Doing the Continental

The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850

by Lester D. Langley
Yale University Press, 374 pp., $35.00

Historians have become more cosmopolitan these days. Many of them have broadened their horizons and have begun to escape from the traditional preoccupation with their own national pasts. Historians of the United States in particular have become increasingly skeptical about their long-existing habit of interpreting America’s past as a matter of what is called “exceptionalism.” Indeed, some historians have come to think of American “exceptionalism” as a kind of bogey that must be exorcised from the American historical profession and indeed from the culture at large.

For these historians American “exceptionalism” has not meant merely that the United States has been different from other countries. All nations are different from one another, and all have unique histories. But Americans seem to have exaggerated their sense of uniqueness. They have tended to think of their nation not just as different but as specially or providentially blessed, as somehow free from the larger tendencies of history and the common fate of nations.

Since the late 1960s this belief in American exceptionalism has eroded in a variety of ways. Many intellectuals have concluded that the United States no longer has a favored place in the vanguard of history. The country’s history does not seem exceptional after all: the United States is not exempt from history’s constraints and contingencies. The conflict in Vietnam convinced many that the moral character of the United States was not different from that of other nations. Americans, it seemed, no longer have any uniquely transcendent part to play in the world in promoting liberty and democracy.

At the same time America’s sense of difference from Europe, on which its exceptionalism was originally founded, has slowly disappeared as European nations have achieved standards of living and degrees of freedom and democratic political stability that are equal to, if not higher than, those of the United States. Even the conservative celebrator of America Irving Kristol admits that America now is “a middle-aged nation,” not all that different from the older nations England and France. “American exceptionalism,” he says, is virtually over. “We are now a world power, and a world power is not a ‘city on a hill,’ a ‘light unto the nations’—phrases that, with every passing year, ring more hollow.”1 For the first time in our history we Americans are confronting the fact that the United States may be just another nation among nations without any special messianic destiny.

Without its sense of exceptionalism American history is losing much of its former close ties to the nation. Throughout the Western world one traditional role of history was to promote a sense of nationhood. But with a weakening of nationalism and the development of more critical and less chauvinistic kinds of history over the past several decades, that role is changing. For the most part, history is no longer designed to inculcate patriotism, build a national identity, and turn immigrants into citizens. Instead, many historians have begun emphasizing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, which has tended to dilute a unified…

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