In Box

'American Exceptionalism': A Short History

How did a phrase initially used dismissively by Joseph Stalin become shorthand for who loves America more?

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney contrasts his vision of American greatness with what he claims is Barack Obama's proclivity for apologizing for it. The "president doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do," Romney has charged. All countries have their own brand of chest-thumping nationalism, but almost none is as patently universal -- even messianic -- as this belief in America's special character and role in the world. While the mission may be centuries old, the phrase only recently entered the political lexicon, after it was first uttered by none other than Joseph Stalin. Today the term is experiencing a resurgence in an age of anxiety about American decline.

As the Massachusetts Bay Company sets sail from England to the New World, Puritan lawyer John Winthrop urges his fellow passengers on the Arabella to "be as a city upon a hill," alluding to a phrase from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. The colonists must make New England a model for future settlements, he notes, as the "eyes of all people are upon us."

In "Common Sense," revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine describes America as a beacon of liberty for the world. "Freedom hath been hunted round the globe," he explains. "Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."

Reflecting on his travels in the United States in his seminal work, Democracy in America, French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville writes that the "position of the Americans" is "quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one."

"There is but a single specialty with us, only one thing that can be called by the wide name 'American.' That is the national devotion to ice-water.… I suppose we do stand alone in having a drink that nobody likes but ourselves." --Mark Twain

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson infuses Paine's notion of the United States as a bastion of freedom with missionary zeal, arguing that what makes America unique is its duty to spread liberty abroad. "I want you to take these great engines of force out onto the seas like adventurers enlisted for the elevation of the spirit of the human race," Wilson tells U.S. Naval Academy graduates. "For that is the only distinction that America has."

Coining a new term, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin condemns the "heresy of American exceptionalism" while expelling American communist leader Jay Lovestone and his followers from the Communist International for arguing that U.S. capitalism constitutes an exception to Marxism's universal laws. Within a year, the Communist Party USA has adopted Stalin's disparaging term. "The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism," the party declares, gloating about the Great Depression.

Echoing Wilson, magazine publisher Henry Luce urges the United States to enter World War II and exchange isolationism for an "American century" in which it acts as the "powerhouse" of those ideals that are "especially American."

A group of American historians -- including Daniel Boorstin, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and David Potter -- argues that the United States forged a "consensus" of liberal values over time that enabled it to sidestep movements such as fascism and socialism. But they question whether this unique national character can be reproduced elsewhere. As Boorstin writes, "nothing could be more un-American than to urge other countries to imitate America."

President John F. Kennedy suggests that America's distinctiveness stems from its determination to exemplify and defend freedom all over the world. He invokes Winthrop's "city upon a hill" and declares: "More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free."

In a National Affairs essay, "The End of American Exceptionalism," sociologist Daniel Bell gives voice to growing skepticism in academia about the concept in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. "Today," he writes, "the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation's future."

Ronald Reagan counters President Jimmy Carter's rhetoric about a national "crisis of confidence" with paeans to American greatness during the presidential campaign. "I've always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way," Reagan later explains.

The final days of the Cold War raise the prospect that the American model could become the norm, not the exception. "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War" but the "end of history as such, that is … the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government," political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously proclaims.

In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in  harmony and peace." --Ronald Reagan

In a speech justifying NATO's intervention in Bosnia, President Bill Clinton declares that "America remains the indispensable nation" and that "there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression."

American exceptionalism becomes a partisan talking point as future George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessan, in a Weekly Standard article, contends that there are two competing visions of internationalism in the 21st century: the "'global multilateralism' of the Clinton-Gore Democrats" vs. the "'American exceptionalism' of the Reagan-Bush Republicans."

"Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America." --George W. Bush

Amid skepticism about America's global leadership, fueled by a disastrous war in Iraq and the global financial crisis, Democrat Barack Obama runs against Bush's muscular "Freedom Agenda" in the election to succeed him. "I believe in American exceptionalism," Obama says, but not one based on "our military prowess or our economic dominance." Democratic pollster Mark Penn advises Hillary Clinton to target Obama's "lack of American roots" in the primary by "explicitly own[ing] 'American'" in her campaign.

As critical scholarship -- such as Godfrey Hodgson's The Myth of American Exceptionalism -- proliferates, Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to use the phrase "American exceptionalism" publicly. "I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism" -- a line later much quoted by Republicans eager to prove his disdain for American uniqueness.

80 percent of Americans believe the United States "has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world." But only 58 percent think Obama agrees. --USA Today/Gallup poll

With the presidential race heating up, the phrase gets reduced to a shorthand for "who loves America more." After making the "case for American greatness" in his 2010 book No Apology, GOP candidate Mitt Romney claims Obama believes "America's just another nation with a flag." The president, for his part, invokes Bill Clinton's "indispensable nation" in his State of the Union address and later declares, in response to Republican critics, "My entire career has been a testimony to American exceptionalism." If Stalin only knew what he started.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In Box

Still the One

Muammar al-Qaddafi may be history in Libya, but in this remote African kingdom he reigns supreme.

FORT PORTAL, Uganda — There's a place in Africa where Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is still king, but it's a long way from his unmarked grave deep in the Libyan desert. To get there, you have to travel south through the searing plains of Darfur and the scrubby brush of South Sudan and across the jungles of northern Uganda to its capital, Kampala. Then head west -- roughly 150 miles over rutted, potholed roads -- to the green hills of the Kingdom of Toro, ruled by a fatherless young monarch who grew up under Qaddafi's patronage.

Here, in the town of Fort Portal, in the smaller, more modern of the two Toro palaces atop Kabarole Hill, a portrait of Qaddafi still dominates the royal receiving room. Hung opposite the king's chair, it shows the Libyan leader triumphant, fist raised. The image dwarfs the room's other adornments: photographs of unsmiling former Toro kings, overstuffed furniture, animal skins. "The royal family is going to miss him quite a lot," Phillip Winyi, the kingdom's minister of information and foreign relations, tells me. The Qaddafis "were like another family." 

The Toros, a pastoralist tribe of 2 million people tucked above Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains and made up primarily of Christians with a Muslim minority, trace their history back to the 16th century, though they only achieved independence in the early 1800s, splitting from the Bunyoro Kingdom to the north. The Toro connection with Libyan "royalty" is much more recent, dating to an unlikely encounter between Qaddafi and the Toro royal family at Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's 2001 swearing-in ceremony in Kampala. Local legend has it that the Libyan ruler was enthralled by the sight of 9-year-old King Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV -- King Oyo, for short -- all decked out in his ceremonial garb, the world's youngest monarch when he ascended the throne at age three. Soon after, Qaddafi's private jet was waiting at Entebbe International Airport to pick up the Toro royals for a visit to Tripoli. In July of that year, Qaddafi descended on Fort Portal for a ceremony in King Oyo's honor with so much pomp, circumstance, and security that one local journalist recalls it was like "the sky was coming to get in touch with the earth."

Mustopher Akolebirungi sells cosmetics at a wooden stall in Fort Portal's market. When Qaddafi came to town, Akolebirungi was part of a dance troupe that performed for the Libyan dictator. "I was graced because I saw a great man," he tells me. At the event, he received a T-shirt bearing Qaddafi's smiling face, which he wore until it disintegrated from too many washings.

Akolebirungi's opinion of Qaddafi is that the Libyan was one of Africa's great leaders; it is a view I hear many times across this city of more than 40,000 people. Perhaps he stayed too long in power, but Qaddafi was "not supposed to be killed in such a way," says Akolebirungi. "He should have been exiled." Perhaps even to the Toro Kingdom.

Qaddafi certainly could have lived here in one of the more dramatic symbols of his benevolence -- the royal palace. In the late 1970s, President Idi Amin and his troops did a number on the traditional home of the Toro kings, known as Omukama's Palace, using it as a military garrison. When they moved out, looters trashed the place, grabbing doors, windows, and fixtures. A smaller palace atop Kabarole Hill was built for the royal family next to the remains of Omukama's Palace, as the kingdom could not afford the extensive renovations to the decades-old structure.

During his July 2001 visit, however, Qaddafi cemented his promise to fund the restoration of the enormous, hatbox-shaped palace by laying an official foundation stone. Within a few years -- after several hundred thousand dollars, according to Winyi, and a final coat of coral-pink paint -- it was finished. A plaque was affixed at the entrance honoring the "great leader," and residents of Fort Portal took to calling the structure "Qaddafi's Palace."

The Toro Kingdom, in turn, named him a "Defender of the Crown," its highest honor, complete with a royal spear and crown. The only other outsider to have received that title recently is Museveni, who restored Uganda's traditional kingdoms in 1993, some 26 years after President Milton Obote formally abolished them. A few months before Qaddafi's capture and killing, Toro Queen Mother Best Kemigisa added another title, calling him her "best friend" in an interview with a local newspaper.

But Qaddafi's largesse to the Toro Kingdom wasn't entirely selfless. Like the continental wars he helped fund and the mosques he built, the Libyan dictator's friendship was also an investment -- a foothold purchased among Africa's traditional leaders to propagate his vision of a united, yet tribal African state. "Toro Kingdom was his darling institution," Winyi says. "Whatever he wanted done, he would use Toro Kingdom to do it."

Winyi should know. He's the guy who got the 2 a.m. phone calls from frazzled Libyan Embassy officials. Could he organize a conference of traditional leaders in Uganda in three days? Could he assemble a group of East Africa's tribal kings and have them in Benghazi in 72 hours? It's the latter request that got the royal family in hot water with the Ugandan government.

Winyi claims with some pride that the unified body of traditional leaders Qaddafi assembled in August 2008, dubbed the Forum of Kings and Sultans of Africa, was originally a Toro idea. In its initial conception, Winyi says, the forum was to consider the role of traditional rulers in modern Africa. But Qaddafi had other plans. He wanted to leverage the group to pressure continental leaders who had rejected his call for a unified African state. Over this motley assortment of African tribes, Qaddafi -- at once iron-fisted dictator, simple Bedouin, revolutionary philosopher, and billionaire oilman -- would rule. At the 2008 meeting, he orchestrated a ceremony at which the body named him "King of Kings." Photos from the event show Qaddafi seated on a throne, surrounded by African rulers resplendent in traditional costumes.

Six months after his "coronation," Qaddafi arranged for the royals -- including the Toro queen mother -- to dust off their finery and fly to an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he was to be named chairman of the organization. But the traditional leaders were initially blocked from entering the summit because they were not official heads of state. Eventually, Qaddafi managed to get at least seven of his royal allies into the hall, including one from Benin who publicly championed Qaddafi's "crowning" in a statement that was later struck from the official record. "Many heads of state in Africa felt this was very, very bad," Winyi says." It caused a lot of problems for the traditional leaders back home."

Back in Uganda, Museveni was not amused. The president, who came to power in 1986 and -- with Qaddafi's fall -- is now the fifth-longest-serving African leader, had long opposed the Libyan dictator's call for a United States of Africa. When Museveni reinstated Uganda's four traditional kingdoms, he restricted them to purely cultural institutions -- without political authority. It was a shrewd move. In a country where many people still identify and marry along tribal lines, Museveni won accolades for returning the kingdoms to the people, while the limitations he placed on them ensured he was not promoting any future political rivals. But suddenly, there was Qaddafi, arm in arm with the Toro leadership, undermining Museveni's position on the world stage. Uganda's Parliament moved quickly to curb the kingdoms. For one thing, Winyi says, requests for official travel were now to be run through Uganda's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Still, the new restrictions didn't dampen the kingdom's enthusiasm for Qaddafi. Many in Fort Portal kept a close eye on the civil war in Libya last year, praying for Qaddafi to defeat and then to escape the Libyan rebels. When he was killed, "it was terrible," says Ray Bashir Kayondo, a local radio personality. "Someone even called me when he was shedding tears.… [Qaddafi's] an icon here."

Ironically, if anyone has grown less popular since Qaddafi arrived on the scene, it's the Toro royals. Today, photos of the royal family touring Libya, or of King Oyo and his sister attending posh Western schools that Qaddafi helped pay for, rankle when as many as 30 percent of the people in the kingdom get by on just $1.25 a day. The people of Toro saw Qaddafi "give money, but it [didn't] reach the grassroots person," says Solomon Akugizibwe, who works for a local NGO documenting the kingdom's heritage.

One of the king's regents, Rev. Richard Baguma, insists that the Toro people "are not jealous" of the royal family. He says that when King Oyo, now 20 years old, returns from studying at Britain's famed Sandhurst military academy for his coronation anniversary later this year, he will be greeted with the usual fanfare. And because "Defender of the Crown" is a hereditary title, Qaddafi's heirs -- wherever they are -- are welcome to attend too, Baguma says, smiling.

Back atop Kabarole Hill, caretaker Charles Muhanga gives me a tour of "Qaddafi's Palace," calling the renovation a gift from the Libyan people. Circling the coral-pink mansion, Muhanga stops in front of the entrance. Next to one of the doors, there's a rectangle of darker paint and four telltale holes where the screws have been removed. Until recently, the plaque memorializing the day Qaddafi laid the foundation stone had hung there. Muhanga can't say when or why it came down.

But no one here in the land of Toro needs a plaque to remember the kingdom's benefactor. Qaddafi was "a good man," says Akolebirungi, the cosmetics salesman. "Here in Africa, he did so many good things for us."