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The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Rick Rouse

“So we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another, we seek harm to none and harmony for all.” 

from “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman.

at President Joe Biden’s Inauguration)

We are facing a critical and dangerous time in our democracy as we seek to address the political, religious, and racial divides in this country. In order to find a way forward to a more just and civil society, we have to understand how we got here in the first place and why we have so much to repent for as a nation.

What is the origin of systemic racism in this country? It begins with the myth of American exceptionalism, the belief that America was God’s “Chosen Nation,” and because of that our destiny with greatness was both ordained and secure. This myth was perpetuated by religious and political leaders in the English colonies of North America. The new world was likened to Canaan—the promised land of the Old Testament.

The Doctrine of Discovery proclaimed by Pope Alexander VI gave European explorers the right to claim and exploit any land not inhabited by Christians. This gave credence to America’s sense of Manifest Destiny and provided the rationale for both the genocide of the Native American population as well as slavery of non-white persons on whose backs this nation was built. It was taught that the Anglo/White race was superior and intended to be God’s instrument of salvation for all others.

The 1776 Project Report, commissioned by the Trump administration and ironically released on the day honoring Martin Luther King Jr., rejected the idea that slavery was central to America’s founding and sought to develop a curriculum reshaping the motivations for the country’s origin for students and other Americans. The report said: “The Commission’s first responsibility is to produce a report summarizing the principles of the American founding and how those principles have shaped our country. That can only be done by truthfully recounting the aspirations and actions of men and women who sought to build America as a shining ‘city on a hill’--an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world.”

Dick and Liz Cheney co-authored the book Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America that touted the U.S. influence in the world as a nearly unmixed blessing, born of the American system’s special capacity for using its power for good and that this set America apart from other nations. However, American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset considered exceptionalism a “double-edged sword.” He wrote that while the United States might be less class-conscious and more libertarian than its international peers, it also is more violent and more indifferent to economic inequality.

America has never fully embodied equality, liberty, and justice. What it’s always had was a dream of justice and equality before the law. The 1776 Report authors are right to note that this was an astonishing dream in 1776 and it made America a beacon of radical hope. And it was enough to inspire people from all walks of life to try to make that dream a reality. But in recent years that dream seems illusive and fragile in a country marked by political and racial unrest. If we are to rescue that dream, we must face the truth of our flaws and find a way to come together.

As the African American poet, Langston Hughes, wrote in 1935 America is a dream yet to be realized:


"O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s.


Who made America

Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,

Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our might dream again…

Sure, call me an ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.

From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,

We must take back our land again,


O, yes,

I say it plain.

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!*

*“Let America Be America Again” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad. Penguin Random House LLC, 1994.

For further reading check out The Founding Myth by Andrew L. Seidel, 2019.

Artwork: American Progress is an 1872 painting by John allegory of Manifest Destiny, was widely disseminated in chromolithographic prints. It is now held by the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California.