What is ‘American Exceptionalism’ and what are its (religious) origins? ‘The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. (…) Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.’ Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835/1840
When in 1497 John Cabot and his sailing crew landed on the North American coast, he was guiding the first colonists to a land blessed and chosen by God. He had only little idea that the land he set his feet on would later become an ‘exceptional’ country. America was regarded as the ‘chosen land’, ‘where the lord will create a new heaven, and a new earth’, ‘a New Jerusalem in which Christ’s second coming will establish a new paradise on earth’ by the first protestant colonists who settled in North America. The protestant Calvinists believed in the idea of predestination, and so the American people were regarded as the chosen people to fulfill the mission given by God. They based these ideas on the biblical reference, ‘You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden’, a speech which was first praised by Jon Winthrop, and constitutes the foundation of the American people’s mission to spread the American ideology on liberty, equality, democracy and success throughout the world.
Thus, this essay will examine the concept of ‘American Exceptionalism’, its origins and its interrelation with the ‘American Dream’ and the American Revolution. The first protestant colonists saw in the New World an opportunity to escape the political and societal restraints of the old Europe. The belief that the ‘Promised Land’ was the site chosen by God to free its people, a wide territory of unlimited potential constituted the main reasons, which led the colonists to flee from the Old Continent’s religious persecution, societal and political restrictive organization. Thus, Freedom and human equality were the aspirations and dreams of the people who later fought for the independence of the United States of America.
Moreover, later in the 17th century, revolutionary political and philosophical theories such as Thomas Mann’s Utopia and John Locke’s philosophy of natural laws converted philosophical theories into a political statement becoming the basis of the American government. A revolutionary ideology was born, based on freedom, equality, success, and a new form of government: the American democracy – ‘a form of government of the people, by the people and for the people’ as the sole guarantor of these principles. ‘Our Constitution is a document in which “We the People” tell the government what it is allowed to
do. “We the People” are free.’ The belief that the sovereignty of a government belonged to the people, not to hereditary ruling class was repudiated by the British political mainstream, yet well accepted by the American people, becoming one of the main principles of the American government. Thus, these hopes and dreams, founded on the theological ideas, the new philosophical theories, as well as a revolutionary political ideology, stirred a revolution, later realized in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that ‘all men are created equal and they are endowed by the Creator inalienable Rights’ including ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
These principles are materialized in the ‘improvement of individual, communal and societal conditions of existence, in social progress’; in the belief that the individual’s success can be attained by means of individual endeavor, since the individual is rated according to merit and not to birth and rank; the idea of the ‘’melting pot’’: the American people is a miscellaneous of different ethnicities, cultures and therefore religions. ‘And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.’ Thus, The United States of America is an exceptional country, with an exceptional, revolutionary form of government, a fruitful soil, an exceptional people who fought for and believe in freedom, social progress, opportunity and success. It is in the concept of manifest destiny (the theological idea of election with a theory of geographical predestination, the belief in the superiority of the American form of government (America was destined to bring liberty and equality to the world), that Alexis de Tocqueville’s found his inspiration when writing Democracy in America.
In conclusion, the concept of ‘American Exceptionalism’ has its roots in theological, geographical and political ideas, which were first used when the first colonists arrived to American soil, praising an enlightened city upon a hill, which would show the rest of the world the path to democracy, liberty and equality. On the course of the American political history, there were several presidents who alluded to this biblical reference in their speeches, such as President John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, for instance.
The continuous repetition of its usage would show that the ‘’American Exceptionalism’’, its origins and the American founding principles are still very present in today’s American politics. As President Ronald Reagan said in his farewell speech, ‘America is freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise, and freedom is special and rare.’ And so it must be preserved, serve as an example to all the countries and societies that are ruled by all sorts of restrictions and tyrannical politics. America is exceptional because of its history, beliefs, ideals, and a miscellaneous of cultures which form a community with the same dream – the promise of equality, progress, and success. They have an American dream: a dream of a better future in a land blessed by God.