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American exceptionalism

American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States of America is a unique nation and differs historically from the rest of the world in crucial ways that offer opportunity and hope for humanity. While many opponents of American Exceptionalism view it as little more than crude propaganda, many others hold fast to it as a justification for patriotism or as beacon for hope and opportunity.

History of American exceptionalism

Many scholars trace the roots of current American exceptionalism back to one of the earliest groups of English colonists in the country: the Puritan settlers of New England. Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict predestination and looser theology. They believed that God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to lead the other nations of the earth. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, expressed this idea with the metaphor of a "City on a Hill" - that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model community for the rest of the world.

Another event often cited as a milestone in the history of American Exceptionalism is the American Revolutionary War. The intellectuals of the Revolution (Thomas Paine's Common Sense is the best example) for the first time expressed the belief that America was not just an extension of Europe but a new land, a country of nearly unlimited potential and opportunity that was being abused by the British mother country they had outgrown. Although few common Americans would have agreed with them at the time, they laid the intellectual foundations for the Revolutionary concept of American Exceptionalism.

Arguments for American exceptionalism

Those who believe in American Exceptionalism argue that there are many ways that the United States clearly differs from the European world that it emerged from.

One claim is that while much of European history was wracked with religious wars and conflicts, with tension between Protestants and Catholics ran high, and often erupted into bloody conflicts like the French Wars of Religion, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Protestants under Mary I of England, and the Thirty Years War, the United States has been a religiously pluralistic country since its founding, with no experience of large-scale religious wars. This argument is weakened by a reliance on comparing events from 16th and 17th century European history with later American history, and by a history of small-scale religious persecution ranging from attacks on the followers of Anne Hutchinson by the Puritans to the Utah War of the late 19th century, but it does reflect an important aspect of America's self-image that is not shared by many nations.

Arguments Against American exceptionalism

Opponents of the notion of American exceptionalism argue that, while all societies differ in their history and social structures, the notion that the United States is uniquely virtuous overstates the importance of differences between American and other present-day First World countries. It ignores troubling aspects of American history and society such as slavery, segregation of schools in the South, the annexation by force of the Hawaiian islands, McCarthyism, the poverty and sometimes ghettoisation of millions of citizens, the fact that over 40 million people do not have health insurance (contrasted, for example, with universal health care systems in the UK and Canada), and the genocide and displacement of the Native American population.

A typical argument against the American exceptionalist position is to identify positive qualities in specific other countries that correspond to allegedly unique qualities of the United States. These arguments are seldom convincing to proponents, who reply that the historical uniqueness of the United States is the result of a combination of many factors and not captured by particular aspects of the national character.

Canada US politics compared explores this issue by contrast to the most similar nation, on the same continent, with a quite different history.

Opponents of American exceptionalism point out that there are many nations in the world that consider themselves "exceptional." Throughout history there are countless examples of "invincible" and "unique" nations that have failed to stand the test of time, such as the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire, the British Empire, and Japan and Germany during World War Two.

Proponents of American exceptionalism