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American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History (Values and Capitalism) Paperback – July 17, 2013
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About the Author
Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He first came to national attention in 1984 with Losing Ground. His subsequent books include In Pursuit, The Bell Curve (with Richard J. Herrnstein), What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Human Accomplishment, In Our Hands, Real Education, and Coming Apart. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard and a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He lives with his wife in Burkittsville, Maryland.
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Murray defines the term as what made America different from the rest of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries and defines four qualities or factors that created that difference: geographic setting (oceans on either side, a vast frontier, &c.); a unique ideology (natural rights, limited government; the innate traits of the American people (industriousness, egalitarianism, religiosity, and volunteerism); and the operation of our political system (the success of classical liberalism over social democracy). He concludes by discussing how those things that have made us exceptional (again, "different") may have waned over time.
This is an excellent introduction to the topic for the average reader and is a real bargain at the price. The extensive footnotes provide references for further exploration. Highly recommended.
ps: One amusing note -- It seems the phrase "American exceptionalism" was first coined by Josef Stalin (!) as a criticism of the United States.
Murray opens by looking at misconceptions about what American exceptionalism means. Rather than using the definition of "exceptional" that means "wonderful," Murray notes that at the founding of the country, and indeed for most of the first century of US history, most of the world saw what was happening in America as exceptional. There are four arguments Murray makes to demonstrate exceptionalism:
1. Observers through out the western world saw America as exceptional, something different from what was going on elsewhere throughout Europe.
2. American exceptionalism doesn't always refer to what was seen by western observers as positive traits. I.e. Americans tended to industrious, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life, something that Murray ties all together under the category of "civic engagement."
3. Exceptionalism is...or was...a fact that cannot be denied any more than that the Gettysburg address happened. Further, understanding what it means is essential to understanding what it means to be an American.
4. American exceptionalism refers primarily to qualities that were observed during the first century of American history.
America's setting (separated from Western Europe by an ocean), form of government (a republic), and the characteristics of the population (Toqueville and others described Americans propensity for industry, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life) made for a place that was unique among the nations.
Alongside his arguments, Murray takes time to address, or a least highlight, liberal arguments about why America is not, and never has been, exceptional. These primarily deal with slavery, social justice, and feminism. While not necessarily answering them, Murray ends with an assertion that though America has changed, it behooves modern Americans to examine whether the changes have been positive or negatives.
Bite size and a fast read, Murray's examination of exceptionalism is worth the time and the reminder of where America came from. It's easy to find revisionist historians criticizing and rewriting American history through modern lenses, and Murray makes quick and clean work of reminding readers why America was, and is, a different place.
He also takes the opposite tack of explaining why others, especially the governing elites of Old Europe (and also perhaps many Liberal Elitists in the USA), view these as negative and even threatening (according to their worldview that government should control society) characteristics.
Thus this book covers ALL the bases of what Americans and foreigners consider to be the traits that differentiate us from the rest of the world. Depending on your political prism these may be good for bad. But there is no doubt that Americans ARE exceptional in what we believe and do. This was obvious from the day our Founders invented the United States. Murray takes us on a guided tour of our exceptional history:
Standing in the crowd in front of Federal Hall on Wall Street, you are watching the beginning of an experiment in governance unlike any in the history of the world.
Four million people, spread out over thirteen colonies stretching from New England to Georgia, have separated themselves from the world's greatest power and then invented a new nation from scratch.
That all by itself makes the United States unique and also makes it impossible to predict what might happen next. It isn't just the newness of the nation that makes its future so imponderable.
The Americans could easily have chosen familiar institutions. If George Washington had been declared king of the United States, the Founding Fathers given hereditary titles, and a deliberative body created as a counterweight to the king's powers, you would have had a European framework....But instead the founders of the United States have created a form of government that will attempt all sorts of things that are widely thought to be impossible. Republican government itself is widely thought to be impracticable and unstable.
How can the Americans realistically expect a successful, popular president who is chief executive, head of state, and commander-in-chief of the nation's armed forces to retire voluntarily
Murray then gives a historical account of how Americans have interpreted our "exceptionalism" down through the following generations. I won't mention the specifics because that would make the review longer than the book. But I will say that he covers the historical interpetations of American exceptionalism comprehensively and objectively, lucidly explaining both the perceived virtues and the perceived negatives.
He boils it all down to the VISION that our Founders had when they created the country.
They viewed America as being like a virtuous young man who is just starting out in life. A young man endowed with virtues of industry, integrity and thrift will find that Providence prospers him. Though he may start out penniless and ill-educated, he will find that circumstances arrange themselves so that opportunities will be presented for his constant advancement. In time he will acquire great wealth and the wisdom to manage it for the good of himself and for others. The wealth he earned will create opportunities for the next generation of rising young men to prosper as he did.
Our Founders FORESAW the rise to greatness of men of common birth like Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln...and on down to Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, who would lead our nation to new horizons as we grew and matured. They envisioned the courage of Americans from all walks of life who would be called upon to give their wealth and their lives to the nation's just causes of defending itself and our example of libertarian government at difficult places like the Alamo, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Iwo Jima, and on down to wars of contemporary times. They foresaw that we could be called upon at many times in the future to defend our existence as a nation AND to defend our example of liberty that will one day inspire the peoples of the entire world to follow in our footsteps.
So Murray makes it plain that what makes America exceptional in so many ways (political, military, and economic) is that the Founders ENVISIONED it at the time when they founded the country. They created a government dedicated to the principles of allowing their vision to flourish. Our subsequent history has been the fulfillment of their vision.
Charles Murray fully conveys these inspiring points in a short book. He does it by carefully choosing quotations from our greatest thinkers and leaders then eloquently but concisely interpreting them. That makes him a great teller of one of Mankind's greatest stories!
This book, being short and to the point, is ideal for educating young students from about 8th grade upward to the most important aspects of American history and the dimensions of our exceptionalism. Even adults who have intensively studied our history will glean new insights. Mr. Murray has priced this book to make it affordable for every American to read. And every American SHOULD read it!