Thursday at 10 AM Cato hosts Richard Gamble to discuss his book: In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. Historians Walter McDougall and Derek Leebaert will provide commentary.
Gamble’s book traces the “city on a hill” metaphor as American self-description. We follow it from John Winthrop, who may have used the term, following the gospels, to remind the other Puritans onboard the Mayflower of their faith’s requirements, to modern conservatives like Sarah Palin, who use it in a story about the inherent virtue of the United States—the version of American exceptionalism that sees U.S. foreign policy as the engine of liberalism’s global progress.
The forum should help us make sense of recent debates—or rhetorical posturing—about American exceptionalism. Its loudest advocates today claim that their opponents, starting with President Obama, deny that the country is exceptional. What they ignore, as Gamble shows, is that their exceptionalism reverses the old kind. What made the United States exceptional upon independence was its liberal government. Most early American leaders thought that form of government would suffer from participation in European power politics. They worried that entanglement in foreign troubles would produce domestic conditions corrosive to liberty— a large military establishment and consolidated executive power. So the liberalism that made the nation exceptional meant avoiding the crusading foreign policies that modern proponents of American exceptionalism say it requires.
Here’s how Gamble put it in the American Conservative last September:
The old exceptionalism was consistent with the ethos of American constitutional democracy; the new is not. The old was an expression of and a means to sustain the habits of a self-governing people; the new is an expression of and a means to sustain a nationalist and imperialist people. The old exceptionalism suited a limited foreign policy; the new suits a messianic adventurism out to remake the world.
McDougall’s Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 concerned this revolution of exceptionalism’s meaning, so his comments should be telling. Leebaert’s recent book, Magic and Mayhem: the Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, is also quite relevant. As moderator, I will push the speakers to answer two questions. First, aren’t we discussing competing ideas of American nationalism? Second, are the ideas we generally see as drivers of foreign policies really just their PR and power the cause of both?
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