Now, growing up as a poor conservative, I never heard of the phrase "American exceptionalism."
THE MEANINGS OF EXCEPTIONALISM
Until recently—say the last 2 or 3 years—few outside of the academic world ever encountered the term "exceptionalism." It was reserved almost exclusively to scholarly discourse, used mostly by social scientists and occasionally by historians and students of American studies. Today, the word has become ubiquitous, appearing in political speeches, newspaper columns, and blogospheric rants. Exceptionalism has gone viral. It serves for the most part as a term of polarization that divides liberals from conservatives.
Its frequent use in social science before it exploded onto the political scene might lead one to think that the term goes back far into American history. But this turns out not to be the case. Take John Winthrop, the person most often associated with originating the concept. Aboard the Arbella in 1630, Winthrop described the Puritan settlement to be built as "the city on the hill," a phrase usually recalled today, thanks to Ronald Reagan's embellishment, as "the shining city on the hill." And Winthrop went on to add the further exceptionalist theme that "the eyes of all people are upon us." But nowhere did he ever refer to his position as his doctrine of "exceptionalism." Nor for that matter did Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville is widely credited with having developed the social scientific idea of exceptionalism, meaning uniqueness in relation to most other nations. America, as he showed, was distinct in its historical circumstance of having experienced no feudal past. But what of the term? Modern analysts have scoured Tocqueville's works in search of a mention, in the hope of receiving his benediction. All of their prodigious efforts have yielded no more than one oblique reference, which on examination has no relation to any plausible meaning of the concept. In explaining why Americans do so little to cultivate the arts and sciences, Tocqueville attributes the deficiency to the harsh physical conditions that originally deprived them of the time and leisure to develop a higher culture: "the situation of the Americans is therefore entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in it". (Ceaser at 5.)
If this is the meaning of exceptionalism, Americans who favor the term should probably consider fleeing to Great Britain. (Ceaser at 5.)
I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But 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, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.
"Ronald Reagan, as far as I know, never used the term "exceptionalism." (Ceaser at 6.)
In fact, the use of the term "American exceptionalism" might only signal what so often is signaled by those who use big words hoping to sound smart and only reveal their ignorance.
In fact, it sounds like your abilities give rise to your duties.
From each according to his ability. to each according to his needs.