What is American Exceptionalism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “American exceptionalism” is used to describe the belief that the United States occupies a special position in history and on the global stage by virtue of certain characteristics held to be unique to the United States. This belief has undergone a number of incarnations since it developed in the 1800s, and there are both supporters and critics of American exceptionalism. Since it plays a role in political thought in the United States, understanding exceptionalism and the roots behind the idea is important for people interested in history and politics.

Norman Rockwell created paintings that illustrate the civic virtues that some people feel are a core component of American culture.
Norman Rockwell created paintings that illustrate the civic virtues that some people feel are a core component of American culture.

This concept appears to have been first put forward by Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America. Tocqueville pointed to the United States as a highly successful emerging representative democracy and suggested that the relatively new nation must have had some exceptional characteristics to succeed.

The Declaration of Independence and Constitution stand for American freedom.
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution stand for American freedom.

Several theories have been posited to explain American exceptionalism. One theory, based in the Puritan origins of the United States, suggests that the religious faith and commitment of early settlers may be involved. Another theory is that the unique environment of the United States is the cause. The size of the nation and the relatively untamed nature of the environment are credited for rewarding innovation, determination, and courage, all of which are said to be important components of American exceptionalism.

At various points in history, people have also suggested that exceptionalism has its origins in genetics. Many of these theories had a distinct whiff of eugenics, suggesting that the United States thrived and was so successful from the start because it reflected a blend of the best of European races. Others have pointed to the “melting pot” environment of the United States to argue just the contrary, that the United States thrives because of its racial and ethnic diversity.

Proponents of American exceptionalism may ignore the fact that the early origins of the United States are paralleled by those of many former colonies. Manifest Destiny, the sense that the nation is destined and entitled to expand, is sometimes described as a uniquely American phenomenon when, in fact, many European nations exhibited similar attitudes when colonizing other regions of the world. Likewise, many other nations are racially diverse, were founded by religious groups, have diverse or harsh environments, and have revolted to establish democracies.

Opponents sometimes describe American exceptionalism as a myth and argue that it contributes to Americentrism and the belief that the United States is above the law. These critics believe that the concept of exceptionalism feeds the belief that the United States is uniquely qualified to serve as an arbiter in global conflicts or that people in the United States are superior to those elsewhere.

Many American settlers believed that their westward expansion was divinely guided, as portrayed in period art.
Many American settlers believed that their westward expansion was divinely guided, as portrayed in period art.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


ShadowGenius is correct. America was formed by the voluntary migration of people with certain characteristics such as boldness, risk taking, confidence, adventurism. Other, much older societies that have formed over the millennium creating a Gaussian distributions of personality types form bold risk takers at one side to timid, complacent followers at the other side.

Early America has been formed as a classified or “sieved” society. Early settlers in the “New World” had to take a very perilous, several month journey on rickety, crowed ships with a good chance on not making it across. Once arrived, there was no guarantee of even survival. America was formed from that risk taking side of the societal Gaussian distribution.

On the Discovery Channel there was a documentary on how a 10,000 year old “cave man” was found frozen in the Alps. They tested his DNA and did a sampling of the DNA of the people living in the town at the base of that mountain. They found that many in the town were related to that caveman. Imagine what timidity and lack of curiosity a line of people must have to never have moved away from their home for over 10,000 years.

The modern world with its advances was not advanced by these timid people too scared to move away from the base of their mountain. The first American settlements on the East coast developed their own Gaussian Distributions over several hundred years and formed their own risk adverse society. Luckily, there was the West where the new risk takers would move to seek fame and fortune. This kept happening until we ran out of western areas to move to.

That is why America is divided in two today. The Gaussian risk adverse personalities now match the risk takers and we are split. In short, America was exceptional because only the exceptional people of the world took the chance to get here, and that continues to this day with people risking all to come here to succeed.



Yes, but of course, it is very unfortunate that this maxim of "all created equal" was only applied to white males at the time of its coining.


"Egalitarianism" forms a strong source of upward mobility in American society. The fact that it is relatively easy for a poor person to "strike it rich" in the New World made American society a very attractive one for settlement. The fact that there is more respect for initiative and innovation than for class or social status speaks volumes about why America is in a good position, and considered "new."


It seems to me that the adventurers and innovators who made a conscious decision to embark on a journey to the "New World" would normally comprise the pinnacle of innovation and hard work in any given culture. Since these people were naturally drawn to settle America, it is not surprising that their descendants, a melting pot of adventurers from various societies, would also possess that innovative spark. I am not implying that Americans are better, but our society is certainly one of independent initiative and leaders.

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