President Barack Obama has said, "I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism." Others would certainly agree that each nation has a unique history, but that misunderstands the concept of American exceptionalism: It means that this nation of pioneers and immigrants is different from the European countries built by people who stayed home and emphasized security.
Some say the United States has had a blessed existence, others a charmed life, but for two centuries (except for that little incident called the Civil War) we haven't had huge internecine conflicts on American turf. For one century now we have eschewed imperialism, taking only enough soil abroad to bury our dead. For 70 years the United States has stood against tyranny: Nazi, Communist, and now Islamist. And in recent decades the United States has slid down the welfare hill more slowly than the Old World has.
Since the Obama years threaten to change all that, it's notable that a six-year-old history book emphasizing American exceptionalism has hit and stuck on Amazon.com's best-seller lists. A Patriot's History of the United States, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, doesn't try to hide their exceptionalist presuppositions. They expose charlatans from the Transcendentalists to Bill Clinton but use specific detail rather than shrill rhetoric to make their points, including a crucial one: Western individualism is a plus, not a sign of selfishness.
A Patriot's History contains 928 packed pages, so you probably won't be able to read every page on this July 4th holiday, but the length allows for many curious asides about life and death. While Aztec statues arise in parts of the Southwest, page five of this history reminds us that "A four-day sacrifice in 1487 by the Aztec king Ahuitzotl involved the butchery of 80,400 prisoners by shifts of priests working four at a time at convex killing tables who kicked lifeless, heartless bodies down the side of the pyramid temple." While some call the Civil War an irrepressible conflict, the authors point out on page 275 one of the causes: "the growing power of the press to inflame, distort, and propagandize for ideological purposes."
Schweikart and Allen also point out how seemingly minor changes eventually had major effects. For example, on page 602 they write of "the introduction in July 1943 of withholding taxes from the paychecks of employees. That subtle shift, described sympathetically by one text as an 'innovative feature' where 'no longer would taxpayers have to set aside money to pay their total tax bill . . . at the end of the year,' in fact allowed the government to conceal the total tax burden from the public and make it easier to raise taxes not just during the war but for decades."
The authors also raise at times fascinating speculative points. They include the standard defense of atom bomb use to end World War II-an invasion of Japan would have cost more lives-but also comment on what may have happened had five years lapsed before the first use of nuclear weapons: "With civilian and military authorities insufficiently aware of the vast destructiveness of such weapons in real situations, they may well have been used in Korea, at a time when the Soviet Union would have had its own bombs for counterattack, thus offering the terrible possibility of a nuclear conflict over Korea."
The book concludes with a look at the wellsprings of success: "The fatal flaw of bin Laden-like Hitler, Stalin, and even the nearsighted Spaniards of five hundred years ago-was that they fixed their gaze on the physical manifestations of the wealth of the West. . . . American determination and drive, vision and commitment came not from acquisition of material things-though the freedom to acquire things was a prerequisite. Rather, greatness came from an all-consuming sense that this was, after all, the 'city on a hill' . . . a fountain of hope, and a beacon of liberty."
Email Marvin Olasky