Aug 31 2012

FYI Republicans: Tocqueville Was Actually Insulting America When He Referred to it Being “Exceptional”

If a drinking game had been made out of Republicans calling America “exceptional” at the RNC, the hospitals would have been full of people with alcohol poisoning this week. Unfortunately, and a bit embarrassingly, what these exceptional Americans don’t seem to realize is that the term “American exceptionalism” actually comes from an insult to America, not a compliment.

Some may wonder how so many of today’s Republicans latched onto this extremely popular “American exceptionalism” meme, so I’m going to tell you. It was popularized by everyone’s favorite discredited “historian” David Barton, the same guy whose best selling book about Jefferson was just yanked by its publisher because it was so inaccurate.

I don’t know exactly when Barton began spewing this “American exceptionalism” thing, but I know he’s been using it for at least six years. In the Summer 2006 issue of his WallBuilders Report, Barton attributed the term “American Exceptionalism” to Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who was sent to America in the 1830s to report on America’s penal system, but ended up staying for several years studying all aspects of American life. The result of Tocqueville’s travels across America was, of course, his famous work Democracy in America.

Here’s what Barton wrote in 2006:

“This Fourth of July, America will celebrate its 230th birthday. Neither our closest allies nor our fiercest enemies have experienced the stability with which we have been blessed. In fact, during the time that America has flourished under the Declaration of Independence, France has had fifteen different governments. And Brazil has had seven since 1822; Poland, seven since 1921; Afghanistan, five since 1923; Russia, four since 1918; and the story is similar for other nations throughout Europe, Africa, South America, and the rest of the world.

‘Some describe this remarkable achievement as “American Exceptionalism” – a term coined in 1831 by Alexis de Tocqueville, a famous French visitor to America who penned the classic, Democracy in America. As De Tocqueville expressed it:

‘The position of the Americans is quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.’”

For years, Barton has incessantly repeated this Alexis de Tocqueville “American Exceptionalism” claim in his writings, videos, presentations, and radio and TV appearances. And thus it became a Republican talking point.

But what the Republicans don’t seem to know is that Tocqueville was insulting America when he called it exceptional, not giving us something to be proud of. Making this even more ironic is that what Tocqueville was actually referring to when he wrote of the “exceptional” nature of America was the prideful nature of Americans.

Here’s what Alexis de Tocqueville actually wrote. He introduced his opinion that America was “exceptional” by saying that Americans didn’t have any original thoughts or advances in science, literature, or the arts because they relied on the thinkers of Europe:

“At the head of the enlightened nations of the Old World the inhabitants of the United States more particularly identified one to which they were closely united by a common origin and by kindred habits. Among this people they found distinguished men of science, able artists, writers of eminence; and they were enabled to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without laboring to amass them. In spite of the ocean that intervenes, I cannot consent to separate America from Europe. I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people who are commissioned to explore the forests of the New World, while the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote their energies to thought and enlarge in all directions the empire of mind.

‘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. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people, and attempt to survey them at length with their own features.”

He then went on to conclude from his observations that Americans of the time had an altogether undeserved feeling of pride in themselves and their country:

“The Anglo-Americans are not only united by these common opinions, but they are separated from all other nations by a feeling of pride. For the last fifty years, no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They perceive that, for the present, their own democratic institutions prosper, whilst those of other countries fail; hence they conceive a high opinion of their superiority, and are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind. Thus, the dangers which threaten the American Union do not originate in diversity of interests or of opinions; but in the various characters and passions of the Americans.”

But now, thanks to the Republicans’ favorite pseudo-historian David Barton, “American exceptionalism,” a nineteenth century insult about the undeserved prideful nature of Americans is being proudly touted by Republicans everywhere. The irony is killing me.


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  1. 1
    Randide, Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin

    The irony?

    I don’t see any irony. These morons would wear it like a badge of honor if they were able to understand any of those big words.

  2. 2
    Emu Sam

    I thought Americans were fond of taking insults and making them their own. See stories about the origin of Yankee Doodle.

  3. 3
    Steve Morrison

    Language Log had a history of the phrase “American exceptionalism” earlier this year. It turns out that the precise phrase occurs earliest in Communist writings!

  4. 4

    Barton is wrong also on the point he claims. In two ways. First, while we have had — in some sense — the same government since 1789, it took one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars to preserve it. And it changed the nature of our nation. Second, Britain’s last revolution was a hundred years before our own Constitution was written.

  5. 5

    Scarier still that not a single word of that 180 year old document is in any way out of date.

  6. 6

    Thanks Chris, very timely and useful.

  7. 7

    And here I thought (Canadian as I am) that “American exceptionalism” was just the name for the idea. I didn’t know people literally said “America is exceptional”; I thought they just said generally boastful things to that effect, but not in so many words.

  8. 8
    No Light

    A big shiny penny has just dropped on my head.

    For several months now, when I’ve levied the charge of “typical American exceptionalism” I’ve been met with “So you admit we’re something to envy?” and other such sentiments.

    When I’ve referred to the “Shining City on the Hill” (in the context of exceptionalism) I’ve been thanked.

    Now I know why. My irony lobe has just haemorrhaged.

  9. 9

    To quote myself from American Creation:

    I’ve just scanned Democracy in America and there are a few other things that de Tocqueville had to say while writing about America (in just Volume 1): “Great, great people, great nation, greater, greatness, and greatest.” He goes on, “good, better, best, fantastical, wonderful, brilliant” and also “important, necessary, irresistible, and indispensable.” And, “blessed and humble,” also too.

    Now I suppose some commie-socialist Marxist agitator will be along any minute now to explain the so-called “context” of these words. Well, phooey ya party poopers.

    I’m a little surprised Barton left so many nuggets unmined.


  10. 10

    David Barton’s hermeneutical skills failing him again? How shocking!

    The fun thing about a phrase like “American Exceptionalism” is that it can mean anything to anybody.

    I guess Tocqueville was insulting us, although personally I am not too troubled about a French aristocrat’s haughty assessment of our bourgeois pragmatism and our nineteenth century intellectual dependence upon Europe.

    Socialists used the phrase as a question as to why no influential radical political parties developed here.

    And then there is the best treatment of the subject by sociologist Seymour Lipset, who argued that America is different in many fundamental and quantifiable ways–not better–just different. A sample here:


    Now Barton and some of my fellow Republicans (not Republicans everywere, Chris) use it assert some divinely ordained mission to bring freedom, democracy, and probably Christianity to the rest of the world–whether they want it or not.

  11. 11

    Nothing ever seems to change.

  12. 12

    Incredible piece. Thanks

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