American Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is the singularity of the United States relative to other countries in regard to aspects of its origin and development. It does not mean America was or is the best, generally or particularly, in character or achievement. Rather, it means America was an outlier, qualitatively different in comparison to other nationstates or countries at the time of its birth, and subsequently in pathways to development of certain components of civil society, civic culture, and constitutional government. Political scientist Charles Murray echoes the work of Seymour Martin Lipset when he states, “American exceptionalism does not imply American excellence or superiority” ( 2013, 6 ). Lipset also points to the “double-edged sword” of exceptionalism by which America can be judged “the worst as well as the best, depending upon which quality is being addressed” and the criteria used in the evaluation ( 1996, 18 ).

Believers in the concept of American exceptionalism have turned to the nation's founding and early national development to make their case. Lipset said: “The United States may properly claim the title of the first new nation. It was the first major colony successfully to break away from colonial rule through revolution” ( 1979, 15 ). It was not, however, the first nation to announce its separation from an imperial power through a formal statement. Yet “[n]o document in world history before 1776 had made such an announcement of statehood in the language of independence” ( Armitage 2007, 23 ). America's Declaration of Independence was a distinctive compact by which the new nation was founded, and it became a model for peoples around the world. As the historian David Armitage claims, “The Declaration marked the birth of a new genre of political writing” ( 2007, 14 ). He also notes, “Since 1776, more than one hundred such documents have been issued” ( 2007, 104 ).


America's first state constitutions ( 1776–84 ) and its federal Constitution of 1787 were innovative instruments for the foundation of republican governance. Drawing on their colonial-era political experiences with founding documents, such as compacts and charters, Americans practically invented the modern concept of the written constitution based on popular sovereignty ( Lutz 1988

The United States Constitution was written by representatives of the nation's constituent states in a novel federal convention. It was subsequently approved by the people's elected representatives in exceptional state ratifying conventions. It has endured to become by far the world's oldest written constitution for the governance of a nation-state or country. The constitutional and legal historian Harold M. Hyman concludes: “National and state constitution-making was among Americans' great inventions in public law” ( 1986, 14 ).

Certain principles of America's Constitution were unprecedented within the global context of the eighteenth century: (1) federalism in a compound republic; (2) separation of powers with checks and balances among coordinate and independent branches in a republican form of government; (3) supremacy of the Constitution relative to statutory law arbitrated through judicial review; and (4) popular sovereignty, the ultimate source of authority for government. In Federalist No. 9, Alexander Hamilton said these principles “are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress toward perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellencies of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided” ( [1788] 2003, 67 ).

Many countries have attempted to follow the American example of instituting government and national development through a formal written constitution. In contrast to its emulators, however, constitutional government in the United States has remained relatively decentralized and dedicated to protecting individual rights within the rule of law. “America began and continues as the most ant-istatist, legalistic, and rights-oriented nation,” says Lipset ( 1996, 20 ).


Unlike other nations at the time of its origin, America was based on a distinctive ideology, which provided a common civic identity for a diverse citizenry of various nationalities. Derived primarily from the Declaration of Independence, but also the federal Constitution and Bill of Rights, this “American creed” became the enduring bond of unity and source of constitutional patriotism in a national population of unusual plurality. “Being an American,” Lipset writes, “is an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth” ( 1996, 31 ).

From its founding to the present, America has continuously attracted immigrants. Most of them sought a better life in a new land, a land that they perceived to be unparalleled in its freedom and equality of opportunity. The newcomers tended to believe they could advance their economic and social status by effort and merit rather than special privilege or pedigree, as in many of their ancestral homelands. Many of them lived what came to be called “the American Dream.”

No country in the world has come close to matching the United States in its openness and appeal to huge and diverse populations of immigrants. Yet federal laws were passed that excluded or unjustly discriminated against particular races or ethnicities; later those statutes were overturned by decisions of the Supreme Court ( e.g., United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 [1898] ) or overruled by immigration laws beginning in the 1960s. The immigrants of the past and present have mostly been loyal citizens through adherence to America's civic ideology. Murray recognizes “how thoroughly and broadly this ideology was understood [and embraced] by the American public” during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ( 2013, 15 ).


The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the United States in the 1830s, insightfully explained his observations of civic and political behavior in two volumes titled Democracy in America. Lipset sees Tocqueville as “the initiator of the writings on American exceptionalism” ( 1996, 18 ). Tocqueville perceived unparalleled qualities in America's civic culture, such as charitable social habits, religion-based morality, and democratic dispositions of the people in their relationships within civil society. The socio-civic character of public life in America was a major factor in Tocqueville's explanation of how democracy worked in America, and why it had failed in France.

Tocqueville was impressed by the extensive participation of Americans in various kinds of private-sector civic associations, which charitably contributed time, talent, and treasure to the solution of community problems and advancement of the public good. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations” to collaboratively promote the health, education, morality, religiosity, safety, industry, and self-reliance of their communities ( Tocqueville [1840] 1945, 106 1996, 276 ). According to Murray, the “combination of volunteerism, widespread charitable giving, and engagement in the community was at the heart of American exceptionalism in the nineteenth century” ( 2013, 27 ).

The extraordinary engagement of citizens in the voluntary associations of civil society was congruent with the phenomenal growth of political participation in government during the first half of the nineteenth century and especially correlated with the political ascendance of President Andrew Jackson. Together these two types of popular public action signified the rise of a distinctive, if imperfect, democracy. Nowhere were so many individuals involved in their country's government as voters, office holders, and petitioners for redress of grievances or receipt of favors. Furthermore, more public offices were filled by elections and elections occurred more often in comparison to countries in Europe and the other continents. Public elections and the peaceful transfer of power became routine and regularized ( Wiebe 1995 ).

Democracy in America's early national period, filled with potential for the advancement of liberty and equality, was still far from fulfillment of its lofty ideals. Participation and leadership were relatively open to the majority of white males, but most others were subordinated and even excluded from full political participation; and sadly, this rising democracy coexisted with a cruel contradiction, slavery based on racial identity. Viewed in a global context, however, the United States was more democratic in civic engagement and political participation than any other large country. Being an emerging democracy with individual and collective self-rule in civil society and government “set America apart from the rest of the world” ( Wiebe 1995, 15 ).


Critics of America, from its founding period onward, have doubted or even denied the idea that America ever was qualitatively or positively exceptional in anything of great significance or worth. They have also contended that claims to American exceptionalism are tarnished by such negative examples in America's history as enslavement of people of African ancestry, conquest and subordination of indigenous (Native American) peoples, unjust discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities, denial of equal opportunity for women, and imperialistic exploitation of weaker countries. Antagonists have claimed that the people's perceptions of their nation's exceptionalism, inculcated through political socialization, prompted a chauvinistic propensity to expand America's territorial boundaries, justified by a popular sense of manifest destiny. This self-righteousness, critics have argued, also encouraged an often ugly issionary zeal to diffuse, instill, or impose American civic culture and political institutions on other nations. In addition, detractors have charged America with indifference to the plight of lower-status or disadvantaged citizens, and a relative reluctance to use the power of government for their relief. These kinds of charges fill the pages of books such as The Myth of American Exceptionalism, by Godfrey Hodgson ( 2009 ).

Defenders of American exceptionalism have acknowledged, and even agreed, more or less, with some of the common criticisms of America's past and present. They have also argued that charges against the goodness of America do not necessarily invalidate empirically based confirmation of American exceptionalism. For example, Charles Murray asserts, “American exceptionalism is a fact of America's past, not something that you can choose whether to ‘believe in’ more than you can choose whether to ‘believe in'the battle of Gettysburg” ( 2013, 6 ). Significant aspects of exceptionalism in the founding and early national development of America are well documented.

Valid criticisms of negative characteristics in America's history cannot deny America's exceptionalism. But critics maintain their argument that exceptional features of the American polity, such as federalism, enabled and perpetuated slavery. Their opponents reply that Northern states abolished slavery long before the federal government did. Moreover, America was certainly not an outlier in regard to such facets of its history as slavery, aggressive territorial expansion, or unjust discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Defenders also point out that these defects in America's history can also be found in the histories of many peoples throughout the world in antiquity and modernity. Their point is to distinguish analytically between the features of American exceptionalism and the factors of moral conduct. It is a matter of historical fact that federalism, judicial review, and a presidential system were atypical features of the American constitutional system. It is a matter of analysis and debate as to what impact these features have had on American political conduct.

During times of distress, America's leaders have touted their nation's legacy of exceptionalism to rally the people to prevail against adversity. For example, before and during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln turned the attention of citizens to ideals of America's founding documents. In his famous Gettysburg Address and other notable speeches, Lincoln challenged Americans to renew and carry forward the best qualities of their country's exceptional heritage of liberty and equality in democracy. Lincoln's understanding of his country's republican constitutionalism was anchored in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and the civic ideology it had inspired.

In the twentieth century President Ronald Reagan ( in office 1981–89 ) also promoted America's legacy of exceptionalism during a period of domestic and international troubles. Before and during his presidency, Reagan often used quotations from documents of America's colonial and founding eras to inspire and motivate his compatriots. He wanted to reinvigorate an intrepid spirit, which he believed had made America the beacon of freedom and hope for all peoples and countries. One of Reagan's favorite texts was a sermon by John Winthrop ( 1588–1649 ), the founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which referred to the new colonial community in Biblical terms as an exemplary “city on a hill.” President Reagan's political ideology of liberal conservatism was rooted in the constitutional principles and civic ideology of America's founding generation and in Lincoln's revival and advancement of the founding ideals.


American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century is not what it once was. Since the 1960s many elements of singularity in the constitutional government, civil society, and civic culture of the United States have declined. Engagement has eroded in the voluntary private-sector associations of civil society, and public welfare dispensed by the federal and state governments has expanded. Government in America has been moving toward the social democracy model of European states, which has made it much larger and less limited than it was before the 1930s.

One of the positive factors of this decreasing American exceptionalism has been the global dissemination and acceptance of qualities associated with the American way of life. Lipset explains that “the United States is less xceptional as other nations develop and Americanize” ( 1996, 292 ). Judicial review, for example, has spread hroughout parliamentary systems in which the longsacrosanct principle of parliamentary supremacy has bent before court decisions patterned on the American model, championing human rights. America also has remained attractive to people throughout the world seeking to advance their standard of living and escape from oppression or persecution. It remains the world's leader in annual acceptance of immigrants; and it continues to fulfill an expectation of the Founders, renewed by Lincoln, that America is and will be the world's haven of liberty and opportunity.

Despite the general decline of America's exceptionalism, its central civic ideology has remained inseparably connected to the country's destiny. Given the inevitable diversity and pluralism of America's population, this nation of immigrants is not likely to maintain unity against the ever-present threat of division and disintegration unless it sustains the centripetal force of its American creed. If the compelling cohesion of the creed collapses, then so does the unity of America, at least in regard to how it was and has been understood since its origin.

The “first new nation” was and is based on a set of ideas, unlike the older nations held together primarily by ties of a common ancestral kinship and long historical experience within a particular place. A distinctive civic ideology or creed has defined America and the common civic identity of Americans. Thus the destiny of the United States of America can be decided only by the people through their continuing commitment—or not— to the ideas at the core of an exceptional civic ideology. The fate of America and the better qualities of its exceptionalism have been and always will be decided by the people themselves.

SEE ALSO American Dream ; American Revolution ; Checks and Balances ; Constitution ; Constitutional Government ; Constitutionalism ; Declaration of Independence ; Extended Republic, Theory of ; Federalism in American History ; Federalist, The ; Founding ; Hamilton, Alexander ; Limited Government ; Madison, James ; Popular Sovereignty ; Representation: Idea of ; Republicanism ; Tocqueville, Alexis de ; US Bill of Rights ; Winthrop, John .


Armitage, David. The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers (1788.) Edited by Clinton Rossiter and Charles R. Kesler. New York: Signet, 2003.

Hodgson, Godfrey. The Myth of American Exceptionalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

Hyman, Harold M. American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: Norton, 1979.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. New York: Norton, 1996.

Lutz, Donald S. The Origins of American Constitutionalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Murray, Charles. American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History. Washington, DC: AEI, 2013.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 2 vols. (1835–1840.) Translated by Henry Reeve; revised by Francis Bowen; edited by Phillips Bradley. New York: Knopf, 1945.

Wiebe, Robert H. Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

John J. Patrick
Indiana University