The American Historian

American History and the Exceptionalist Problem

Jon Butler

Will arguments about “American exceptionalism” ever end? Their political overtones probably tell us, no. For example, criticisms of the College Board’s 2014 and 2015 Advanced Placement (AP) guidelines typically have been paired with criticisms of “revisionist history” that typically rejects exceptionalist claims.

But which American exceptionalism? The argument comes in many varieties, although at first glance readers might not think so. Stanley Kurtz, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and critic of the AP guidelines, summarizes common recent forms of exceptionalism: “America’s sense of principled mission, its unique blending of religious and democratic commitment, its characteristic emphasis on local government, the high cultural esteem in which economic enterprise is held, and America’s distinctive respect for individual liberty.”

Yet a check of Wikipedia and the many books and articles written on the subject reveals many candidates for the meaning of exceptionalism. Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, offered the earliest versions, namely Americans’ “strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits,” and their distaste for “science, literature, and the arts” in favor of “purely practical objects.” Later conceptions emphasized the nation’s republican form of government; America’s status as a Godly nation with a “special purpose”; a commitment to the English common law tradition; a persistent post-Puritan Protestant millennialism; an emphasis on private property; social mobility; distinctive American corporate orders as well as distinctive forms of labor activism; and, of course, the nation’s extraordinary climate and soil that have produced remarkable agricultural bounties.

Most exceptionalist critics challenge the notion directly. David Levering Lewis, writing in The Nation, recently expressed his despair “over the cruel mischief long wrought by the paradigm known as ‘American exceptionalism.’ I ask myself, why should I not conclude that what has been exceptional about our exceptionalist national narrative are the historic exceptions to it—notably, people of color?” Agreed. Slavery, sharecropping, and 150 years of unfinished post-Emancipation civil rights struggles make more than a mockery of encomiums to proclamations about American economic enterprise, our (in Kurtz’s words) “sense of principled mission,” and the nation’s “distinctive respect for individual liberty.”

The late Michael Kammen offered another approach, and his elegant 1993 American Quarterly essay on the exceptionalist problem offers a poignant reminder of the ways superb scholarship remains superb. Kammen defused the exceptionalist debate by rejecting its timeless, history-less rhetoric, and he cautioned historians about employing the terms “unique” and “exceptional” because few modes of behavior and thought actually merited them, whether in America or elsewhere.

But Kammen also argued for the importance of determining historical differences that make every nation’s history distinctive in specific ways and at specific times. He described how David D. Hall demolished many exceptionalist claims about “orderly societies in the Old World and disorderly ones in the New” yet in his 1989 book, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement, described important differences in European and American circumstances that help explain distinctive seventeenth-century New England religious practices. He quoted Mary Ryan on the ways that nineteenth-century Americans “devised a ‘distinctive and curious mode of public celebration’ in which a sizable portion of the urban population organized into platoons, companies, regiments, ranks and columns, and marched through public thoroughfares.” He noted how Peter Kolchin’s 1987 book, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, described dramatic differences between Russian and American slavery: “By the middle of the nineteenth century, as southern slavery was flourishing as never before, Russian serfdom constituted a bankrupt system widely recognized on its last legs.’” He detailed how Kathryn Kish Sklar, Carl Degler, Elizabeth Pleck, and Donald Meyer insightfully unraveled state policy differences that produced marked differences for women in the United States, France, and Great Britain in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Kammen’s conclusion about the meaning of these and other histories uncannily echoed Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening sentence in Anna Karenina—“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Discussing history, not happiness, Kammen concluded “that ‘each country is different’ and that each society or culture is exceptional in its own way(s).” He argued that exploring these differences was as critical to American history as it was to the histories of France, Argentina, South Africa, and so forth. But Kammen’s use of the term “exceptional” cautiously emphasized limitations in time and space and avoided grandstanding on moral points about an essential America that transcended time and seldom could withstand historical scrutiny.

In some regards, Kammen took his readers back to the problems Tocqueville introduced in his original description of Americans as “exceptional.” Many scholars have pointed out that Tocqueville’s reference was oblique, at least partially critical, and in part simply wrong. Tocqueville buried it several paragraphs into Democracy in America’s ninth chapter, faultily pinned a “strictly Puritan origin” on the nation, described Americans’ “exclusively commercial habits” as though they were innocently free from slavery, yet criticized Americans’ fixture on “purely practical objects” and their disinterest in “science, literature, and the arts.”

Tocqueville’s mixed, critical, and simply erroneous notions about American exceptionalism return us to David Levering Lewis’s objection to the absence of slavery from the most grandiloquent expressions of exceptionalism and Michael Kammen’s plea for history rather than sermons.

Lewis and Kammen remind us that the most invigorating and vital history we teach and write asks critical questions about central features of the American past. Implicitly and explicitly, they assure us that serious answers to real historical questions, sometimes clear but usually complex, offer readers and students the best guides to realizing that contemporary and future dilemmas are never separated from vexed and contested pasts.


Jon Butler is president of the OAH and Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American studies, history, and religious studies at Yale University. He is the author of several books, including The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (1983), Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (1990), and Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (2000). He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.