In Our Time

Exceptional America

Tocqueville was the first author to apply the adjective exceptional to America, but the compliment—if he meant it as a compliment—was a backhanded one, referring narrowly to circumstances that “concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical pursuits.”  Certainly, he had nothing in mind comparable to the notion of “American exceptionalism” that formed in the 1920’s, the smug, self-congratulatory postwar decade, proud that America had saved the world for democracy and made James Gatz stinking rich.  Other countries have thought themselves “special” in some way, even simply “the best,” but that is something else again.  Imagine a brash youth in more or less polite society button-holing all and sundry to announce to everyone who will listen that he is an exceptional person, gifted with exceptional moral qualities and practical abilities, and entitled to special consideration of his views and enterprises.  Like most such young men (they are a proliferating breed nowadays), this one, upon closer consideration, would likely be found quite an ordinary fellow.  The same goes for America.  America is exceptional only in the sense that she considers herself exceptional, and expresses that self-assessment publicly.

If America really were an exceptional nation, her constitutive parts would be exceptional, too, starting with...

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