Thomas Jefferson, when he left office, was quoted as saying:
“The station which we occupy among the nations of this earth is honorable but awful. Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.” (Quoted in Tucker and Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty p 7; see John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900))
A lot of people are a little confused about the beginnings of democracy in the US. People tend to think that the US went right from Revolution and Declaration of Independence to Constitution. From 1776 to 1789 the US was governed not by a Constitution but by a document called the Articles of Confederation. The states soon learned that they needed a central government powerful enough to collect taxes and settle disputes between states in order to prosecute the war and keep the peace.
Both the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution were heavily influenced by the latest political thought of that era. Political thought in the 1700’s was dominated by the Enlightenment. Treatises by philosophers like Voltaire, Locke, and Spinoza brought concepts like separation of church and state, freedom of expression, and individual liberty into the political mainstream. These new concepts fundamentally changed the relationship between government and its citizens. The first nation to be founded under these new liberal concepts was the US.
Unfortunately the liberalism of the time was still heavily moderated by the bigotry of that era. Freedom in the US didn’t extend to Slaves, Native Americans or Women. There were also very few protections for the average worker. Debt slavery, the practice of paying off a debt by using the debtor as a slave, was common until well into the 20th century.
The expressions of liberal ideals found in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were unique at the time but those liberal ideals had already been adopted throughout Europe. Scotland, England, Germany and a host of other countries had all gone a long way toward implementing those same liberal standards well before the US Revolution. The written documents were unique but US practices, especially in adhering to slavery, were despicable.
Thomas Jefferson was the first of many US politicians to conflate the idealism of the Constitution with a mandate to spread the ideals of democracy. The US saw itself as a sort of new Israel spreading the new republican religion. Expansionism became ‘manifest destiny’ and the new American Exceptionalism demanded the slaughter of all in its way. Unfortunately atrocities against Native Americans and war with Mexico meant that a lot of the people the US brought freedom to were dead at the time of acceptance.
The end of the Civil War marked the supposed end of slavery in the US. Could this finally be that period when US Exceptionalism would prove the US as a force for good? Unfortunately between The Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and groups like the KKK the US was still mostly failing to live up to their goals.
The beginning of the 20th century was when the US finally became an economic power. Prior to the beginning of the 20th century the US economy was not much of a factor in the world economy. Technology and manufacturing advances got the US into a leading economic role by the 1920’s. By the end of the 1920’s the US economy, driven by very irresponsible speculation, was big enough to cause a global economic collapse.
A big driving force in the economic rise of the US was WWI. In 1917 the US was still basically a third world power. When German u-boats started attacking US merchant ships they did so knowing that the US had very few forces (in 1916 the US Army had 208.000 men and 11,300 officers) and poor equipment. The Germans had even contacted Mexico and were recruiting them to attack the US so they could recover the lands they had lost to the US 70 years earlier. The US responded by passing the Selective Service Act and drafting 2.8 million men. By 1918 the US was sending 10,000 men a day to France. Germany and its allies, already weary from three years of intense warfare and running low on resources, quickly lost the war of attrition.
All of the buildup in infrastructure fueled a massive postwar economic boom ending in the Great Depression. FDR’s remedies for the Great Depression faced a lot of opposition. Businessmen in the US had never really had to deal with any significant regulation. The modern right-wing was born from opposition to FDR’s reforms.
Finally the US, after WWII, entered its period of greatest prosperity. The period from 1945 to 1975 saw the US with the worlds highest standard of living, best educational system, most advanced technology, etc. By the end of the sixties the US finally began to recognize the civil rights of most of its citizens (still no gay rights). Could this finally be that period in which American Exceptionalism resulted in the ‘good’ promised by Jefferson et al?
Sadly the post WWII era saw the US using its military and economic might to keep other nations from freely choosing their own governments. Through organizations like the School of the Americas and plans like Operation Condor the US trained Latin American terrorists to overthrow governments that went against US corporate interests. While the US had no equivalent in the Middle East that did not stop Eisenhower (under the Eisenhower doctrine) from ordering the CIA to topple Premier Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran-after Mossadegh had nationalized British- and American-owned oil companies. In every case the US preferred to prop up dictatorships rather than allow the people of those countries to make their own choices.
US meddling with the Middle East in particular may have actually been responsible for one of the most nefarious groups in the modern era. During the Carter Administration the US helped fund a group of Afghanistan terrorists who were fighting an attempted invasion by the Soviet Union. They were an unknown group called Al Queda.
Throughout the history of the US there have been moments when the US has done wonderful things but the US is no different in that respect from any other world power. The fact is that the principles upon which the US was founded are noble but the history of this country is not exceptional.
The real irony is that the people who claim we are exceptional the loudest are precisely the people most opposed to the liberalism upon which we were founded. The Jeffersonian notion that the US was exceptional because it had codified within its Constitution the liberal principles of the Enlightenment has been distorted by the Republican Party into a notion that somehow the US is entitled to whatever it wants because of its inherent ‘goodness’. The problem is that the US has all to often thrown out their principles in the name of profit.