City Upon a Hill: American Exceptionalism

BackStory

“The great Bartholdi statue, Liberty enlightening the world,” Currier & Ives, 1885 (Library of Congress)

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Almost two centuries after Alexis de Tocqueville said that the U.S. was an exceptional case in the history of modern nations, the idea of “American Exceptionalism” is alive and well. Almost every GOP candidate for president in 2012  invoked the notion, each suggesting that President Obama doesn’t sufficiently embrace it. And so you might be surprised that, 90 years ago, it was American communists who were Exceptionalism’s biggest fans.

From the Puritan vision of a “city upon a hill” to the 19th century concept of manifest destiny; from Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the U.S. as a worldwide model to Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the Puritans; this episode of BackStory looks at the changing meanings of Exceptionalism, and explores some of the ways Americans have invoked history to justify their sense of superiority in the world.

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