decreases people's feeling of freedom, and as the system inches toward the tyrannical, we tend to find the energy to get involved again.