The Vanity of American Exceptionalism

Charles Murray's latest book mixes American history with American flattery.


American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History, by Charles Murray, AEI Press, 59 pages, $3.95.

Is the United States unlike any other nation in history? This may seem to be a simple question open to a straightforward answer reached with the help of comparative history, political theory, economics, and sociology. But American exceptionalism is rarely the stuff of dispassionate academic discourse. It has become wedded to modern nationalism. Politicians and journalists, Republicans and Democrats alike, invoke it as a creedal affirmation endorsing a range of American domestic and foreign policy agendas.

Charles Murray, author most recently of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, enters the debate with American Exceptionalism, a modest booklet published by the American Enterprise Institute. The idea of exceptionalism, Murray argues, once enjoyed a broad consensus and helped unite Americans around what Lincoln called their "political religion." Astute European visitors, such as the celebrated Alexis de Tocqueville and the lesser-known Francis Grund, witnessed America's unprecedented achievements and through their books reinforced the young nation's powerful self-conception. But recently that faith in "exceptionalism has eroded," and Murray calls on its champions to defend it from its critics at home and abroad. A creed that was once nearly universally embraced has become a minority affirmation. Murray ends by asking his readers to decide if they are happy with what has happened to exceptionalism and to reflect seriously on their duty to America and their vision for the nation's future. His hope seems to be that a reclaimed exceptionalism is critical to national self-knowledge and right conduct.

Murray's version of exceptionalism is fairly simple. Seizing their moment and opportunity, he writes, the Founders laid out a blueprint for the American experiment, including republicanism, a chief executive elected for a limited term, a written constitution, and the transformation of "an ideology of individual liberty into a governing creed." The nation launched in 1789 flourished in the century ahead sustained by a number of blessings: America's geographic remoteness from Europe's turmoil; her abundance of land; her commitment to natural rights and individualism; her citizens' "industriousness, egalitarianism, [and] religiosity, and an amalgam of philanthropy and volunteerism" in their communities; and the nineteenth century's doctrines of economic and political liberalism, which Murray identifies as his own tradition and as "the founding ideology of the nation."

Murray leaves no doubt how radically new the novus ordo seclorum was in his judgment. He emphasizes the republic's break with the past, its "unprecedented" and "unparalleled" achievement. America in 1789 was "an experiment in governance unlike any in the history of the world," he writes, and the Founders "invented a new nation from scratch."

While there were no doubt features of America that managed this escape from history in ways Americans recognized, boasted about, and wished to preserve, Murray's preoccupation with innovation ignores more than a century of colonial America's prior experience in self-government and constitutionalism and its acknowledged debt to ancient, European, and most of all English political theory and practice. It is hard to recognize historical reality in Murray's depiction of America's past. America was not sui generis; it was a variation on themes reaching back thousands of years. The republic did not emerge de novo in the New World; it altered—to use the word the Declaration of Independence chose—an existing form of government while announcing the more general right of a people to abolish their government.

Murray complains at one point about "both liberals and conservatives quoting snippets of [the Founders'] writings" to endorse their own views. But Murray's own snippets are vulnerable to the same charge. He uses an 1825 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, for instance, to show that after 50 years of reflection Jefferson called the rights language of the Declaration "an expression of the American mind." If this is true, it comports nicely with Murray's claim that America transformed an ideology of natural rights into an enduring political creed. But Jefferson's letter never makes this connection. In fact, the full text of Jefferson's letter makes a hash out of Murray's insistence on an America made "from scratch." The "object of the Declaration of Independence," Jefferson told Lee, was "not to find new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject." He continued: "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind." And he then cited "Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c." This letter may not prove a counter-argument against Murray's claims, but it certainly doesn't support them. Jefferson did mention "our rights," but the letter can hardly be appropriated for the idea of an America without precedent.

Reflecting on his visit to the Untied States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his repeated encounters with Americans' fussy "national pride." "In their relations with foreigners," he sighed, "Americans seem irritated by the slightest criticism and appear greedy for praise. The flimsiest compliment pleases them and the most fulsome rarely manages to satisfy them; they plague you constantly to make you praise them and, if you show yourself reluctant, they praise themselves. Doubting their own worth, they could be said to need a constant illustration of it before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy, it is also restless and jealous."

On a return visit, Tocqueville would find 21st century Americans still seeking flattery from others and flattering themselves. This appetite for praise was not a credit to the American character in the 1830s. Nor is it now. Our preoccupation with being exceptional, with figuring out just how exceptional we are, and then constantly reminding ourselves and insisting to the world on the indubitable truth of that exceptionalism is not attractive. Like all vanity, it impedes self-knowledge. And it forgets its indebtedness to the past.

Charles Murray's version of American exceptionalism is more cautious than most and his claims fairly circumspect compared to others. But they are still part of an odd national pastime, one we might have expected Americans to have outgrown by now, much as adults learn somewhere along the way not to talk about themselves and their achievements. A modest America would work hard to protect and perpetuate its achievements, but it would talk about something else.