I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

The Myth of American Exceptionalism

Godfrey Hodgson

  • Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). 

The Myth of American Exceptionalism, as the title suggests, is Godfrey Hodgson’s attempt to firstly recognize this myth and bring its existence out into the open and to secondly explain the origins of this myth. American history, according to Hodgson, has been the victim of distortion and selectivity since beginning of the nation’s founding, and these glorified myths of exceptionalism presented under the guise of history are still being taught to the youth of the nation. The only period of time, Hodgson states, during which the United States was truly exceptional in comparison to the rest of the world—though still not as exceptional as they believed they were—was the early nineteenth century. During this time period the United States was not yet a class society and equality was the closest it had ever come to being an actuality largely due to landowning opportunities and public education. This period of middling exceptionalism ended at the coming of the Civil War, and it is at this point onward that Americans increasingly took their flights of superior fancy to the next level. Americans pushed their self-described moral and political superiority on the rest of the world, often downplaying the equally positive roles of other countries. Hodgson describes the unique assuredness that Woodrow Wilson had that his ideals would be adopted by other countries. During the Cold War, Hodgson notes, Americans were able to keep up this mythology due only to the fact that they were the only country that was not devastated by the wars. Hodgson’s major point is that up until this point Americans were proud of being liberal forces in the world, however, in the 1970s and 1980s the currents changed and Americans became proud, instead, of their conservative values in comparison to the unruly, liberalism of other countries.

Though he does not overtly state it, it is rather obvious that Hodgson wrote The Myth of American Exceptionalism in response to the presidency of George W. Bush, and thus this book, published in 2009, is largely a product of its time. Unlike Henry Nash Smith and his treatment of the myth of the West, Hodgson does not view the myth of American exceptionalism merely as a storyline that traces and explains the actions of Americans. Rather, Hodgson takes the myth idea to the next level by giving it heightened agency within the lives of Americans. The myth that Hodgson describes has taken on sinister characteristics and is a danger to the United States and the rest of the world. Hodgson sees a treacherously hubristic society that glorifies militarism, imperialism, and capitalistic greed that, due to its almost deliberate naivety, denies the inequalities and deep malfunctions of its government and society. This haze of hunky-doryness must be dissolved. The myth can be no more if the United States is going to survive the twenty-first century. Hodgson’s account is greatly influenced by his the fact that he is British. Although he thinks highly of the United States, he is able to stand back and look at it with a kind of clear gaze that most Americans would not be able to muster. Additionally, knowing the history of his own country and those in Europe, he is able to point out the discrepancies in the American account, which often portrays Americans as the only ones taking democratic strides in the world.

Hodgson’s continuous reassurances to the reader that he is not saying that America is not a great country with a lot of positive things going for it, just that it is not as exceptional as it may think it is, gets kind of annoying. However, the fact that an individual of Hodgson’s level of clout feels that he must insert this kind of comfort into his narrative illustrates how terrifying and defensive Americans can be when someone dares question their awesomeness. As a liberal who grew up in a very conservative region, I know the art of tiptoeing around conservatives all too well. One must wonder if Hodgson’s goal is coming to fruition with the ever-increasing Occupy Wallstreet movements across the United States and the globe. It seems that the mist of the exceptionalism myth is finally melting away from the minds of growing number of citizens. The inequalities are growing too large to ignore any longer. Perhaps the reign of the right-wing empire that Hodgson describes as initially developing in the 1970s is coming to a close.

Feature Image: American Exceptionalism Exceptions by Jagz Mario, 2011, Flickr Commons

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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