Two students share their opposing views on American Exceptionalism.
By Kent Yoder and Timothy Mayimba, Contributors
Surprisingly, the way we remember and teach U.S. history has become one of the nation’s hottest debate topics in recent years. Americans have clashed over the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials, the New York Times “1619 Project” on slavery and race in American history, and the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. In a recent class, Jeffrey Webb, Ph.D. asked students to reflect on the idea of American exceptionalism. This is the view that celebrates American ideals and American successes, and claims the U.S. is a special and unique nation among the other nations of the world. He asked them to consider this notion in light of America’s treatment of Native Americans, the violent acquisition of territory from Mexico, and the preservation and extension of slavery in the early nineteenth century. Here are two divergent opinions on this subject, one from Kent Yoder, a History major from Shipshewana, Indiana, and one from Timothy Mayimba, a Political Science and Pre-law major from Kampala, Uganda.
Why America’s Founding Ideals Are Exceptional
By Kent Yoder
“American exceptionalism” is a concept in American History that contributes to much argument and controversy regarding America’s past. America is seen by some as having a significant and unique legacy as an exceptional nation among the nations of the world, while others point out America’s numerous moral failings as a refutation of the idea of American exceptionalism. In light of some of these moral failings such as the Indian removal policies and the annexation of Texas in the Jacksonian era, the idea of American exceptionalism is contradicted, but America’s exceptional founding ideals are not erased.
When examining the idea of “American exceptionalism,” it is the high ideals of America’s founding documents such as the idea that “all men are created equal” that makes some of the moral failings of American history so frustrating. The Trail of Tears during Jackson’s administration flies in the face of American ideals as the Cherokee, who had largely assimilated into American culture, were still forced off their tribal lands simply because of their classification as “natives” who were not viewed on the same level as white Americans. The treatment of Mexican settlers after the Texas annexation went against America’s founding ideals as they were treated as lesser citizens by their white American counterparts. Perhaps most glaringly, the expansion and defense of the practice of slavery by Americans during this period fundamentally violated the values of the Declaration of Independence that spoke of equality among all men. With all these terrible moral stains on American history, the moral sins are magnified when compared to the exceptional ideals of America’s founding documents that were contradicted. The fact that these high founding ideals were violated does not mean that the ideals were not exceptional and unique originally.
Another example of the exceptionalism of America’s founding values is the fact that when advocating for a greater extension of human rights during this period, Americans pointed to the ideas of America’s founding documents to highlight the nation’s hypocrisy. Maria Stewart referenced the ideas of the Declaration of Independence as she fought for a greater extension of rights to African Americans and women. David Walker quoted the words of the Declaration, “all men are created equal,” when he rebuked white Americans for their hypocrisy in their treatment of slaves and black Americans in general. The women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton mirrored the language of the Declaration of Independence in her Declaration of Sentiments as she asserted that natural rights are for both men and women. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an abolitionist icon, used the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution to challenge white Americans with their defense of slavery in speeches such as his July 4th Address. Soon to be president, Abraham Lincoln, used the founding ideals to argue against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the broader practice of slavery as he asserted that the act “made open war on the very fundamental principles of civil liberty” found in the Declaration of Independence. All these great advocates for human rights in this period did not throw out America’s founding ideals. Instead, they used America’s exceptional founding ideals to call out the American people for their failure not to live up to them.
Despite America’s moral failings, her high founding ideals also led to exceptional movements of freedom that were unique to the world at the time. Because of the economic freedom and opportunity that America offered during this period, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came to the nation in search of a better life. Numerous other nations looked to America’s Constitution as a model for their own constitutions as they recognized the exceptional ideals it contained. America’s free market during this time produced amazing technological innovations such as the steam engine, locomotive, and telegraph that dramatically improved the standard of living for Americans of all classes. These great movements were noticed by the world, with European historian von Ranke noting how America had “introduced a new force into the world” with their idea that “a nation should govern itself.”
To conclude, America has not always been exceptional, and its history is rife with examples of it being something very opposite. Yet at the same time, America’s history is also the story of a nation with exceptional founding ideals, living up to those ideals more and more over time. America will continue to struggle with its past sins and will fail in the future, but the ideas found in this nation’s original documents are exceptional now, have been in the past, and will continue to be in the future.
The Marred Truth of American Exceptionalism
By Timothy Mayimba
Does the idea of American exceptionalism make sense in light of Indian removal policies, the extension of slavery, and the annexation of Texas? No, it does not. In fact, it is extremely contradictory to the idea of “American exceptionalism” itself. America on paper represented these values but in practice failed miserably.
When the Mayflower landed it was the beginning of a new country free from Britain’s influence; a place to make business and find opportunity. However, as the generations went by, the thought of God left the center of society in places like Jamestown. Here, the thought became how to efficiently run an economy rather than “will God provide?” It is not that God was totally out of focus, as ideas and beliefs such as “manifest destiny” were used to motivate Americans into driving the Indians off of their land, then to “tame” the East and finally the West of the United States.
Americans claimed commitment to human rights but became deeply engrossed in the slave trade. Americans claimed anti-imperialist principles, but then annexed a portion of a neighboring civilization. America claimed the rule of law but approved the Fugitive Slave Act that required northerners to hand over escaped slaves from the south. Where is the rule of law in a nation that is divided on a topic as important as the slave trade?
“American exceptionalism” did not apply in any sense to those in today’s world we call Native Americans. These people lived here for centuries before the first boat of white men landed and called it home. There were countless tribes of these once great people who suffered many wrongs. They even helped white pioneers traverse the Oregon Trail in what to them was foreign land in the West, only to have to endure the Trail of Tears, which forced the Cherokee and other Native Americans off their land they had occupied for years. They were cast out into the unfruitful West, even those who had assimilated into American society, only to be rejected. This applies even to the Irish immigrants, who for a time faced discrimination, just as free black Americans did in this period. “American exceptionalism” was the goal but instead was corrupted and polluted by people such as “King” Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. American expansion simply became a new brand of imperialism.
“American exceptionalism” only applied to the white male. This is why we had the Seneca Falls Convention, a fight for women, even women of color, to have rights. We see women at work such as Margaret Fuller, whose intelligence shined through her writings and reports, and Harriet Tubman, who fought for women’s rights and to change the system.
In conclusion, “American exceptionalism” is the potential that America had—it was the vision—but racial biases and ignorance do not simply vanish overnight. In the end, America squandered its potential. All the mistakes made by Americans over slavery, policy toward Native Americans, and imperialism in the West helped to make the United States a successful, prosperous nation, but they were still mistakes, and they violated America’s own founding ideals.