MARK KEOUGH, Guest Writer.
In part 1 of our series we closed with the question; If what we believe about American Exceptionalism really does matter then how did this extraordinary concept begin?
To answer this, let us first examine the origin of the phrase.
For most historians, the phrase American Exceptionalism originated with the French historian Alexis De Tocqueville. Having traveled across the American landscape De Tocqueville being so impressed with the American priority of productivity related to its material growth as opposed the lack there of found in the European priority of the arts and sciences, wrote in his two volume work Democracy in America ( published in 1835 and 1840)“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” (volume II of the 1972 Reeve translation [Knopf], p. 36). This quote however does not use the phrase “American Exceptionalism” but rather only refers to the position of the American culture as being an “exceptional” one. Additionally, nowhere in his writings can you find the phrase “American Exceptionalism”.
The actual phrase was not used until 1929 where it was used by the Communist leader, Joseph Stalin. He used the phrase while arguing with Jay Lovestone, then leader of the American communist party , about the viability of Marxist Communism being a strong enough ideology to take the place of American Capitalism. It was Lovestones’ position that the American working class i. e. “The Proletariat”, was not interested in revolution and that capitalism had a much stronger hold on the American people than elsewhere in the world. He argued that the Bolshevik economic model was unable to gain a hold on the people of the United States and would require that a more moderate approach to the reforming of the American experience would be necessary if Marxism was to have its way. Stalin responded by demanding that Lovestone distance himself from and end “this heresy of American Exceptionalism’. And so the phrase “American Exceptionalism was born.
What Lovestone saw as an “exceptional” roadblock to Marxism being the instrument of change in the American culture, and what De Tocqueville would maintain as an “exceptional “ world and life view, Stalin saw as a substandard socially inept economic order that was built upon an inferior ideology and therefore the embodiment of everything detested by his beloved Communist Party. Little did he understand that what he deemed as inferior was founded in a rich historical development that would contribute to and embody the greatness and superiority of our American way of life.
Join us for the next Part as we continue to examine “American Exceptionalism, its Roots and Fruits.