Saturday, March 12, 2022

Ian Tyrrell's "American Exceptionalism"

Ian Tyrrell is emeritus professor of history at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of numerous books, including True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860 –1930, Historians in Public, and Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire.

Tyrrell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea, and reported the following:
My book is a history of American exceptionalism, not as fact but as belief, seen through its kaleidoscopic characteristics and challenges. Page 99 introduces the case of Sir Archibald Alison, a now obscure historian and jurist writing within the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. His History of Europe sold over 100,00 copies in an American edition in the early 1840s, even as little of the book dealt with the United States. The book’s relevance to American exceptionalism was its theme of a providential British Anglo-Saxonism which, transplanted to the Mississippi Valley, would turn the fledgling ex-colonies of British America into a material powerhouse of global significance. The American Home Missionary Society embraced Alison’s advocacy of a transnational Anglo-Saxonism as a stimulus for westward expansion, giving the United States the material platform to project worldwide influence in the extension of Christian “civilization”. Anglo-Saxonism became quite suddenly in the 1840s an exceptionalist ideology justifying this expansion under the term Manifest Destiny, which first appeared in print in 1845.

This vogue for Anglo-Saxonism provided a new and yet problematic view of exceptionalism. On the one hand it gave encouragement to the seizure of lands from “savage” or “barbaric” peoples but, on the other, brought into question the idea of exceptionalism as a singularly U.S. characteristic. A foundational exceptionalist formulation, derived from the American Revolution, saw the United States as a model nation based on a political ideology of republicanism and democracy. But Anglo-Saxonism’s reception revealed a strain of ethno-exceptionalism as a white domain, a characteristic shared with Britain and its settler colonies. This idea did not displace political rights as an issue, but did complicate and create contradictions within the overarching belief system of American exceptionalism, when seen in a world-historical perspective. These conflicts intensified as the struggle over the future of slavery became tied to Manifest Destiny and its assumption of white expansionism based on Anglo-Saxon superiority. Anglo-Saxonism became a hegemonic ideology to the extent that even some mid-nineteenth century African-American advocates of equal rights had to engage with the language of Anglo-Saxonism and its (faulty) assertion that human progress occurred on a basis of a racial civilization. The contest over the conflicted meanings of American Exceptionalism raised here is the major theme of the book.
Visit Ian Tyrrell's website.

The Page 99 Test: Reforming the World: The Creation of America's Moral Empire.

--Marshal Zeringue