Skip to main content

America is Exceptional, But...

February 2024
11min read

The idea of exceptionalism gives Americans the mistaken idea that we have managed to avoid the endemic problems besetting other nations, as well as the dilemmas of the human condition generally, as Frederick Douglass argued.

I believe that the greatness of the United States is not rooted in the country’s original governing institutions. Nor is the nation’s genius located in its Founding Fathers whose destructive errors of judgement set the nation on a chaotic road to Disunion. 

The wisdom of America is properly rooted in its laboring classes and the remarkable array of social movements and traditions of resistance to tyranny and corruption that they established—and continue to establish in our own time.  

Foremost among these were insurgencies created by ordinary people who understood that their struggles were intimately tied to people’s movements against despotism throughout the world. In An African American and Latinx History of the United States, I call this phenomenon emancipatory internationalism. It was a worldview born from the experience of seeing slavery, “Indian Wars,” and militarism extinguishing liberty across the North American continent in the tumultuous decades after the American Revolution. The power of emancipatory internationalism would break the boundaries of the nation state repeatedly in the form of slave revolts, strikes, the creation of anti-colonial newspapers and other anti-authoritarian tactics. 

Dissenters passed on these traditions of resistance to future generations by establishing anti-slavery societies, mutual aid organizations, labor parties, trade unions and other free associations. African American leaders brought emancipatory internationalism to the forefront during Reconstruction when they organized a national movement to assist the Cuban War of Independence (1868-1878) arguing that their newly won freedoms were imperiled as long as slavery existed anywhere in the world. 

In the 1920s, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) organized membership chapters in the United States, Cuba, Chile, France, South Africa and elsewhere with one, overarching goal: the self-emancipation of oppressed people everywhere. Critics of injustice in the United States joined together across a broad ideological spectrum—as well as across lines of race and ethnicity—to denounce exploitation of workers in other parts of the world. In the early 20th century, Pittsburgh Courier editor George Schuyler, Socialist Party leader Asa Philip Randolph, UNIA’s Amy Jacques Garvey (among many others) frequently juxtaposed the evils of white supremacist violence “at home” with US military occupation and corporate exploitation in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa. 

Howard University President Mordecai Johnson used his Washington, DC-based radio program to connect white business supremacy in the United States with his government’s support for repressive “Banana Republics” in Latin America. The Afro-American summarized Johnson’s Sunday broadcast in the final week of November, 1929 noting that, “To the [Herbert] Hoover administration he [Johnson] suggested that there is no need to talk of peace as long as its policy is exploitation and greed in Haiti, Nicaragua and other small countries of the Caribbean….And he reminded heads of big business that as super-corporations they did things to workers and to competitors that they would be ashamed to do in the presence of their own families.”

More recently, millions of participants in El Gran Paro Estadounidense (also known as the Great American General Strike of 2006) connected immigrants’ rights struggles for justice in the United States with the fight against human rights violations abroad. Union activist and first-generation immigrant Maria Padilla explained why she marched in Santa Cruz, California: 

      ….I am not only here fighting for the workers who are here in this country.
      I think of those who are [in Mexico] who are in the maquiladoras, in the 
      fields, and in the factories. Where they are mistreated and only get paid
      twenty-five cents an hour, and they are forced to work for long hours. I am
      also fighting for them here.

Origins of Emancipatory Internationalism and Its Antagonists

In the wake of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) radical abolitionists envisioned a new kind of freedom that transcended borders. After the Haitians carried out the first successful slave revolution in history, African American leaders urged the opening of a global liberation front. Emancipatory internationalism gained momentum as anti-slavery sentiment spread throughout the world, and as black organizers strengthened ties with activists outside of the United States. In the early antebellum period, African Americans looked to revolts in the Global South, particularly those waged against European empires for inspiration because these revolutions struck at slavery, the caste oppression of Indigenous people and the rule of the few over the many. This global vision of human rights was the core element of emancipatory internationalism.

As historian Julius Scott has argued, early slave revolts in the United States keyed on the Haitian Revolution and Haiti provided oppressed people in the hemisphere with a vision on ways to earn their freedom against seemingly insurmountable odds.  African American slaves in Virginia and North Carolina organized revolts between 1800 and 1801 that drew on the Haitian and French revolutions for inspiration. A former Haitian slave, Charles Deslondes, led the January, 1811 German Coast Uprising in southern Louisiana. The slave rebels planned to seize New Orleans and declare it a free city.  After armed clashes north of the city, the rebellion was crushed and the participants were executed en masse.

A few years later, Denmark Vesey, a free Black man, helped to organize an insurrectionary plot in Charleston, South Carolina. The revolt was planned for July 14, 1822, Bastille Day. Subsequently, the liberated slaves planned to escape to Haiti. City officials caught wind of the plan ahead of time, and executed Vesey as well as many alleged co-conspirators who had been members of the African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston that Vesey had helped to found.  

Black organizers and writers studied and celebrated revolutionaries in the Global South. Beginning in the nineteenth century, African American newspapers began running educational pieces on Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Mexico’s Vicente Guerrero and José Maria Morelos as well as Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Antonio Maceo and many others. In sharp contrast to America’s founders, each of these individuals placed the abolition of slavery and caste oppression at the center of their revolutionary goals. African Americans communities revered these leaders for profoundly enlarging the meaning of freedom in the Americas. 

Emancipatory internationalism faced huge obstacles in the United States. The nation was not founded as a classless or a colorblind society. To the contrary, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Benjamin Lincoln, Jr, and other early political theorists depicted the new nation as divided between the prosperous “Few” and the laboring “Many.” The role of the “Few” was to establish modes of governance, police power, and policies (domestic and foreign) in order to keep the envious majority or “the people out of doors” in check.

As Staughton Lynd noted in Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, the Constitution gave large property owners, especially slaveholders, the power they needed to dominate the federal government up to the eve of the Civil War.

The Electoral College acted as a check on the rights of ordinary people to directly elect the president as well as a guarantee that presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe would protect their fellow Virginia plantation owner’s interests for the first decades of the nation’s history.  

Yet, even from the perspective of the propertied classes, the Founders’ strategies failed to achieve their goals of providing stability and order in the young republic. These failures of democratic governance manifested themselves in the costly insurrections that wracked the country leading up to what was then the bloodiest civil war in human history. These conflicts include: Shays Rebellion (1786-1787), the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), the Anti-Rent War in New York (1839-1845), the Dorr Rebellion (1841-1842), numerous white riots aimed at abolitionists and African Americans as well as “Bleeding Kansas” (1850s to the Civil War)—to name just a few examples. 

Things did not improve after the end of the Civil War. Between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, workers in the United States endured the bloodiest labor conflicts in the history of the industrializing world. Strikers were massacred by officers of the state. Fortified armories were built in city centers, and troops were called out to crush walkouts. Republican as well as Democratic presidents issued sweeping injunctions to undermine national labor organizing efforts. Employers hired private militias and engaged armed detectives to break union campaigns. Legal historians have established that the very idea of freedom of association and speech in the nation’s workplaces was undermined by courts which often defined collective bargaining as a criminal conspiracy against the state and employers. 

Another one of the measures formulated by the Founding Fathers that continues to have a devastating impact on social relations is the Naturalization Act of 1790 which restricted the naturalization process towards citizenship in the United States to “any alien, being a free white person.” The racialization and denial of citizenship to entire classes of workers became the blunt instrument that employers used to keep wages low in numerous occupations identified with African American and—later—immigrant labor. The Naturalization Act worked to exclude “non-white” people from the benefits of citizenship even as it entrenched racism as the philosophy of westward expansion. Thomas Law, “Washington’s First Rich Man” explained to James Madison that racialized naturalization was a necessary weapon of settler colonialism:

I conceive that Virginia should particularly adopt every method to introduce more whites     & if possible to diminish the blacks, whereas an enemy to America once exultingly told     me that the blacks multiplied faster than the whites & that if the French got a footing to     the Southward their first step would be to proclaim freedom to the Negroes & thus     bloodshed & anarchy would ensue. If emigrants were fixed to the Westward would they     not combat against Indians & Negroes?

The fatal deficits of the new republic were revealed by a cavalcade of writers including Revolutionary War veterans Lemuel Haynes and William Manning as well as David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Herman Melville, and Charles Dickens.  The Antebellum Era in the United States was marked by an array of literary warnings that time was running short for dealing with the multiple crises facing the young nation. What drew these writers together was their faith in democracy and their understanding that elite Americans did not share it. Haynes, a Granville Minuteman of African descent who served at Ticonderoga, found his voice in the middle of the American Revolution. By 1776, Haynes had grown so confident in his ability to address the greatest issues of his day that he penned a critique of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. This black citizen-soldier’s counter-Declaration was titled: “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free thoughts on the illegality of Slave-keeping; Wherein those arguments that Are used in its vindication Are plainly confuted. Together with a humble Address to such as are Concerned in the Practice.”

Arguing that “Another great means by which the Few destroy free government is by raising standing armies and making needless wars,” William Manning wrote the Key of Liberty in 1798 with a plan to form a “Society of the Many or of Laborers” to rescue democracy from the growing power of bankers and the commercial elite. Manning conceived of the Society of the Many to be composed of laborers worldwide who would establish “social correspondences and mutual concessions” in order that “all differences might be settled so as to banish war from the earth.” 

David Walker’s anti-slavery Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (1829) was judged by white authorities to be so explosive it was widely banned. The author died under mysterious circumstances a year later. Inspired by Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829, and disheartened by the United States’ imperial efforts to spread chattel bondage across North America, the ex-slave Rev. Henry Highland Garnet advocated an armed insurrection of slaves as the only way to bring democracy to the United States.

Expecting to write a celebratory account of his visit to the United States in 1842, Charles Dickens was instead appalled by commercialism, slavery, and what passed for prison reform in the North. “This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination,” Dickens famously wrote in American Notes. 
Meanwhile, Herman Melville began a literary odyssey on the way to writing the greatest of all 19th century novelistic jeremiads on the American crisis. Before Moby Dick however, the veteran sailor penned White Jacket, a devastating attack against corporal punishment in the US Navy which when read carefully, was also a frontal assault on the despotism driving the republic to its doom. Melville asked: “Who put this great gulf between the American captain and the American Sailor? ….the notorious lawlessness of the commander has passed into a proverb familiar to [sailors]: The Law was not made for the captain!” 

In the Jim Crow era, newspapers such as the Baltimore-based Afro-American implicated the Founding Fathers in inflicting lasting damage on the republic by adhering to white supremacy: “The framers of the ‘Declaration of Independence,’ said what they believed, but they were so absorbed in making a Declaration of Independence that they lost sight of the fact that there was in their midst a race that had no part or lot in the framing of that now famous document. Only white men made it, and it was made only for white men, for even at that time the Negro, no matter how much of his blood had been shed to assist in making it possible that men should meet in the State House in Philadelphia without having the fear of Having their heads cut off for daring to promulgate ‘such a treasonable paper as was this very same [D]eclaration of [I]ndependence.’” 

US history texts continue to stress a tale of steady progress towards the creation of a middle class republic.  However, this progressive narrative does not square with the experiences of African Americans and Latinas/os with generations of forced labor, peonage, multiple eras of disenfranchisement, and mass incarceration. Autonomy, civil rights, and land ownership were accomplishments that might be earned in one moment—only to be snatched away in the wake of catastrophes such as the invasion of Mexico, voter suppression or the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.  The narrative of progress also excludes the great majority of people who never achieved a modicum of economic security, and it effectively silences the voices of enslaved African Americans, sharecroppers, migrant farm workers, phosphate miners, tunnel builders, and others whose labor enriched others above them in the society. 

Today, American exceptionalism or the idea of the US as the greatest democracy in history, is a belief broadly shared across the domestic political spectrum, the sine qua non of American politics, in fact. However, as Frederick Douglass argued during the Civil War, the idea of exceptionalism gives Americans the mistaken idea that they (we) have managed to avoid the endemic problems besetting other nations as well as the dilemmas of the human condition generally. Douglass’s speeches in the 1850s and 1860s emphasized the domestic and foreign policies that led to the Civil War. He observed that the terrible conflagration had been ushered in by decades of settler colonialism, corruption, and the promotion of slavery. In a rush to expand slavery’s profits, the United States had transformed the Americas into a gigantic war zone and was now reaping the grim harvest. In today’s era of endless wars, Douglass’s admonition to look at ourselves in the mirror has special resonance. 

I suggest replacing the idea of American exceptionalism and the greatness of the Founding Fathers with the philosophies of democratic struggle and social movement building. The New Deal provides an excellent case study to test out this theory.

Whereas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was once widely credited by scholars for the many policy innovations introduced in the midst of the Great Depression, historians in recent years have restored working class people as the major protagonists of industrial recovery. Throughout the nation, African American and Latina/o workers were at the forefront of the birth of industrial unionism and the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) at its inception in 1935. Historian Vicki L. Ruiz found that Mexican American cannery workers in the southwest drew on strong kinship networks in their communities to create a vibrant, democratic unionism in their workplaces during the Great Depression into the 1940s. Latina/o and African American workers were organizers and leaders in Communist-led unions such as the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers (UCAPAWA), the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers (FTA), and many others. Building on the work of Luisa Capetillo, her Latina predecessor in Florida, native Guatemalan Luisa Moreno became one of the nation’s most effective organizers. She helped tobacco workers, pecan-shellers and farm workers build new unions across the country.

African American and Latina/o workers’ insurgencies in coal mining, steel, agriculture and other industries helped set the stage for the rise of industrial unionism and the CIO. Unionization accelerated especially in the era of the New Deal. Between the 1930s and 1950s millions of U.S. factory workers, many of whom were first-generation immigrants, joined unions and used their new-found economic and political clout to raise families, build communities and create civic institutions. 

It was not coincidental that Congress ensured that millions of Black and Latina/o workers were excluded from New Deal social legislation in order to placate business interests from South Carolina to California who fought to maintain white business supremacy.  Agricultural workers and domestic workers were barred from the core New Deal protections such as Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act which gave workers the right to organize. These exclusions in turn exacerbated Black and Latina/o poverty, and drove deeper wedges between sectors of the US working class that have yet to be resolved.
      Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall spoke on the America’s imperfect start in a speech he gave commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution in 1987. Marshall felt that it was important to more closely exam “the Constitution’s inherent defects,” as well as acknowledging “…its promising evolution through 200 years of history.” Marshall discussed the Constitutional Convention’s fatal compromise with slavery which he imputed to the nation’s reliance on profits from slave labor. “Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound,” Marshall continued.  “To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.” Marshall pointed out that while the Founding Fathers had excluded women, slaves, and many others from inclusion in the polity, two centuries of “suffering, struggle and sacrifice,” had created an expansive idea of “We the People” that the founders could never have anticipated. 
      The greatest reward of studying the social history and social movements created by marginalized people in United States history is to learn how we can continue to build democracy and to promote civic engagement in a time that is no less turbulent than the era in which this nation was born. 

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.