- Series: Values and Capitalism
- Paperback: 59 pages
- Publisher: AEI Press; 1st edition (July 17, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 084477264X
- ISBN-13: 978-0844772646
- Product Dimensions: 4.6 x 0.2 x 6.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
- Customer Reviews: 156 customer ratings
American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History (Values and Capitalism) Paperback – July 17, 2013
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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.
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.
Unlike those who use the term to either mean that America is by its own nature superior to all other nations, both the author and I approached term in the less pedantic attack used by both extremities of the dominant political parties. The exceptional part of America is not necessarily its superiority in all matters but more about its factual characteristics and placement within world history. One must understand that there was never an intent to create a description claiming vast superiority but more accurately intended to describe the unique characteristics of the nation. It is also important to remember that the term was used initially in the early decades of the 19th century, and since then the term is been the subject to both broad and narrow interpretations which often lead to a misstatement of the original ideology.
This is where the author, Charles Murray, creates a book that not only accurately defines and explains the ideology but also provides a "scholarly exceptional" work. Pardon the play on words but the intent was merely to point out that when words are twisted they rarely generate the meaning which is both more accurate and better ethically applied. Keeping that idea and mine we can better understand the term while reading the book as Murray walks us through the origination of the term and its development as an idea through American history. It is that development, and subsequently the misuse of the term, that makes this such an important text.
I would actually suggest that any political commentator who intends to use the term American exceptionalism in support of or attack of the nation make themselves better prepared and more fully understanding of the term itself. This can be done by reading Murray's book along with many others on the topic. Whether it be de Tocqueville' "Democracy in America" or Obama's "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," one can better understand the history and political application of the idea of American exceptionalism when we both understand the terms development and the individual's intentions by using the term as a means of persuasion or dissuasion.
One can also see quite easily that Murray has presented a well-defined foundation for the foreseeable future of America. If one believes that there is something unique about the country, which might include a wealth of resources, a common principle of ethical behavior among its citizens, or a unique position within world history, the understanding and then application of the term is more precise when we all use the term and rely on a common definition. One of my favorite sections in Murray's book outlines and applies exactly that sentiment. As the nation evolved so too did the term. Interestingly, it sometimes seems within our own history that the term is easily adapted as a positive reflection but then again it is easily adapted as a negative recognition of the uniqueness of our country.
Let me close by simply saying that Murray's book is perfect regardless of your position on the political or cultural spectrum. The book works when all sides agree that the term should have at least a significant part of it holding a common definition. Murray's work provides ample opportunity for the creation of that definition, and from that common definition we might better be able to exercise our own form of modern exceptionalism when it comes to answering problems both within the borders of our nation and without.