American Exceptionalism, as Louis Hartz writes about it, asserts that the U.S. varies qualitatively from other nations. As citizens of the first extended republic, white U.S. men were the first to enjoy nearly universal suffrage; and, also the first to form political parties. As compared to working classes of other countries, the American working class has been politically cautious. For example, the scope of America’s social welfare programs has been distinctly limited.
The U.S. is a paradox of change and continuity. Despite rapid political and economic development, there has been profound resistance to social movements and policies that were typically elicited elsewhere by a dynamic capitalist economy.
The most pervasive explanation for this pattern of development and resistance is that a belief in individual freedom, private enterprise, and republican institutions founded by popular consent has made it difficult for competing collectivist movements and policies to take hold. Hartz frames this as a constraining cultural consensus.
American Exceptionalism: The Consensus Thesis
Starts liberal, stays liberal.
This thesis is rooted in Tocqueville’s discussion of American social relations.
I think there is no other country in the world where there are so few ignorant and so few learned individuals.
Special material conditions, Tocqueville thought, helped produce this result.
Even though a “few great lords” migrated to the thirteen colonies, the soul of America absolutely rejected a territorial [landed] aristocracy.
But social relations and conditions were crucial factors. Even the southern planters lacked the traditional-and inherited-privledges distinguishing aristocrats from commoners, and because their workers were African slaves, the land Master lacked the usual patronage relations aristocrats had with ordinary citizens in Europe.
The inhabitants hardly know each other, and each man is ignorant of his nearest neighbor’s history…no man enjoys the influence and respect due a whole life spent publically in doing good deeds.
Americans enjoyed bourgeois liberty, “not the aristocratic freedom of their motherland, but a middle-class and democratic freedom.” (Hartz)
The U.S. had learned to combine liberty and democracy in a manner the French had not. They didn’t suffer a democratic revolution. They all belonged to the middle class. There had been no prolonged struggle to bring down aristocracy.
Americans are… born equal instead of becoming so.