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VCE History Area of Study 1: Ideology & Conflict: Interwar Period: American Exceptionalism

Interwar period - America and Russia

American Exceptionalism is the belief, central to American political culture since the Revolution, that Americans have a unique mission among nations to spread freedom and democracy.

The notion that the founding of the United States represented a break with history itself, that its citizens were making a new beginning and a new society, stands behind American exceptionalism. Founded on the principles of freedom, human rights, and rights of the people to govern themselves, America would also avoid the mistakes of other nations. These mistakes would include "the mass poverty and class conflict that modernity appeared to be creating in Britain."[2] Thus, America would enjoy a special status among the nations of the world; America would be a "'city on a hill' or a 'beacon to the world,'" defending and promoting democracy and liberty, exercising only "benevolent power in the world." [Source]

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was the 19th century U.S. belief that the country had a divine right to expand across and take over the continent.

The term was first used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville "during his first visit to America in 1831." He noticed that the American idea of "nationality" was "different, based less on common history or ethnicity than on common beliefs." 

American exceptionalism is close to the idea of Manifest Destiny which saw itself as extending liberty and democracy from sea to shining sea across the American continent, from the original 13 colonies in the East, to the Pacific coast in the West. [Source]

Video: What were the causes and effects of westward expansion between 1844 and 1877? Kim Kutz Elliott discusses how economic opportunities, government support, and the idea of 'manifest destiny' brought migrants to the western United States.

American Expansionism

Video: John Green, Crash Course History, talks about one of the consequences of the idea of American exceptionalism in relation to American expansionism - the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s, and the expansion of the United States into the western end of North America.

Primary Sources

Illustration shows 4th of July fireworks spelling out the word "Freedom" above an eagle forming the great seal of the United States hovering over a bird nest with four chicks labeled "Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii, [and] Porto Rico."

Cartoon showing Uncle Sam as a large, fat man, anti-expansionists saying, "Here, take a dose of this anti-fat and get thin again!" Uncle Sam replies, "No, Sonny! I never did take any of that stuff, and I'm too old to begin!" William McKinley, as a tailor, is measuring Uncle Sam for clothing.

American Imperialism

American imperialism is a term that refers to the economic, military, and cultural influence of the United States on other countries. American imperialism can also be linked to the idea of American exceptionalism and its world mission to spread liberty and democracy. [Source]

In the video below HipHughes explains the fundamentals of US Imperialism concentrating on the essentials.

In the video below John Green teaches you about Imperialism. In the late 19th century, the great powers of Europe were running around the world obtaining colonial possessions, especially in Africa and Asia. The United States, which as a young country was especially suceptible to peer pressure, followed along and snapped up some colonies of its own. The US saw that Spain's hold on its empire was weak, and like some kind of expansionist predator, it jumped into the Cuban War for Independence and turned it into the Spanish-Cuban-Phillipino-American War, which usually just gets called the Spanish-American War. John will tell you how America turned this war into colonial possessions like Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and almost even got to keep Cuba. The US was busy in the Pacific as well, wresting control of Hawaii from the Hawaiians. All this and more in a globe-trotting, oppressing episode of Crash Course US History.

The video below explores some of the reasons and motivations for American Imperialism at the end of the 19th century. Manifest Destiny, Social Darwinism, White Man's Burden and Paternalism will be discussed in this video.

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