An exceptional America discussed at CAS Colloquium

The role of America as an exceptional nation is one that will haunt the nightmares and dreams of scholars of today and for years to come.  Five SIUE professors took on the challenge of discussing this topic at the SIUE College of Arts and Sciences Colloquium.

The discussion took place on Wednesday, March 23 and was designed as a roundtable discussion entitled “Is America Unique? A Roundtable Discussion of American Exceptionalism.”

“Today’s roundtable focuses on a really important issue in the United States’ past, present, and future: the issue of American exceptionalism.  The question of whether the United States is exceptional when compared to other nations has captured the imaginations of generations of scholars,” said Manuel who served as a moderator for the discussion.

The discussion was lead by five members of the department of Historical Studies: Instructor Victoria Harrison, specializing in 19th Century U.S. history; Professor Steven Hansen, specializing in 19th Century U.S. history; Assistant Professor Jeff Manuel, specializing in 20th Century U.S. history; Assistant Professor Robert “Buddy” Paulett, specializing in Colonial U.S. history; and Assistant Professor Jason Stacy, specializing in 19th Century U.S. history.

Those attending the discussion were in for a treat as the members attacked the question at hand.  Perhaps because the session was scheduled for morning, the crowd was not large, so the panel invited the crowd to participate in the discussion.

The session began as each member of the roundtable stated their answer to the question.  Among the group, there was one yes, three no’s, and one “I don’t know.”  Each member stated their reasoning for the answer.

The discussion began in earnest as the panel members and the crowd approached the question from several different directions.  Stacy argued that in terms of the founding documents, America is not exceptional.  He pointed out there are similar examples of documents similar to the Declaration of Independence that predate the U.S.’s.  he also pointed out that history shows that Jefferson had a copy of one of those document’s in his library.  These points were brought out by other panel members as well.

“America is not exceptional in terms of ideology: our Declaration of Independence, our founding document is strikingly similar to many others that proceeded it,” stated Hansen.

One issue that became a difficult point to reach beyond was defining the standards that would allow one to answer the question.

“When discussing exceptionalism or American uniqueness, it is always important to ask “Compared to what?” and “By what standards?” Jeff Manuel’s point that we had to define our terms in this regard was particularly important,” stated Stacy.

The audience members also weighed into the discussion.  Many of them looked to the panelists to to guide them with the history.  Several of the audience members recognized the panelists strong foundation in history overshadowed their own.  This proved to be helpful to the audience, as they also struggled to answer the question.

Several of the panelists found the discussion useful as well.  They found that the knowledge and points of the other panelists were helpful in reminding them about what makes America unique.

“One [colleague] reminded me what admire about this country: our pluralism, openness, and easy graciousness. Another reminded me that we often do not live up to our better ideals,” stated Stacy.

“We all agreed that Americans think we are exceptional and that has been expressed in Manifest Destiny, the City on the Hill, and the last best hope concepts,” stated Hansen.  “But, all agreed that just because Americans think we are exceptional, it doesn’t make it so.”

The question proved to be larger than could be answered during the allotted session time and it ended without a final conclusion but with many points, issues, and thoughts left to be considered.

“I very much enjoyed the true roundtable nature of the “Is America Unique” session,” stated Larry LaFond, associate professor of English language and literature, associate dean of CAS, and audience member.  “The idea of exceptionalism undergirds much political thought and is often translated directly into policy decisions, so the importance of a critical examination of the idea is clear.”

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