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The Importance of Being Exceptional
From Ancient Greece to Twenty-First-Century America
By David Bromwich

TomDispatch.com   October 23, 2014

The origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” are not especially obscure. The French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, observing this country in the 1830s, said that Americans seemed exceptional in valuing practical attainments almost to the exclusion of the arts and sciences. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, on hearing a report by the American Communist Party that workers in the United States in 1929 were not ready for revolution, denounced “the heresy of American exceptionalism.” In 1996, the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset took those hints from Tocqueville and Stalin and added some of his own to produce his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. The virtues of American society, for Lipset — our individualism, hostility to state action, and propensity for ad hoc problem-solving — themselves stood in the way of a lasting and prudent consensus in the conduct of American politics.

In recent years, the phrase “American exceptionalism,” at once resonant and ambiguous, has stolen into popular usage in electoral politics, in the mainstream media, and in academic writing with a profligacy that is hard to account for. It sometimes seems that exceptionalism for Americans means everything from generosity to selfishness, localism to imperialism, indifference to “the opinions of mankind” to a readiness to incorporate the folkways of every culture. When President Obama told West Point graduates last May that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the context made it clear that he meant the United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was demonstrated by our possession of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” uniquely tasked with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow ourselves to “flout international norms” or be a law unto ourselves. The contradictory nature of these statements would have satisfied even Tocqueville’s taste for paradox.

On the whole, is American exceptionalism a force for good? The question shouldn’t be hard to answer. To make an exception of yourself is as immoral a proceeding for a nation as it is for an individual. When we say of a person (usually someone who has gone off the rails), “He thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” we mean that he is a danger to others and perhaps to himself. People who act on such a belief don’t as a rule examine themselves deeply or write a history of the self to justify their understanding that they are unique. Very little effort is involved in their willfulness. Such exceptionalism, indeed, comes from an excess of will unaccompanied by awareness of the necessity for self-restraint.

Such people are monsters. Many land in asylums, more in prisons. But the category also encompasses a large number of high-functioning autistics: governors, generals, corporate heads, owners of professional sports teams. When you think about it, some of these people do write histories of themselves and in that pursuit, a few of them have kept up the vitality of an ancient genre: criminal autobiography.

All nations, by contrast, write their own histories as a matter of course. They preserve and exhibit a record of their doings; normally, of justified conduct, actions worthy of celebration. “Exceptional” nations, therefore, are compelled to engage in some fancy bookkeeping which exceptional individuals can avoid — at least until they are put on trial or subjected to interrogation under oath. The exceptional nation will claim that it is not responsible for its exceptional character. Its nature was given by God, or History, or Destiny.

An external and semi-miraculous instrumentality is invoked to explain the prodigy whose essence defies mere scientific understanding. To support the belief in the nation’s exceptional character, synonyms and variants of the word “providence” often get slotted in.  That word gained its utility at the end of the seventeenth century — the start of the epoch of nations formed in Europe by a supposed covenant or compact. Providence splits the difference between the accidents of fortune and purposeful design; it says that God is on your side without having the bad manners to pronounce His name.

Why is it immoral for a person to treat himself as an exception? The reason is plain: because morality, by definition, means a standard of right and wrong that applies to all persons without exception. Yet to answer so briefly may be to oversimplify. For at least three separate meanings are in play when it comes to exceptionalism, with a different apology backing each. The glamour that surrounds the idea owes something to confusion among these possible senses.

First, a nation is thought to be exceptional by its very nature. It is so consistently worthy that a unique goodness shines through all its works. Who would hesitate to admire the acts of such a country? What foreigner would not wish to belong to it? Once we are held captive by this picture, “my country right or wrong” becomes a proper sentiment and not a wild effusion of prejudice, because we cannot conceive of the nation being wrong.

A second meaning of exceptional may seem more open to rational scrutiny. Here, the nation is supposed to be admirable by reason of history and circumstance. It has demonstrated its exceptional quality by adherence to ideals which are peculiar to its original character and honorable as part of a greater human inheritance. Not “my country right or wrong” but “my country, good and getting better” seems to be the standard here. The promise of what the country could turn out to be supports this faith. Its moral and political virtue is perceived as a historical deposit with a rich residue in the present.

A third version of exceptionalism derives from our usual affectionate feelings about living in a community on the scale of a neighborhood or township, an ethnic group or religious sect. Communitarian nationalism takes the innocent-seeming step of generalizing that sentiment to the nation at large. My country is exceptional to me (according to this view) just because it is mine. Its familiar habits and customs have shaped the way I think and feel; nor do I have the slightest wish to extricate myself from its demands. The nation, then, is like a gigantic family, and we owe it what we owe to the members of our family: “unconditional love.” This sounds like the common sense of ordinary feelings. How can our nation help being exceptional to us?

Teacher of the World

Athens was just such an exceptional nation, or city-state, as Pericles described it in his celebrated oration for the first fallen soldiers in the Peloponnesian War. He meant his description of Athens to carry both normative force and hortatory urgency. It is, he says, the greatest of Greek cities, and this quality is shown by its works, shining deeds, the structure of its government, and the character of its citizens, who are themselves creations of the city. At the same time, Pericles was saying to the widows and children of the war dead: Resemble them! Seek to deserve the name of Athenian as they have deserved it!

The oration, recounted by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War, begins by praising the ancestors of Athenian democracy who by their exertions have made the city exceptional. “They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valor.” Yet we who are alive today, Pericles says, have added to that inheritance; and he goes on to praise the constitution of the city, which “does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves.”

The foreshadowing here of American exceptionalism is uncanny and the anticipation of our own predicament continues as the speech proceeds. “In our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons… As a city we are the school of Hellas” — by which Pericles means that no representative citizen or soldier of another city could possibly be as resourceful as an Athenian. This city, alone among all the others, is greater than her reputation.

We Athenians, he adds, choose to risk our lives by perpetually carrying a difficult burden, rather than submitting to the will of another state. Our readiness to die for the city is the proof of our greatness. Turning to the surviving families of the dead, he admonishes and exalts them: “You must yourselves realize the power of Athens,” he tells the widows and children, “and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this.” So stirring are their deeds that the memory of their greatness is written in the hearts of men in faraway lands: “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.”

Athenian exceptionalism at its height, as the words of Pericles indicate, took deeds of war as proof of the worthiness of all that the city achieved apart from war. In this way, Athens was placed beyond comparison: nobody who knew it and knew other cities could fail to recognize its exceptional nature. This was not only a judgment inferred from evidence but an overwhelming sensation that carried conviction with it. The greatness of the city ought to be experienced, Pericles imagines, as a vision that “shall break upon you.”

Guilty Past, Innocent Future

To come closer to twenty-first-century America, consider how, in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln gave an exceptional turn to an ambiguous past. Unlike Pericles, he was speaking in the midst of a civil war, not a war between rival states, and this partly explains the note of self-doubt that we may detect in Lincoln when we compare the two speeches. At Gettysburg, Lincoln said that a pledge by the country as a whole had been embodied in a single document, the Declaration of Independence. He took the Declaration as his touchstone, rather than the Constitution, for a reason he spoke of elsewhere: the latter document had been freighted with compromise. The Declaration of Independence uniquely laid down principles that might over time allow the idealism of the founders to be realized.

Athens, for Pericles, was what Athens always had been. The Union, for Lincoln, was what it had yet to become. He associated the greatness of past intentions — “We hold these truths to be self-evident” — with the resolve he hoped his listeners would carry out in the present moment: “It is [not for the noble dead but] rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

This allegorical language needs translation. In the future, Lincoln is saying, there will be a popular government and a political society based on the principle of free labor. Before that can happen, however, slavery must be brought to an end by carrying the country’s resolution into practice. So Lincoln asks his listeners to love their country for what it may become, not what it is. Their self-sacrifice on behalf of a possible future will serve as proof of national greatness. He does not hide the stain of slavery that marred the Constitution; the imperfection of the founders is confessed between the lines.  But the logic of the speech implies, by a trick of grammar and perspective, that the Union was always pointed in the direction of the Civil War that would make it free.

Notice that Pericles’s argument for the exceptional city has here been reversed. The future is not guaranteed by the greatness of the past; rather, the tarnished virtue of the past will be scoured clean by the purity of the future.  Exceptional in its reliance on slavery, the state established by the first American Revolution is thus to be redeemed by the second. Through the sacrifice of nameless thousands, the nation will defeat slavery and justify its fame as the truly exceptional country its founders wished it to be.

Most Americans are moved (without quite knowing why) by the opening words of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers…” Four score and seven is a biblical marker of the life of one person, and the words ask us to wonder whether our nation, a radical experiment based on a radical “proposition,” can last longer than a single life-span. The effect is provocative. Yet the backbone of Lincoln’s argument would have stood out more clearly if the speech had instead begun: “Two years from now, perhaps three, our country will see a great transformation.” The truth is that the year of the birth of the nation had no logical relationship to the year of the “new birth of freedom.” An exceptional character, however, whether in history or story, demands an exceptional plot; so the speech commences with deliberately archaic language to ask its implicit question: Can we Americans survive today and become the school of modern democracy, much as Athens was the school of Hellas?

The Ties That Bind and Absolve

To believe that our nation has always been exceptional, as Pericles said Athens was, or that it will soon justify such a claim, as Lincoln suggested America would do, requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism. The belief itself calls for extraordinary arrogance or extraordinary hope in the believer. In our time, exceptionalism has been made less exacting by an appeal to national feeling based on the smallest and most vivid community that most people know: the family.  Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, in his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, put this straightforwardly. America, said Cuomo, was like a family, and a good family never loses its concern for the least fortunate of its members. In 2011, President Obama, acceding to Republican calls for austerity that led to the sequestration of government funds, told us that the national economy was just like a household budget and every family knows that it must pay its bills.

To take seriously the metaphor of the nation-as-family may lead to a sense of sentimental obligation or prudential worry on behalf of our fellow citizens. But many people think we should pursue the analogy further. If our nation does wrong, they say, we must treat it as an error and not a crime because, after all, we owe our nation unconditional love. Yet here the metaphor betrays our thinking into a false equation. A family has nested us, cradled us, nursed us from infancy, as we have perhaps done for later generations of the same family; and it has done so in a sense that is far more intimate than the sense in which a nation has fostered or nurtured us. We know our family with an individuated depth and authority that can’t be brought to our idea of a nation. This may be a difference of kind, or a difference of degree, but the difference is certainly great.

A subtle deception is involved in the analogy between nation and family; and an illicit transfer of feelings comes with the appeal to “unconditional love.” What do we mean by unconditional love, even at the level of the family? Suppose my delinquent child robs and beats an old man on a city street, and I learn of it by his own confession or by accident. What exactly do I owe him?

Unconditional love, in this setting, surely means that I can’t stop caring about my child; that I will regard his terrible action as an aberration. I will be bound to think about the act and actor quite differently from the way I would think about anyone else who committed such a crime. But does unconditional love also require that I make excuses for him? Shall I pay a lawyer to get him off the hook and back on the streets as soon as possible? Is it my duty to conceal what he has done, if there is a chance of keeping it secret? Must I never say what he did in the company of strangers or outside the family circle?

At a national level, the doctrine of exceptionalism as unconditional love encourages habits of suppression and euphemism that sink deep roots in the common culture. We have seen the result in America in the years since 2001. In the grip of this doctrine, torture has become “enhanced interrogation”; wars of aggression have become wars for democracy; a distant likely enemy has become an “imminent threat” whose very existence justifies an executive order to kill. These are permitted and officially sanctioned forms of collective dishonesty. They begin in quasi-familial piety, they pass through the systematic distortion of language, and they end in the corruption of consciousness.

The commandment to “keep it in the family” is a symptom of that corruption. It follows that one must never speak critically of one’s country in the hearing of other nations or write against its policies in foreign newspapers. No matter how vicious and wrong the conduct of a member of the family may be, one must assume his good intentions. This ideology abets raw self-interest in justifying many actions by which the United States has revealingly made an exception of itself — for example, our refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court. The community of nations, we declared, was not situated to understand the true extent of our constabulary responsibilities. American actions come under a different standard and we are the only qualified judges of our own cause.

The doctrine of the national family may be a less fertile source of belligerent pride than “my country right or wrong.” It may be less grandiose, too, than the exceptionalism that asks us to love our country for ideals that have never properly been translated into practice. And yet, in this appeal to the family, one finds the same renunciation of moral knowledge — a renunciation that, if followed, would render inconceivable any social order beyond that of the family and its extension, the tribe.

Unconditional love of our country is the counterpart of unconditional detachment and even hostility toward other countries. None of us is an exception, and no nation is. The sooner we come to live with this truth as a mundane reality without exceptions, the more grateful other nations will be to live in a world that includes us, among others.

David Bromwich teaches English at Yale University. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author most recently of Moral Imagination and The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence.

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The frontispiece from the Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, published 1818. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic
John Demos

Great failure is often more enduring than we realize. Before the downward spiral, the effort seems to cast the future in its image. It captures a moment and then goes uncommemorated. Yet it does not go away. It is as if the hopes it once contained continue to smolder.

The Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government that ruled the French capital in the spring of 1871, was such a failure: virtually erased from the public memory of modern Paris, but an inspiration to generations of socialists before the Russian Revolution and a corresponding source of fear for their opponents. Another such failure was the Foreign Mission School of Cornwall, Connecticut, the subject of John Demos’s new book, The Heathen School, freshly longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award.

The comparison, I concede, seems grandiose. The Commune left thousands, possibly tens of thousands, dead and large swaths of Paris in ruins. The Foreign Mission School destroyed only itself, leaving disillusioned graduates and an embittered and divided local community that threatened, but never executed, violence. It did its damage at a distance.

What unites the Commune with the Foreign Mission School is the bright and defining hope each originally contained and the disappointment each eventually produced. The Commune was a moment when France seemed to augur a new day; the school embodied equivalent optimism for the United States. Cornwall was a visible world of farms, forests, and villages but also an invisible world where God and Satan contested. God’s victory would be America’s gift to posterity.

The Heathen School, as it was called in everyday speech, became an American exercise in revolutionary uplift designed to transform the vast non-Christian world into something that looked like Connecticut. Instead of sending missionaries to the heathen, the school brought the heathen to the missionaries. The school would transform young men into Christians able to become missionaries or to assist them. It was part of an American project to spread republicanism and Protestant Christianity—for Americans regarded the two as inextricably linked—across the globe.

indexDemos possesses an uncanny ability to see the reflection of a much larger world in the towns of colonial New England and the early republic. In The Heathen School, what Demos discerns is American exceptionalism: the proposition that the United States is a chosen nation whose history diverges from all others and whose destiny will determine the fate of the world. It is an idea still embraced by most American politicians (even when they are smart enough not to believe it) and loathed by most American historians.

Extravagant ideas can alight on modest places. Cornwall is a small town in what was, during the early nineteenth century, the heartland of a New England evangelicalism determined to change the world. Some of the locals were articulate proponents of American exceptionalism and made it the rationale for the school. The United States was, according to Yale College President Timothy Dwight, the place where “Empire’s brightest throne shall rise.” Lyman Beecher of Connecticut—the father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who followed the reforming zeal of evangelicalism into abolition—already knew the answer when he asked, “From what nation shall the renovating power go forth?” There was less a fine line between American benevolence and American imperialism than no line at all.

It later became a cliché that Protestant missionaries to Hawaii, including those associated with the Heathen School, “came to do good and did well,” but the original enthusiasm for uplift was genuine. These were people who thought the millennium might be at hand. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, sponsors of the Foreign Mission School, reversed the connections between expanding American trade and spreading the Gospel. “Natives of almost every heathen country” were being drawn from their homes by American commerce, the Board said. If not converted, they would bring the worst of American society back to their lands, corrupting their countrymen and prejudicing them against Christianity. The Foreign Mission School would take non-Christians drawn to the United States by commerce, or those who already lived within its boundaries, educate them, convert them, and send them home to transform their homelands.

The school was thus ancestral to a variety of American projects designed to make foreigners into instruments of conversion, people who would turn their countrymen into people like us. Our current rationale in training military officers and economists is not so different than that for training missionaries. As the sponsors of the Heathen School knew, the results could be disappointing. Frequently, they still are, unless you consider the likes of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Mohamed Morsi, both partially educated on American shores, successful at creating New England in Egypt.

• • •

We tend not to look closely at the societies we expect to transform. We collapse them into largely undifferentiated lumps. This is true now as it was then. The very term Heathen School conveyed the American sense of a vast, indistinguishable mass of non-Christians. The students who came to the school were, however, disparate. Hawaiians dominated the first class, but it also included an Abenaki Indian, a Bengali, and a man named John Johnson, whose father was the child of an “English gentleman” and a “Hindoo woman” and whose mother was “a Jewess of the race of black Jews.” Later Tahitians came, as did at least one more Jew, a student from Timor, a Malay held as a slave in China, a Chinese, and two Greek boys from Malta. The students came from the four corners of the earth, but they were heathens one and all.

Demos breaks the undifferentiated mass into particular people. He concentrates on a small set of individuals—Henry Obookiah, who was Hawaiian, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, both of whom were Cherokees from Georgia, and Sarah Bird Northrup and Harriet Gold, who were from Cornwall. The desire for salvation ran together with more earthly ones. The result is a book as much about psychology as theology and as much about intimacy as commerce.

In Demos’s books people who think they control events find themselves shaken by those supposedly under their influence. But the Hawaiian Henry Obookiah, who both in a sense created the Heathen School and was its chief product, was not the challenge that brought the imperial dream down.

Events far from New England uprooted Obookiah and deposited him in Connecticut. The internal wars that yielded the kingdom of Hawaii orphaned Obookiah, and the China and Pacific trade, of which the Hawaiian Islands were an integral part, set him in motion. He became a Kanaka, an expatriate Hawaiian sailor, who made his way to New England and arrived at Yale in search of an education. In Demos’s interpretation he was in search of family; he thought he found it in Connecticut.

Obookiah underwent a classic Protestant conversion experience and came “home to New Jerusalem,” entering the church on April 9, 1815. It was Obookiah who formulated a plan to return to Hawaii “to preach the Gospel to my Countrymen” in their own language. He became the most celebrated of the group of Hawaiians who formed the nucleus of the Foreign Mission School’s first class. It was, the American Board believed, the hand of providence that brought Obookiah to Connecticut. The founders felt “confident that this thing is from God . . . [and] will, among others, be a means of evangelizing the world.” Obookiah did seem to be the real thing. He invented orthography for writing Hawaiian, learned Hebrew, and grew famous, which proved useful for raising money and advancing the cause.

Obookiah died of typhus in 1818, one of those fortunate deaths that frees a person from responsibility for failures to come. As was the custom, his deathbed scene was fully described and his words recorded. Lyman Beecher preached his eulogy. His ghostwritten Memoirs would go through “about a dozen editions,” according to Demos. His goals, though, were largely unfulfilled. In Hawaii the missionaries, accompanied by several of the graduates of the Foreign Mission School, made converts, but the students were by and large a disappointment. In time the Americans took over the islands, enriched themselves, and largely dispossessed the inhabitants, who dwindled in numbers.

When Obookiah died the Hawaiian missionaries had not yet departed, nor had John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and the other Cherokee students arrived at the Heathen School. After 1818 American Indians would dominate the student body. There was tension between the Indians and the Pacific Islanders; there were issues with truancy, discipline, and uneven academic achievement. But most troubling were relationships between the Cornwall girls and the scholars, or, as officials put it, “the colored boys.”

The desire to save the Indians, and a long history of sexual relations between Indian women and white men, did not prepare Cornwall for consensual sexual relations—in or out of marriage—between its white women and the school’s Indian men. To many readers, this will not come as a surprise, but the history of interracial sex is far more complicated than most Americans believe, and even more complicated than Demos makes it here. In the nation’s first days, it was fairly common and, if not fully accepted in all configurations, not routinely condemned or punished. But as the nineteenth century went on, prejudices against what became known as miscegenation intensified and hardened. The end of slavery—and with it the guaranteed subordination of black men and the coerced availability of black women—alongside worries about inheritance and property transmission and changing ideas about race all made interracial sex less tolerated than it had been earlier in American history. In Cornwall signs of this resistance appeared early.

John Ridge was from a leading Cherokee family and had already been to mission schools within the Cherokee Nation before he came to Cornwall in 1818. His romance with Sarah Northrup would have been utterly conventional had he not been Cherokee and she not been white. He was sick and entered the Northrup home. Sarah and her mother nursed him. He fell in love with Sarah and she with him.

The family sought to disrupt the romance by sending Sarah to her grandparents. The American Board decided it was time for John to return home, but neither distance nor time stilled their passion for each other—a passion that disturbed the social order. John Ridge published a denunciation of racial prejudice that allowed the “most stupid and illiterate white man” to disdain the most polished Indian. With Sarah’s devotion to John remaining strong, and her parents fearful that she would waste away longing for him and become vulnerable to consumption, Sarah’s family agreed to the marriage. It took place in January 1824, after John returned to Cornwall. Although some defended the marriage, much of Cornwall was outraged, and threats of violence accompanied the denunciations. John and Sarah moved to New Echota in the Cherokee Nation.

The marriage of John Ridge’s cousin Elias Boudinot to Harriet Gold bred even greater resentment and brought public demonstrations of disapproval. Harriet’s brothers and sisters and their spouses bitterly opposed the marriage. One of her brothers-in-law, the Reverend Cornelius Everest, wrote, “We weep; we sigh; our feelings are indescribable. Ah, it all is to be summed up in this—our sister loves an Indian! Shame on such love.” A minister from a neighboring town married Elias and Harriet in March of 1826 because the local minister refused to do so. They, too, would depart for the Cherokee Nation.

The school defended racial equality in the abstract, but not the actual fact of the marriages. Its evangelical supporters would not accept intermarriage, and the Ridge-Northrup wedding appears to have precipitated a decline in contributions. The founders had lost faith in their scholars, the last of whom would leave in 1828. Most of the graduates were disappointments to their teachers.

• • •

With the Boudinot-Gold marriage, Demos’s attention shifts to Cherokee country, and he signals the shift with what he calls an interlude. Demos narrates his own journeys paralleling those of his characters. He traveled to Hawaii to find Obookiah’s birthplace. And nearly two centuries after the Ridges and Boudinots settled in New Echota, Demos went for a visit.

We cannot time travel. A stop in Cornwall, or New Echota, or Obookiah’s birthplace leaves the visitor firmly in the present. But the past often lingers; its evidence endures. There are original buildings in Cornwall, fewer in New Echota. And at these sites stories and storytellers meet. Right here, in this house, this happened; here, these people once lived.

The historian’s next step is at once problematic and wondrous. Demos takes it. “In my mind’s eye I can glimpse the scholars passing in and out,” he writes of his visit to Cornwall. Being there “lessened the distance between my own world and that of the school.” Similarly in Georgia he muses that, for Harriet Gold, New Echota was a blank space to be filled in by experience. “So too, in my own case: an equally blank space. Until I have a chance to go there.” He travels to encounter traces of the past that remain visible.

That past was a Cherokee past, and what happened to the Cherokees in the 1820s and 1830s was a disgrace to the United States, but it was not a simple story, and Demos does not try to suggest otherwise. The Cherokee story shadowed, he writes, “on a vastly grander scale, that of the Foreign Mission School—high hopes, valiant efforts, leading to eventual tragic defeat.”

The same sense of mission and providential destiny that created the mission school ultimately did in the Cherokees. This is not to say the American Board destroyed them; many of their missionaries remained ardent supporters of the Cherokees’ attempt to retain their homeland. But the very sense of Christian superiority and providential favor for the United States embedded in the school also inspired those who sought to dispossess the Cherokees. Indians recognized this, and tried to counter it. They sought to separate American providential thinking into its secular and religious strains and pit them against each other. Indians hoped Christians would not evict Christians. They would, and they did.

Both Ridge and Boudinot had reason to doubt the value of the American Board as an ally, and neither thought that the United States would honor existing treaties. Seeing resistance as hopeless, they joined the Treaty Party, which ceded the Cherokees’ homeland to the United States. The Treaty Party had no authority, and the vast majority of Cherokees who followed Head Chief John Ross opposed them and their treaty, which was ratified, if only barely, by the Senate. In what Demos rightly describes as ethnic cleansing, the Cherokees and their neighbors lost their land, and many lost their lives in government roundups and a forced march west. For enabling this dispossession and dislocation, Ridge and Boudinot would pay with their lives when the surviving Cherokees reached Indian Territory.

The removal of the Cherokees would seem to make the tale of the Heathen School a familiar American story in which race takes the center stage. Racial prejudice sought to thwart the marriages of the Ridges and Boudinots and ultimately did in the school itself. Racial prejudice launched the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. But if race in the United States is a familiar topic, it is also a complicated one, and Demos shows its complications. His great strength as a historian is his ability to move effortlessly from the personal to the national, and when he does so here, a story about heathens and “colored boys” expands to include black slaves.

Many members of the Cherokee elite were slaveholders, and when Sarah Ridge, née Northrup, moved to Georgia, she mutated from a Yankee to a plantation mistress. She was in the eyes of both Cherokees and black slaves a “white lady,” the very status that brought so much trouble in Cornwall. With her husband’s assassination, Sarah was described as having “a dead heart in a living bosom.” Her Cherokee relatives sought to strip her and her children of their inheritance since she was “a white lady and had no clan.” She lived by hiring out her slaves. Her sons grew up quarrelsome and violent. They, along with a sizeable number of anti-Ross Cherokees, stood with the Confederacy, as did, although Demos does not mention it, Boudinot’s son, Elias Cornelius.

Lyman Beecher’s descendants became abolitionists, but the descendants of the leading Cherokee graduates of the Heathen School joined the Confederacy in defense of human slavery. Two of them, John Rollins Ridge and Elias Cornelius Boudinot, eventually fled the Cherokee Nation under threat of death and ended up alienated from both their New England and Cherokee roots. The failures of the Heathen School had only ramified.

Demos draws a parallel between Cornwall’s opposition to interracial marriage in the nineteenth century and the illegality of same-sex marriage in the twenty-first. His intent, I think, is something more than to compare inequities, particularly since, with same-sex marriage now legal in Connecticut, the analogy might produce comforting feelings of growing tolerance. Demos is too good a historian to think the past will be much of a comfort to us. He has crafted the book otherwise. His heroes, Sara and John Ridge, do not become villains, but they are more than simply victims of racism. Similarly the Cherokees and Hawaiians were betrayed and despoiled, but they were not innocents.

Demos’s analogies have a deeper target: the American sense of being a beacon to the world, its last best hope. This only leads us astray. We want to shape the world without the world touching us and revealing our own limits and prejudices, but more than that we insist on foreigners being unrealized versions of ourselves. We educate the Sisis and Morsis thinking they will become agents of our desires and in so doing forget that they, like the students at the Heathen School, were never ours to shape.

Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is author, most recently, of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

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Liberals Need to Take Back the Idea of American Exceptionalism

HNN  August 10, 2014

Related Link  American Exceptionalism Watch (Ben Alpers)

The Wisconsin Public Radio/National Public Radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge regularly asks writers if they have a “Dangerous Idea” that they would like to talk about (unscripted). My Dangerous Idea was American exceptionalism.

I did not speak on the dangers of the right-wing rendition of American exceptionalism, but rather on the original idea of American exceptionalism, which is dangerous because it demands progressive action and struggle to realize. I spoke for several minutes. The producers then edited it down to three minutes. You can listen to my argument here. The following text is a slightly edited version of what I had to say:

American exceptionalism sounds like a very conservative idea, right?

But you know what? For more than 200 years, American exceptionalism was a radical idea. It was an idea of liberals and progressives. It was an idea that didn’t say “we are superior” – that we have all the answers. No, it was an idea about what America could be, should be and, if we act on it, would be.

Think back to the words of someone like Thomas Paine – “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” – and to his call for the creation of an unprecedented democratic republic. Think about the Founders and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. We hear about the Constitution’s conservatism. And yet those first words, “We the People.” Those are radical words. Those kinds of words provided American life with democratic imperative. They embedded a democratic impulse in American life.

You know, there’s a democratic spirit inside almost all Americans. The democratic idea of American exceptionalism insisted that We the People can govern – that we don’t need kings and aristocrats – that we can govern ourselves. And that we can govern ourselves not only politically, but also that we can govern ourselves economically and culturally.

And then think about the generations of Americans empowered by that argument, that vision, that promise: the Freethinkers, the Abolitionists, the women’s rights advocates, the labor unionists, the civil rights campaigners. Those folks believed in American exceptionalism and they used that belief – which they knew they shared with their fellow citizens – to challenge their fellow citizens to make America freer, more equal and more democratic.

That idea of American exceptionalism didn’t see American progress as natural or inevitable, but it was compelling. That idea of American exceptionalism empowered generations to make America better – to recognize that we were a grand experiment in democracy, and the only way you can carry out an experiment is to test its limits.

Now, something obviously went wrong. Today, when you hear the argument about American exceptionalism, it’s almost always a conservative argument – you know, it’s not about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but about life, liberty and the pursuit of property – that is, protect property, limit government. It’s not about democracy; it’s about individualism.

But even sadder than that – because we’ve always heard conservatives argue that kind of thing – is that, at best, we are told we have to defend what exists, not advance what exists.

But of course, the saddest thing is that liberals and progressives seem embarrassed by the idea of American exceptionalism, because they have somehow allowed themselves [we have somehow allowed ourselves] to believe that an argument for American exceptionalism is an argument for American superiority, an argument that claims “we have all the answers.’’

We need to remember that American exceptionalism [as Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Eugene Debs, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King saw it] is a challenge to enhance freedom, equality and democracy. Indeed, the danger is that if we forget that dangerous idea, we will cease to be Americans.

So, we progressives should redeem it.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye. This article was first published on Our Future.

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Pedro Salmerón Sanguinés
La Jornada     25 de febrero de 2014

Utilizar la historia o el mito para justificar las peores barbaridades, inventar esencias o necesidades y construir ideas de raza o nación, ha sido práctica común desde que existe la organización social basada en la opresión. Los imperios que se consolidaron en la época moderna, cuyas élites siguen dominando la economía mundial, no hicieron otra cosa para legitimar sus conquistas y genocidios. Un ejemplo muy claro de la manipulación de la historia lo presenta la construcción ideológica de Estados Unidos y su excepcionalidad.

Según esa idea, Estados Unidos tiene el derecho, sea por sanción divina o por obligación moral, de brindar civilización, democracia o libertad al resto del mundo, mediante la violencia si es necesario. Complementa esa idea otra, según la cual Estados Unidos tiene el destino manifiesto de expandirse por todo el continente y, posteriormente, llevar al mundo nuestro gran cometido de libertad y autogobierno (Howard Zinn, La Jornada, 27 y 28/7/05).

Esas ideas, que en sí no son muy distintas de las justificaciones divinas, raciales o ideológicas que otros imperios o estados totalitarios han usado para legitimarse, están en la base de un gigantesco proceso de falsificación de la historia.

La derecha estadunidense combate a quien cuestione esos mitos convertidos en dogmas: En los años treinta, los libros de texto que no fuesen de un patrioterismo conservador eran denunciados, prohibidos o quemados. Durante la guerra fría la persecución ideológica arreció. En las universidades se combinó la represión selectiva con la corrupción generalizada, es decir, la investigación a sueldo para justificar las políticas de guerra, agresión y contrainsurgencia:

Así se construyó una visión del pasado de los Estados Unidos como una historia de consenso, basada en las doctrinas del excepcionalismo norteamericano y del Destino Manifiesto, y en el mito de la conquista triunfante del oeste, que omitía cualquier mención sobre la raza, esclavitud, conquista de los pueblos nativos y restricciones opresoras sobre muchos grupos marginalizados incluyendo las mujeres (Josep Fontana, Historia: análisis del pasado y proyecto social [edición de 1999], pp. 264-266).

Al mismo tiempo, la teoría de la modernización sostenía que el milagro estadunidense, donde los planteamientos del marxismo no es que fueran equivocados, sino totalmente irrelevantes, podía repetirse en los países subdesarrollados, si seguían las mismas reglas que habían observado los norteamericanos.

Dichas reglas, impuestas por la combinación del poder económico y militar, se resumen en dos: libre mercado y sujeción a la economía estadunidense. Hannah Arendt lo explica con claridad prístina:

“Cuando se nos decía que la libertad era para nosotros la libre empresa, fue muy poco lo que hicimos para destruir tan enorme falsedad […] Hemos afirmado que en los Estados Unidos la riqueza y el bienestar económico son los frutos de la libertad, pese a que debiéramos haber sido los primeros en saber que ese tipo de felicidad constituía la bendición de América con anterioridad a la Revolución y que su razón de ser era la abundancia natural bajo un gobierno moderado y no la libertad política ni la iniciativa privada, libre y sin freno, del capitalismo, el cual ha conducido en todos los países donde no existían riquezas naturales a la infelicidad y a la pobreza de las masas. En otras palabras, la libre empresa sólo ha sido una bendición para Estados Unidos” (Arendt, Sobre la revolución, p. 357).

La historia oficial en Estados Unidos tiene ese sentido. Dice Howard Zinn: Se puede mentir como un bellaco sobre el pasado. O se pueden omitir datos que pudieran llevar a conclusiones inaceptables.

Los manuales escolares omiten las diferencias de clases, la esclavitud, las guerras de conquista; omiten también las razones económicas, geográficas y demográficas que permitieron que Estados Unidos se convirtiera en imperio. Es una historia que, reduce el pasado a los encuentros y desencuentros, heroísmos e infamias de un grupo de elegidos, que por regla general son blancos, machos, militares y ricos, dice Eduardo Galeano sobre el libro de Zinn ( La otra historia de los Estados Unidos, p. 17. La cita de Galeano en cuarta de forros).

Frente a esto, las historias oficiales de los totalitarismos parecen burdas e ineficaces. El nazismo se apoyó en una de las mayores mentiras ideológicas de la modernidad: la diferencia de raza; y apoyado en ella, perpetró uno de los más atroces crímenes colectivos de la historia. Pero su mentira duró 12 años como política de Estado. El estalinismo falseó la historia de manera sistemática. Pero su dictadura historiográfica se derrumbó al cabo de un cuarto de siglo.

La mentira sistemática con la que Estados Unidos justifica sus guerras de agresión y la imposición de sus modelos económicos al mundo, lleva más de dos siglos vigente.

Pedro Samerón Sanguinés es Doctor en Historia por la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 

Twitter: @salme_villista

psalme@yahoo.com

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Russian Communists and their supporters are seen through a transparent portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as they lay flowers at his tomb at the Red Square in Moscow on March 5, 2013, to mark the 60th anniversary of Stalin's death. Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Russian Communists and their supporters are seen through a transparent portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as they lay flowers at his tomb at the Red Square in Moscow on March 5, 2013, to mark the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death.
Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

El  artículo de Vladimir Putin publicado en el New York Times, criticando una posible intervención militar estadounidense en Siria, ha levantado una gran polémica, entre otras cosas, por su referencia al alegado carácter excepcional de la nación norteamericana. Si proponerselo, Putin generó un gran debate académico e ideológico en torno al significado del exepcionalismo estadounidense. En este interesante artículo, el lingüista Ben Zimmer analiza  el origen de la frase misma, cuestionando que ésta hubiese sido creada por José Stalin.

Did Stalin Really Coin “American Exceptionalism”?
By Ben Zimmer

Slate.com  September 27, 2013

The phrase “American exceptionalism” has been much in the news ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times taking issue with President Obama’s statement that America’s foreign policy “makes us exceptional.” “I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism,” Putin countered. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Putin’s comments revived an old discussion about the origins of the phrase. On Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall addressed an article by Terrence McCoy—”How Joseph Stalin Invented ‘American Exceptionalism‘”—that appeared last year on the Atlantic’s website. And on Real Clear Politics, Robert Samuelson wrote that “the most interesting fact to surface in the ensuing debate over “American exceptionalism” is that the phrase was first coined by Putin’s long-ago predecessor, Joseph Stalin.” But should Stalin really get the credit?

First off, it’s important to note that “American exceptionalism” has moved through a few different historical waves (as linguist Mark Liberman observed last year in his piece, “The third life of American Exceptionalism“). The first wave was in the ’20s and ’30s, when American socialists argued over whether the United States was immune to what Marx thought was an inevitable move of capitalist societies toward communism by means of violent struggle. The second wave (the focus of Josh Marshall’s TPM post) came after World War II, when historians like Richard Hofstadter reframed the question of “American exceptionalism” in a more positive manner, as a way to explain how the U.S. had avoided the bloody conflicts experienced by Europe in the 20th century.

Most recently, as when “exceptionalism” became a buzzword among Republican presidential candidates in the last election, the term takes on highly patriotic overtones, resonating with Ronald Reagan’s image of the U.S. as “a shining city on a hill.” Republicans have faulted Obama for lacking faith in American exceptionalism, which may have encouraged his “exceptional” rhetoric in his address to the nation on Syria. That might play well for a domestic audience, but to Putin it sounded jingoistic.

But back to Putin’s predecessor, Stalin. McCoy’s piece for the Atlantic seeks to dispel the idea that Alexis de Tocqueville had something to do with creating the expression. (He did call the U.S. “exceptional” in Democracy in America, but not to imply that the country was somehow extraordinary, as Mark Liberman also noted.) In the place of the de Tocqueville myth, however, McCoy introduces another:

In 1929, Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this “heresy of American exceptionalism.” And just like that, this expression was born. What Lovestone meant, and how Stalin understood it, however, isn’t how Gingrich and Romney (or even Obama) frame it. Neither Lovestone nor Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations—actually, the opposite. Stalin “ridiculed” America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of “exceptionalism,” Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview.

Stalin, to say the least, wasn’t happy with Lovestone’s news. “Who do you think you are?” he shouted, according to Ted Morgan’s biography of Lovestone. “(Leon) Trotsky defied me. Where is he? (Grigory) Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? (Nikolai) Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you! Who are you? Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives.”

While the heated exchange between Lovestone and Stalin is well-attested (it led to Lovestone’s expulsion from the Communist Party), it’s rather easy to debunk the notion that Stalin introduced the phrase “American exceptionalism” at this meeting. The biography cited by McCoy states that Lovestone and his delegation set sail from New York on March 23, 1929, and the delegation arrived in Moscow on April 27. Lovestone’s confrontation with Stalin had to have been after that date. But the earliest example given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from a few months earlier, in the Jan. 29 issue of the Daily Worker:

1929 Brouder & Zack in Daily Worker (N.Y.) 29 Jan. 3/2   This American ‘exceptionalism’ applies to the whole tactical line of the C.I. as applied to America. (This theory pervades all the writings and speeches of the Lovestone–Pepper group up until the present.)

And Lovestone may have been using the term earlier than that, as the OED also includes a bracketed citation from the Nov. 1928 issue of the Communist in which he lays out the “exceptionalism” thesis: “We are now in the period of decisive clashes between socialist reformism and communism for the leadership of the majority of the working class. This is in all countries of high capitalist development with the exception of the United States where we have specific conditions.”

If Stalin did indeed tell Lovestone (presumably through an interpreter) to end the “heresy of American exceptionalism” when they met in the spring of 1929, Stalin would have been throwing the phrase back at him rather than coining it anew, since Lovestone’s position on the matter had already been reported in the Communist press. Of course, that doesn’t make for as good a story. Then again, as long as Americans are feeling so patriotic in this latest wave of “exceptionalism,” why shouldn’t Americans get credit for coining the expression, rather than a French writer like de Tocqueville or a Soviet leader like Stalin?

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

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