Intellectual thought in America at its founding was dominated by those who ascribed to Enlightenment thought which originated in Europe. This intellectual tradition can be traced to the Protestant Reformation. The Founding Fathers were influenced by Enlightenment thought and led to the three founding documents of our nation; the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. These documents enshrined values held dear by Americans – equality, individualism, and freedom and contributed to the myth of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism can be defined as three interconnected ideas. The first, is that the history of the United States is different than any other nation and was founded based on liberal ideals. Because the United States had not experienced the yoke of feudalism or the aristocracy, it was uniquely molded to be a free and democratic society based on the ideals of individual freedom and the rights of the common man to pursue life, liberty and happiness (Garcia, Lec. 2, p. 6 and the Declaration of Independence). Because of the principles of its foundation, the second idea which contributes to this ideology of exceptionalism is that America has a mission to transform the world and share, some would say impose, its ideals on others, to export freedom, equality and individualism to those throughout the world. The third idea is that because of the previous two ideas, America has an inherent superiority over other nations.
Historian Jon Gjerde, in his text, Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth Century America says that for many Americans (especially Protestants), “Protestant Christianity was the basis for American freedoms and exceptionalism” (Gjerde, 55). This thinking was so pervasive during the nineteenth century that as immigrants from predominantly Catholic nations began to arrive on our shores, a national outcry was heard to ban their full participation in our government and institutions out of a fear that freedoms would be lost or at the very least corrupted.
Early American thought, beginning with Puritanism’s “central argument that man was depraved, worthless, evil and lacked the free will to find eternal salvation” and thus inherently evil, lacking free will and fully dependent on God for his very existence led to a lack of hope and a spiritual crisis which led many away from that faith tradition (Garcia, Lec. 2, p. 1-2). The opposite of this thinking was the Antinomian movement led by Anne Hutchinson and Reverend John Wheelwright who promulgated a new philosophy which was based on two principles. First, that the Bible was a philosophical document, not a theological one and did not originate as God’s divinely inspired word. And secondly, that man has free will (Garcia, Lec. 2, p. 3). These two diametrically opposed philosophies influenced the Founding Fathers in the foundational documents of our nation. This can be evidenced in the freedoms which provided man with the tools necessary to make his own way in the world; and the protections granted to insulate from the evils which are inherent to man.
As the population ballooned on the East Coast and Mid-West, William Jackson Turner posited that “democracy, work ethic, individualism, and freedom in the United States were to be found on the frontier, and not in the urban East Costs or in Europe” (Garcia, Lec. 2, p. 13). This looking to the frontier came to be known as ‘manifest destiny’ and was integral to American exceptionalism. Because God had granted man the freedom to create the nation out of nothing, it was our destiny to settle and dominate the land (and subsequently any people found in the way) from shore to shore and border to border.
Two hundred plus years from our foundation, this notion of American exceptionalism continues to pervade our national and religious discourse. In matters of war and peace, our will is imposed on others be it economically, militarily or religiously.
Garcia, Richard, A. Jonathan Edwards From Puritanism Toward a Secular Society, Week 2, Lecture 2.
Gjerde, Jon. Catholicism and the Shaping of Nineteenth-Century America, Edited by S. Deborah Kang. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.