An Exceptional Nation

Review: ‘American Exceptionalism,’ by Charles Murray

Charles Murray /,
July 28, 2013

A new phrase entered the vernacular in 1927. Its creator was Joseph Stalin, who rejected "the heresy of American exceptionalism" to an American communist who thought his country’s character obviated Marxism. Thus, a convenient name for the already-common idea that America was unique among the world’s nations was born.

In American Exceptionalism, Charles Murray manages to pack into just 50 pages not only anecdotes like this, but also an examination of the idea’s roots and manifestations, a historical defense of its accuracy, and a consideration of whether the country remains exceptional.

For Murray, American exceptionalism originally comprised four elements: geography, culture, ideology, and politics. Each doubled, to some extent, as cause and effect. America’s settlement-era harshness, for example, "rigorously selected immigrants to have many of the qualities that the Founders depended upon to make the country work" and gave a perpetual "exhaust valve" for westward expansion. Bordered by non-belligerents and surrounded by seas, the land itself reduced typical nation-state diplomatic and military concerns.

Likewise, America’s civic and political characteristics marked its early exceptional character. Alexis De Tocqueville’s "voluntary associations"—themselves enabled by the thriving "free market" of thriving religious sects that cropped up in the absence of state religion—fostered local community ties, keeping people happy and government small. A national creed rooted in ideology proved a useful alternative to ethnic nationalism, while the political structures created by the Founders helped keep government small.

Through such observations, Murray sufficiently establishes American exceptionalism as a "fact of America’s past, not something you can choose whether to ‘believe in,’ any more than you can choose to ‘believe in’ the battle of Gettysburg."

But certain objections still exist, as Murray enumerates: treatment of slaves and Native Americans, the obsoleteness of the founders’ vision, excessive materialism, and the unnecessary lingering of religious and community life. Murray raises these critiques not to dispel them, but to inform the reader; the book’s brevity and purpose prohibit extensive refutation.

Murray closes with a critical discussion of America’s current status. He finds evidence that the country’s character has diluted relative to its original status: expansion has filled its borders; civil society has decayed (as Murray himself chronicled at length in Coming Apart) and religious affiliation has declined; the founding creed has lost purchase; and America’s political structure has joined the ever-leftward lurch of the rest of the world, such that Murray thinks "as a matter of historical accuracy, it cannot be argued that the Founders’ views of the proper scope of the federal government bear any resemblance to the platforms of either the Democratic or the Republican Parties."

Murray does not advocate restoring past exceptionalist characteristics, though anyone familiar with his work could probably guess his position on the matter (at one point, he admits: "I subscribe to the Founding ideology of the nation"). For a typical work, this decision would deserve scrutiny, but the purpose of this slim volume is to supply the reader with enough information to answer it for him or herself or to seek additional resources to do so.

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