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'A Tolerable Anarchy' by Jedediah Purdy and 'The Myth of American Exceptionalism' by Godfrey Hodgson

What's so great about the United States? Two new books find the nation's claims to a privileged destiny to be much overrated.

March 22, 2009|Art Winslow | Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.

A Tolerable Anarchy

Rebels, Reactionaries, and

the Making of America's Freedom

Jedediah Purdy

Alfred A. Knopf: 294 pp., $23.95

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The Myth of American

Exceptionalism

Godfrey Hodgson

Yale University Press: 222 pp., $26

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In his 2003 book "Being America," Jedediah Purdy remarked that at "the same time we disclaim imperial aspirations, we Americans suspect that we are the world's universal nation." Without using the term, he was raising the question of American exceptionalism, loosely the idea that this country, its founding and history, are uniquely representative as an experiment in liberty, the outcome of which will be of great consequence to the world.

Certainly that idea appealed to the Founders, who cast the language of the Declaration of Independence in such terms. Tom Paine had argued that "the cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind," and in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton had proposed that it fell to the people of this country "to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice."

Variations of this strain of thought, complete with its hubris, existed well before the founding of the country. A common touchstone is Puritan leader John Winthrop's 1630 assertion to the colonists about to populate Massachusetts that "we shall be as a city upon a hill" (cited prominently in speeches by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan). The duty such a role implied was strongly invoked early in the 20th century by Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's missionary, and even religious, application of the idea -- that we are obliged to spread American ideals abroad -- was taken up by George W. Bush, whose neo-Wilsonian approach figured in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And there's the rub, an animating one when it arises in two new books, Godfrey Hodgson's "The Myth of American Exceptionalism," and Purdy's "A Tolerable Anarchy," an exploration of what he calls the "American tradition." In some ways, writes Purdy, "we live in the wreckage of Wilson's project."

Of the two, Purdy is more accepting of the concept of American exceptionalism but sees it as a condition requiring ongoing adaptation, a "living tradition." He takes his title from a speech that noted political philosopher Edmund Burke gave to the English Parliament before the American Revolution commenced, in which he urged conciliation with the colonials. Burke pointed out that, although the Crown had removed the Bay Colony's government as a punitive measure and reasoned that social disorder would ensue, that disorder didn't happen, for "Anarchy is found tolerable."

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'Sensations of freedom'

Purdy's book is loosely about pushing the boundaries of liberty and searching out the common good, in pursuit of what John Adams called "the sensations of freedom," often as revealed in presidential rhetoric. Tracking the speeches of various U.S. presidents, he laments that "the divorce of civic identity from government, which Nixon set in motion, is nearly complete in Bush's speeches," and that in this conceptual shift, government "is the thing that went away and cleared the space now filled by private virtue."

Hodgson, a onetime Washington correspondent of the London Observer and now an associate fellow at an American studies institute at Oxford University, concedes that a highly qualified version of exceptionalism has existed but within relatively narrow historical confines. He writes that it is "less exceptional than is often claimed" and that modern social and political beliefs, "especially the core beliefs in liberty and democracy," have "been more problematic than patriotic rhetoric claims." Sketching out international contexts from the Revolution forward, Hodgson points out that the American revolt was but one theater in a global struggle between England and France (a viewpoint also argued recently by Thomas Bender in "A Nation Among Nations").

One finds common ground between Hodgson and Purdy in part because both are forced to cover the same history, even if they discuss it in differing ways. Both must contend with the paradox of a country founded on the principle of the universal rights of man but which also countenanced slavery (which the British abolished in 1772), for example. The crusty Samuel Johnson is evoked in both books, in Hodgson's most pithily: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the negroes?" Johnson asked.

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