Most of the scholarship on American exceptionalism focuses on two main categories: “comparative” and “unique” exceptionalism. After considering the limitations of each, the path forward is set. It will be shown that imperial American exceptionalism was a development in, rather than a constant feature of, the American political tradition.
Chapter One outlines the main problems with the way American exceptionalism is usually addressed by examining the claims of some leading social scientists. The widespread confusion is partly due to the comparative posture taken in addressing the question, which cannot comprehend the political phenomenon for what it is. This calls for an alternate method, which is developed in the latter half of the chapter with an emphasis on America’s heritage of political and religious thought and the contributions of Willmoore Kendall and George Carey, Robert Bellah, and Eric Voegelin.
Chapter Two takes up John Winthrop, said to be the father of American exceptionalism because of his famous simile that the Massachusetts Bay Colony will be as a “city on a hill.” Winthrop is, however no imperial exceptionalist, though aspects of his ideas prepare the way for others’ imperialism.
Chapter Three focuses on the change that occurs in American self-conception during the American founding. An examination of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist shows a distinction into two spheres of what the Puritans formerly held as one.
Chapter Four covers Lincoln; rather than hewing to the traditional conception of the union as the development and reassertion of a long history of self-government, Lincoln recasts the American founding as the advent of a new kind of politics based on abstract ideas.
Chapter Five takes stock of the imperialism around the turn of the twentieth century, examining speeches by Albert Beveridge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Their imperialism is shown to be a re-combination of some of the central symbols of the tradition, but in a way that justifies actions previously held as illegitimate.
Chapter Six briefly evaluates the limitations of this dissertation and looks ahead to future related work.