Last year’s presidential election brought heated debate about American exceptionalism. Republicans charged President Obama with failing to grasp it. But the meaning of American exceptionalism varies. Does it mean that the United States is inherently virtuous? Or that U.S. virtue depends on the survival of particular policies? Aren’t arguments about our exceptionalism really arguments about what approach we should take to foreign policy? Many early American leaders argued that policies that embroiled the nation in foreign conflicts would encourage the centralization of power at home and the maintenance of a large military establishment—and imperil the limited constitutional government that made the United States exceptional. Today, the loudest exponents of exceptionalism believe the opposite: that liberalism abroad depends on the success of U.S. military exertions.
Richard Gamble’s book, In Search of the City Hill: the Making and Unmaking of an American Myth, helps make sense of exceptionalism’s evolution. Gamble traces the “city on a hill” metaphor, from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who took it from the gospels, to its reincarnation in the 20th century as an explicitly political idea at the heart of foreign policy debates.
Historians Walter McDougall, the author of Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776, and Derek Leebaert, the author of Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, will provide commentary.
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