American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History weighs in at a little under fifty, four-by-six pages (not including notes and citations). It’s pretty light weight, especially as it goes for books on politics or history. And yet, Charles Murray does not disappoint. He packs in a lot of interesting ideas in a short amount of time.
Murray opens by looking at misconceptions about what American exceptionalism means. Rather than using the definition of “exceptional” that means “wonderful,” Murray notes that at the founding of the country, and indeed for most of the first century of US history, most of the world saw what was happening in America as exceptional. There are four arguments Murray makes to demonstrate exceptionalism:
1. Observers throughout the western world saw America as exceptional, something different from what was going on elsewhere throughout Europe.
2. American exceptionalism doesn’t always refer to what was seen by western observers as positive traits. I.e. Americans tended to industrious, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life, something that Murray ties all together under the category of “civic engagement.”
3. Exceptionalism is…or was…a fact that cannot be denied any more than that the Gettysburg address happened. Further, understanding what it means is essential to understanding what it means to be an American.
4. American exceptionalism refers primarily to qualities that were observed during the first century of American history.
America’s setting (separated from Western Europe by an ocean), form of government (a republic), and the characteristics of the population (Toqueville and others described Americans propensity for industry, egalitarianism, religiosity, and community life) made for a place that was unique among the nations.
Alongside his arguments, Murray takes time to address, or a least highlight, liberal arguments about why America is not, and never has been, exceptional. These primarily deal with slavery, social justice, and feminism. While not necessarily answering them, Murray ends with an assertion that though America has changed, it behooves modern Americans to examine whether the changes have been positive or negatives.
Bite size and a fast read, Murray’s examination of exceptionalism is worth the time and the reminder of where America came from. It’s easy to find revisionist historians criticizing and rewriting American history through modern lenses, and Murray makes quick and clean work of reminding readers why America was, and is, a different place.