American Exceptionalism, by Ian Tyrrell

Carrie Tirado Bramen enjoys a wide-ranging analysis of an important concept that has recently been neglected by scholars

January 10, 2022
A re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 2013 to illustrate a review of “American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea” by Ian Tyrrell
Source: Getty

In his new book, Ian Tyrrell argues that exceptionalism has structured the way that Americans have understood the world, blurring myth and social experience. For a less skilled historian, a book about such a capacious idea, which begins with the Puritans and concludes with the 6 January 2021 Capitol riots, could easily become unwieldy. But Tyrrell tells this story in a highly readable style that captures the concept’s complexity without becoming reductive.

His analysis of how Americans collectively understood their country to be “so distinctive that its history and destiny represented a different order of things” also addresses historiography, and it begins by noting how many US historians today believe that the question of American exceptionalism is settled – in the sense that it represents an old-fashioned idea that is no longer useful. But Tyrrell argues that there is a gap between what US historians consider relevant and the wider public’s conflation of patriotism with exceptionalism. In fact, far from being outdated, American exceptionalism has experienced a 21st-century resurgence in public discourse, epitomised by President Barack Obama’s press conference in Strasbourg in April 2009, where he explained how he supported aspects of the exceptionalist doctrine.

Methodologically, Tyrrell takes what he describes as a “slippery” term and draws fine and important distinctions between the American Way, the American Dream and the American Creed. Of the three, the American Creed shares with American exceptionalism the values of individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism and democracy. But more than the American Creed (a notion popularised by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal), American exceptionalism is relational, judging other countries as “conforming to a common pattern from which the United States diverges”. American exceptionalism is founded on the three central pillars of religious, political and material conditions. Briefly, the religious aspects of exceptionalism highlight the language of chosenness, while the political turns to the secular notions of freedom and democracy, and the material conditions refer to abundance or what the historian David Potter called the “people of plenty”. But these conditions are not fixed over time with a checklist of set attributes. Instead, they are often in tension with each other at different crisis points in US history, such as the Mexican-American War of 1848, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Exceptionalism can take multiple forms, and it is this dynamic quality that makes Tyrrell’s study far from static. Chosenness, abundance and futurity constitute some of the main ingredients of exceptionalist rhetoric, but the combination of these ingredients changes over time. What was the place of the Puritans, for instance, in a national narrative that was created two centuries later? Although John Winthrop’s 1630 address in which he referred to the colonists’ early community as “a city upon a hill” was not published until 1838, it became a way to associate the Puritans with a model of nationhood that stood outside of time, a pre-historicist exceptionalism that was turned into a patriotic slogan during the Reagan era at a time of rising Christian fundamentalism.

Tyrrell’s study offers an invaluable synthesis of how American exceptionalism has surfaced in US history. But just as valuable is its engagement with historiography from George Bancroft to Seymour Martin Lipset, along with more recent examples. One important takeaway is the argument that settler colonialism represents the repressed shadow side of US exceptionalism. This sense of specialness has allowed Americans to deny centuries of systemic violence, which has accompanied empire and indigenous land dispossession.

Carrie Tirado Bramen is professor of English at the University at Buffalo and the author of American Niceness: A Cultural History (2017).

American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea
By Ian Tyrrell
University of Chicago Press, 288pp, £26.44
ISBN 9780226812090
Published 12 January 2022

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