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Let’s Teach American Exceptionalism for What It Is

There have always been two Americas. Kids need to realize that.

Tim Royers
Sep 10, 2018 · 11 min read
Photo: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

Nebraska is gearing up for a state-wide review of its social studies standards in public schools. All of the state’s social studies teachers have been asked to review the existing standards and offer feedback.

The current standards call for studying the U.S. as an exceptional country with ideals based in “personal freedom, the inherent nature of citizens’ rights, and democratic ideals.” These were written around the same time that the controversy erupted over the revised Advanced Placement United States History standards, which involved multiple states threatening to drop the course and the Republican Party issuing a statement condemning the revision.

The challenge with the traditional American Exceptionalism theory is that the more you learn about United States history, the harder it is to defend. It’s hard to defend the idea that the United States has an exceptional record of standing for inherent citizens’ rights when you learn about American history in the era of Japanese internment camps.

While the founders utilized radical new means to achieve their ends, those ends remained fundamentally entrenched in an effort to restore a romanticized colonial past.

It’s hard to defend the idea that the United States is an exceptional country regarding personal freedom when you consider the fact that Native Americans had to go to court to prove that they were, in fact, people in the eyes of the law. It is hard to defend the idea that the United States is exceptional in the promotion of democratic ideals when many state and local governments continue to actively engage in voter suppression, often based on race.

The common response to gaining a more nuanced understanding of United States history is to reject the more traditional narrative that emphasizes America’s exceptionality. This, too, often creates controversy and backlash at the institutional level, with accusations that public school curriculums are becoming more “anti-American,” and movements to preserve the original philosophy. It’s high time that we recognize the need to synthesize the two perspectives.

The reality is that there is a fundamental duality underlying American political history, and until we fully acknowledge this duality in current public school curriculums, our classrooms will continue to offer only a partial glimpse into the past. This is not an either/or proposition — America is exceptional — but just in ways that have done both good and bad.

We can trace this duality in American history to a conundrum that dates back to the very founding of the United States: When the leaders of the Revolution chose to seek independence, they launched a movement that espoused conservative ideals, but which used radical means to achieve them. Here, I am using “conservative” in the nonpolitical sense — the goal of the leaders was to return to American colonial society as it was before the increased interference of the British crown.

For an extended period of time, the British had largely left the American colonies alone, partially because England had spent most of the 17th century embroiled in the chaos of the English Civil War, the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, and ultimately, the Glorious Revolution. For most of the 18th century, the colonies continued to be left alone, despite the passage of new British laws. This abruptly changed after the Seven Years’ War, when the newly acquired territories in North America, along with the burden of Britain’s war debt, made continuing this model impossible for Great Britain.

Unlike other major revolutions, like those which took place in France, Haiti, and Mexico, leaders of the Colonies did not seek to completely topple the status quo and establish something brand new. What they wanted was to return to a period of local governance through representation of the propertied elite. The fact that they exercised all other options before finally agreeing to push for independence reinforces the idea that their goal was to regain local control using the most reasonable, and least explosive, means possible.

When these efforts were unsuccessful, leaders turned to the political theories of the Enlightenment, specifically the prospect of independence. They attempted to will into existence what had, until that point, only appeared on paper, including social contracts, natural rights, and popular sovereignty, all through the enforcement of the Declaration of Independence.

As much as we celebrate the profound rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and similar documents, we should clearly acknowledge that their original purpose was to restore liberties, control over property, and access to political decision making for a privileged few. Indications of this fact are in the documents themselves — the very same document which famously affirms that “all men are created equal,” with women intentionally omitted (the thinkers of the Enlightenment era felt that politics was exclusively the realm of men), also contains a passage that decries the “merciless Indian savages.”

Possibly the most telling clue that the Founders’ original intent in creating the Declaration was not to create a new country fully supporting the rights of all exists at the very top of the Declaration itself:

“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America…” Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Notice here that the word “united” is not capitalized. The intention was to achieve the sovereignty of the 13 colonies, and the word “united” was more of an adjective than a defining characteristic of the new government. This is why the first government established for the United States was based on the disastrous Articles of Confederation. In reality, the concept of forming a single country would take time to develop, and many historians argue that it did not truly solidify until after the Civil War.

In short, while the founders utilized radical new means to achieve their ends, those ends remained fundamentally entrenched in an effort to restore a romanticized colonial past. They wanted to access the tools of social contract, natural rights, and consent of the governed, but only for themselves and with no intention to share those tools with everyone else.

Needless to say, this is why the same person who writes about the equal standing of all men can legally own slaves. It is why the same people that decry a lack of representation would also put in place institutional barriers to mitigate the influence that direct elections could have through the Electoral College. It is why most states limited voting to white male property owners and no one else. This was a revolution based in Enlightenment-era principles, both positive and negative.

The power of the rhetoric of the Founders, and the documents they wrote, was that the narrow society they wanted to uphold was implied and not directly articulated. This sets up the great paradox of our country: the constant battle between the Two Americas. One America seeks to uphold the ends of the Revolution, by maintaining a society dominated by a ruling elite. The other America seeks to uphold the means of the Revolution, extending the promises of liberty and participation in government to an ever-increasing percentage of American society who demand an end to their marginalization.

The tug-of-war between these two Americas has defined our country from its establishment to the present era, through the quandaries that arise between those who comfortably have their rights, and those on the margins seeking to be included in that group.

Take the Bill of Rights, for example. Many leaders in the early United States did not see the Bill of Rights as necessary, since the Constitution was designed to be an explicit list of what the federal government can do. In this way, there was no reason to protect free speech, because nothing in the Constitution permits Congress to restrict it in the first place.

As the sphere of those who do enjoy rights expands, those newly-included groups have ideologically joined the entity seen from the margins as oppressive.

But there were several religious groups that were afraid about the preservation of their liberties, notably the Baptist communities in James Madison’s home district. Madison was convinced to push for a Bill of Rights, in part because his constituents demanded it under the threat of an election challenge. Their efforts, and the efforts of those in similar circumstances, convinced those already in power to take political action to expand the protection of rights with the passing of the first ten amendments.

Throughout history, this has created an interesting phenomenon: As the sphere of those who do enjoy rights expands, those newly-included groups have ideologically joined the entity seen from the margins as oppressive. In many ways, they have been seen to begin seeking to maintain a romanticized status-quo version of America which keeps them in a position of privilege, especially as a new wave of groups challenges and protests their excluded status in society.

The same members of the working class that would have been denied the vote in the early 19th century fought against expanding suffrage to women or minorities. The same skilled laborers that fought for collective representation resisted the extension of the same privileges to unskilled labor. The same women that sought to give themselves the vote at the turn of the 20th century sought to actively deny its extension to minority women. As the mission of earning legal rights was accomplished for each specific group, similar missions for other groups seeking to achieve the same thing were seen as dangerous enough to jeopardize the social order each prior group had had fought so hard to obtain.

This gradually increasing percentage of the American population that began to enjoy basic rights and privileges in the United States created a kind of time-traveling Overton Window. People will advocate for policies that would have been labeled as dangerous and too radical in the past, but which are seen as completely comfortable today. This is how we get to a point where the same group of people will simultaneously applaud the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., while decrying the protests of Colin Kaepernick as unacceptable and unnecessary.

It is important to remember that the Overton Window can be pulled back in the other direction, and that sometimes, the other America fights back. This is why the racial progress made in the years after the Civil War was viciously undone by the rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. It is why most Confederate monuments were not constructed until the turn of the 20th century, and why most schools named after Confederate leaders did not appear until the 1950s and 1960s, when people started to finally chip away at school segregation.

It is hard to rectify how the Klan and Civil Rights activists could both patriotically advocate for the same country… unless there are two competing visions for what that country is. Photos: Bettman/Getty Images (L), Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images (R)

I read a book over the summer, called Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, which really struck me. Before reading, I was already somewhat aware that the Nazis looked to the United States for guidance on forging their own divisive laws which sought to privilege the ethnically German majority over groups it deemed “undesirable,” primarily Germany’s small Jewish population.

Until I read this book, however, I did not realize how extensively the Nazis sought to borrow laws from the United States. To my surprise, it seems like they paid less attention to Jim Crow, and focused more on anti-immigration and anti-miscegenation (anti-interracial marriage) laws. As a reader, it was depressing to find out that my country was the go-to case study for Nazi Germany, and that the latter sent teams of attorneys to analyze American local and state laws which existed in congruence with Nazi principles regarding race.

What struck me as most interesting of all, and what reinforced my understanding and belief in the two Americas, was that the Nazis also expressed repeated frustration at the overall liberal emphasis of American politics. The Nazis contended that they could only cherrypick specific laws for adaptation at best, because, though many of our laws inspired them, the overall character of American government was incompatible with Nazi fascist ideology.

There is no doubt that the United States is exceptional. The term “American Exceptionalism” itself came from Josef Stalin, who complained that the uniqueness of the United States was preventing the effective spread of communism in the country. Now, however, it is time for us to expand the definition and general understanding of this term to include the exceptionally positive and negative visions of what the United States has been and can be.

We must continue to teach the vision of the United States as the work of forming a shining city upon a hill, built around “the great principles (of the Declaration of Independence) and the genius of American institutions,” as Frederick Douglass once described. But we do a grave disservice in teaching this vision while hiding the fact that various groups and individuals (and at times even the vast majority of the American population), have historically sought to undermine the very democratic institutions that serve as the foundation of our civic life. This has been done, and continues to happen, in order to pull the country towards an America built on policies that restrict the liberties and rights of those who are marginalized, and in order to preserve the perceived power of the privileged in our society.

We can never forget that the same America which oversaw the gradual expansion of rights that we celebrate today has a darker side.

The strength of our democratic institutions lie in each generation’s conscious choice to pick up the mantle and carry forward, as educated, engaged citizens who actively participate in the mission to continually improve this country. This is what allows America, the America centered around the ideals and principles of the Declaration of Independence and Preamble of the Constitution, to thrive. The genius of the Founders is that they have laid out overarching principles into a clear and simple framework that has continued to hold fast stay relevant over the centuries. The United States has one of the shortest Constitutions, and yet it still seems to work — we are still using the same one signed at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

We can never forget that the same America which oversaw the gradual expansion of rights that we celebrate today has a darker side. This is the side that sought to erase the culture of indigenous people, worked (and in many ways, still works) to prevent black families from owning homes or moving into certain neighborhoods, and which led an imperial conquest of the Philippines. Acknowledging this “other America” is not only needed for a healthy civic life in the present, but actually strengthens the accomplishments of the better, “more democratic” America through strength in opposition.

The final piece to consider is the importance of showing that these two visions of America are not mutually exclusive: Entire historical eras, political groups, and even specific individuals can seek, and have sought, to uphold both forms of the United States. How else can we explain Woodrow Wilson? The very same President who pushed to end overseas imperial holdings in the name of self-determination simultaneously worked to re-segregate the federal government, and even proudly screened the incredibly racist film Birth of a Nation in the White House.

It is no secret that Wilson was not alone in displaying such an extreme level of cognitive dissonance during his administration. Examples like his illustrate why we must understand American history in its totality so that we can understand the American present in its totality, as well.

The first step towards ensuring that we meet the lofty goals of the Preamble in forming a country that legitimately meets the principles laid out by the founding generation, is to fully acknowledge all of the exceptional elements of our country’s history, most importantly, the two competing visions of America that are at the center of the battle for the identity of the United States.

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