Editing Internet Texts/American Exceptionalism and National Myths in John F. Kennedy's Rhetoric/American Exceptionalism and National Myths

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American Exceptionalism[edit]

American exceptionalism refers to a widely held belief that the United States has an exceptional position and role in the human history. The term was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist, who used it for the first time in his Democracy in America, published between 1835 and 1840. The main assumption of this idea is that America has a divine mission of promoting the most basic human rights such as liberty, freedom and democracy. It is generally held that the United States is the moral center of the world and it should serve as an example for other nations.

The beginnings of the idea can be found in Puritan New England. The Puritans claimed that they were chosen by God to be a model for all mankind. John Winthrop, a Puritan leader, in one of his sermons, named this idea as "City Upon a Hill". He urged other colonists to establish a settlement that would become the model for other nations. The American Revolution brought new concepts and ideas to the national exceptionalism. The new ideology was based on egalitariansim, republicanism and individualism. Liberty, equality and the welfare of an average citizen became the priority. Thus, it reinforced the notion of the country as a savior for other nations, spreading the basic values of democracy and freedom.

The exceptionalist ideas have affected greatly the foreign policy of the U.S. It gave rise to the sense of superiority and the need to spread American values around the world and become a leading country. On the other hand, it contributed to the policy of isolationism, whose main reason was to protect the country from inferior foreigners.


America - a City Upon A Hill and a Chosen Nation

The city-upon-a-hill myth is believed to be a foundational myth of America. In 1630 a thousand Puritans set sail to America with a great vision. In his sermon delivered abroad the Arbella ship, which headed to the New World, John Winthrop, the governor of the Company of the Massachusetts Bay, stated:

"Thus stands the cause between God and us. We are entered into covenant with Him for this work. We have taken out a comission. (...) For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, with the eyes of all people upon us". (read exerpts of sermon here)

Winthrop aimed to create the community of New England that would become a model for other nations, a New Jerusalem. The New England Puritans believed not only that they set out on a journey to establish a new colony, but also that they embarked on a significant moral mission to provide an example to the whole world and become a spiritual model for others. Winthrop spurred on his fellow passengers to found a community worth emulating, an exemplary city that would always be visible and inspiring for the world.

The myth of America as a chosen nation emerged from the belief in the divine providence and the American's nation closeness to God. The main foundation of this myth is the assumption that God chose American people out of all other nations for an exceptional mission. It has its roots in the colonial period, similarly as A City Upon a Hill. The idea of America as a promised land and an exceptional place of vast opportunities was very popular amongst the colonial leaders, who believed to be elected by God to restore his kingdom on earth. When colonists came to America, the world became divided into two hemispheres: the Old World and the New one with the new hopes, desires and ideals. The American nation was envisioned as the nation chosen by God to set an example for the corrupted Old World and its institutions. The American people felt the urge to fulfill their destiny and to spread the principal values of liberty with less-favored peoples of the continent, as well as with the rest of humanity.

During the Founding Era the new concept of the American mission emerged. The Declaration, saying that:

"All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

strengthened the significance of the natural and God-given laws and rights, and created the sense of duty to spread these values around the globe. Shortly after the enactment of the American constitution, the aforementioned ideals became the creed of the American nation. The creators of a new republic, especially Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, became elevated to Founding Fathers. Moreover, the latter was compared to Moses, someone who parted the sea, restored people's faith, battled for his people, and brought new ideals and action to a suffering nation.

United States one dollar bill, reverse.jpg

The idea of the country that everyone looks up to may be found in the elements of everyday life, such as the symbolism of the United States one-dollar bill, in the "Pledge of Allegiance" or in the cult of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Novus Ordo Seclorum, "New Order of the Ages", the inscription that appears on the Great Seal of the United States, refers to the new era that began with the American zeal to introduce a new world order. It is related to a missionary character of the United States. The motto "In God We Trust" along with the "Pledge of Allegiance", which contains the phrase "under God", on the other hand, perfectly illustrates the idea of America as a chosen nation.


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