After attack on the Capitol, we need a new way to think about America

After attack on the Capitol, we need a new way to think about America
© Getty Images

On Jan. 6, the United States became a different, less exceptional nation.

The riotous invasion of the Capitol was shocking, if not surprising, and it shattered the proud assertion of America’s special status as the only nation on earth always to peacefully transfer power from one political party to another.

Helping Americans come to terms with that loss will require rethinking the way we talk about ourselves as well as what patriotism entails. Going forward, our political leaders need to recalibrate the rhetoric they use to describe this country and the words with which they rally citizens to service and sacrifice.


It will not be an easy task, since celebrating American exceptionalism has become a deeply ingrained habit.

For almost as long as we have been a nation, Americans have been invited to a particular conceit: We have been told regularly, and repeatedly, that this country occupies a special station on earth. We are unique, and somehow able to rise above the destinies of other nations.

This way of thinking can be traced to the Puritans who first colonized America. It also was given expression in 1783 when George Washington proclaimed that America’s “absolute freedom” gave it a distinctive status among the nations of the world.

Washington urged his fellow citizens to embrace that status by sacrificing “their individual advantages to the interest of the community.” And he argued that the fate of America’s experiment in self-government was crucial to what he called “the destiny of unborn millions.”

The transfer of power in 1801 from our second president, John Adams, to Thomas Jefferson was a landmark in world history and set the precedent that, until last week, marked America as exceptional.


Ironically it wasn’t an American who first used the term exceptional to describe the United States. It was the French aristocrat and writer Alexis de Tocqueville who coined the term in 1831 in his book "Democracy in America."

“The position of the Americans,” Tocqueville said, “is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one… Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.”

The historian Michael Kammen notes that Americans quickly embraced Tocqueville’s view of America’s special status. He quotes one 19th century commentator: “Those who would like to imitate us should remember that there are no precedents for our history.”

In 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln famously embraced this view when he called America the “last best hope of earth”

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries American exceptionalism was a central part of the curriculum throughout the nation’s public schools. One study of the most commonly used textbooks found that they regularly “hailed American exceptionalism, manifest destiny, and America as God's country.”

In 1941, "Life" magazine publisher Henry Luce called the 20th century an “American century.” “Democracy and other American ideals,” Luce noted, “would do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”

During the mid-20th century Cold War, some of America’s leading historians embraced Luce’s view and celebrated exceptionalism. They tried to unearth its roots in American geography, culture and politics.

And throughout the last 100 years, presidents have regularly talked about America’s unique greatness and role in the world.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson said that the United States was a nation set apart by its values and principles from the rest of the world. The “force of America,” he argued, “is the force of moral principle.” Wilson called on Americans to remember that the United States had a ”plain destiny [to] serve [rather than] subdue the world.”

Ronald Reagan frequently echoed Wilson. As he put it in a speech on the night before the 1980 election, “I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers ... Visitors to that city on the Potomac are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still … a shining city on a hill.”

Indeed, among modern presidents it is not enough to say that America is a great nation. President-elect Biden is just the latest to insist that this is “the greatest nation on earth” and a “beacon for the globe.”

The Trump years have exposed cracks in the edifice of American exceptionalism and the fragility of our claim to be such a “beacon for the globe.” And the events of Jan. 6 have done untold damage to our self-image and standing in the world.

As America seeks to recover and repair that damage, we would benefit from a bit more humility about our claim to exceptionalism.

Jake SullivanJake SullivanBiden talks NATO, climate change in first presidential call with France's Macron Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick White House: It will be 'a bit of time' before Biden's first foreign trip MORE, Biden’s designee to be his National Security Advisor, got it right when in 2019 he said that “American exceptionalism is not a description of reality but the expression of an ambition. It is about striving, and falling short, and improving. This is the essence of a patriotism that every American can embrace.”

Austin Sarat is associate provost and dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on the death penalty including “Mercy on Trial: What it Means to Stop an Execution.”