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American Exceptionalism

A New History of an Old Idea

A powerful dissection of a core American myth.
The idea that the United States is unlike every other country in world history is a surprisingly resilient one. Throughout his distinguished career, Ian Tyrrell has been one of the most influential historians of the idea of American exceptionalism, but he has never written a book focused solely on it until now. The notion that American identity might be exceptional emerged, Tyrrell shows, from the belief that the nascent early republic was not simply a postcolonial state but a genuinely new experiment in an imperialist world dominated by Britain. Prior to the Civil War, American exceptionalism fostered declarations of cultural, economic, and spatial independence. As the country grew in population and size, becoming a major player in the global order, its exceptionalist beliefs came more and more into focus—and into question. Over time, a political divide emerged: those who believed that America’s exceptionalism was the basis of its virtue and those who saw America as either a long way from perfect or actually fully unexceptional, and thus subject to universal demands for justice. Tyrrell masterfully articulates the many forces that made American exceptionalism such a divisive and definitional concept. Today, he notes, the demands that people acknowledge America’s exceptionalism have grown ever more strident, even as the material and moral evidence for that exceptionalism—to the extent that there ever was any—has withered away.

288 pages | 6 x 9

History: American History, History of Ideas

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


“In these troubled times, history cannot tell anxious Americans what—if anything—can sustain their collective identity.  But Tyrrell’s illuminating history of the elusive, evolving, and contested complex of ideas about America’s place in the world and role in world history shows us how previous generations grappled with their own troubled times as they imagined the future. American Exceptionalism is a fresh, timely, and thought-provoking contribution to national self-understanding.”

Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia

“Here is the book Tyrrell was destined to write. Drawing on his distinguished career studying US history from abroad, he masterfully charts the history of this contested notion. Sweeping in scope, attuned both to the history of ideas and the social infrastructures upon which they rest, American Exceptionalism shrewdly assesses the course of an old idea that continues to exert a hold in the twenty-first century. Required reading for any student of American history.”

Jay Sexton, University of Missouri

“Tyrrell makes us see American exceptionalism as a kaleidoscopic discursive formation, born of Europe’s early modern prehistoricist historical consciousness and American settlers’ ongoing imperialistic conquest—always in the background of American public discourse, but repeatedly coming to the fore as changing conditions and crises aroused advocates and opponents, who in turn focused attention on shifting religious, political, and material sources of uniqueness.”

Dorothy Ross, Johns Hopkins University

American Exceptionalism is a much-needed, erudite, wide-ranging, and persuasive study. There are many books addressing American exceptionalism but none like this. It is the most critically astute, synthetic, interdisciplinary, and balanced of all the studies made of the topic.”

John Corrigan, author of Religious Intolerance, America, and the World: A History of Forgetting and Remembering

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Peculiar Tale of American Exceptionalism

Chapter 1: The Puritans and American Chosenness
Chapter 2: Looking Back, Looking Forward: Remembering the Revolution
Chapter 3: Cultural Nationalism and the Origins of American Exceptionalism
Chapter 4: Lyman Beecher, Personal Identity, and the Christian Republic
Chapter 5: Women and Exceptionalism: The Self-Made Woman and the Power of Catharine Beecher
Chapter 6: Race, Anglo-Saxonism, and Manifest Destiny
Chapter 7: In the Hands of an Angry God: The Antislavery Jeremiad and the Origins of the Christian Nation
Chapter 8: Fin de Siècle Challenges: The Frontier, Labor, and American Imperialism
Chapter 9: Two Isms: Americanism and Socialism
Chapter 10: The Dream and the Century: The Liberal Exceptionalism of the New Deal State, 1930s–1960s
Chapter 11: The Newly Chosen Nation: Exceptionalism from Reagan to Trump


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