Introduction

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The theme of this museum exhibit is American exceptionalism. The entire time frame of research and events that play a role in this project is within the range of 1877, the end of the Reconstruction, all the way to modern day America. American exceptionalism is a very complex ideology and practice when studied over time and analyzed according to how many different topics it is associated with. This exhibit will show the change of American exceptionalism over time and how that idea has impacted American life domestically and affected the rest of the world as well.  

One form of American exceptionalism in the early stages of American civilization was Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. The term Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism relates to White Anglos Saxon Protestants in America and their state of social, economic, and political superiority and exceptionalism over Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants. The specific example of Anglo-Saxon superiority within American exceptionalism roughly spanned from about 1877 to 1910. After that, the practice switched to a more global and empirical level of American exceptionalism. The earliest stages of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism started off when the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Westward expansion were entertained and pursued. Throughout this process, Native Americans were often already living in these areas and frequently relocated, forced to assimilate to Anglo-Saxon culture, or even murdered at times. African Americans were also oppressed by Anglo-Saxons in this era of late 1800s and early 1900s as Jim Crow laws, black codes, and many other forms of disenfranchisement were put into place. These examples of exclusion through Manifest Destiny and Westward expansion were exercises of cultural and religious genocide (“From Woodrow Wilson in 1902 to the Bush Doctrine in 2002). The most recent form of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism was the mistreatment of immigrants who arrived in America because Anglo-Saxons felt superior and above them whether it was due to them speaking different languages, having a slightly different complexion, or simply being an outsider.

In the 1910s and the years leading up to WWI, the idea of American exceptionalism strayed away from the exclusion of minorities and geared towards a more nationalistic and global form of exceptionalism that was an attitude representative of America as a whole, not just Anglo-Saxons. WWI was an enormous boost in terms of national pride and patriotism within the United States. After the war ended, Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. got involved in foreign affairs for the first real time in American history. Both Wilson, and Roosevelt following him not long after were very active in the aim to become a global power. The United States was able to differentiate itself due to its core values of liberty, equality, and most importantly individualism, which eventually allowed for social opportunities for all races, genders, and groups of people (Radicalism in American Political Thought). By the time World War II had hit, the U.S. had no other option but to join after being directly provoked. America saw their entrance into World War II as a response to Pearl Harbor, but also because the rest of Europe needed them. The United States didn’t play by anyone else’s rules and certainly did not want to be seen as weak or afraid to get involved when necessary (American Exceptionalism: An Idea That Made a Nation and Remade the World). The American mindset entering the war was to be the savior and exert their global presence and rank throughout the process. Once the war ended, the U.S. immediately was in the midst of a Cold War, which was a state of geopolitical hostility between the United States and the USSR. Although the state of the U.S. was scared to a degree throughout the Cold War, there was also a sense of patriotism and pride that was prevalent at this time. The U.S. took an exceptionalist role as it was acting as the world superpower for democracy while fighting off communism.

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Anti-communist propaganda “Captain America” comic “Captain America… Commie Smasher”, Washington, D.C., 1954

Eventually, after the commotion over the Cold War lost some steam, Civil Rights became a focal movement in America in the 1950s, and ultimately many opportunities and liberties were provided for all races and genders of people. One core leader of the Civil Rights movement was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and broke many social and political barriers racially by campaigning in a non-violent way, courageous way. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he talked about the topic of race and how African Americans had many hardships and tough days, but that America had shown signs of progressiveness and was fully capable of moving past the segregation and inequality, which made the US exceptional and different from other countries (“Martin Luther King Jr’s Nobel Prize Address”). Some other presidents who spoke on American exceptionalism and exerted national pride around that time period were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. JFK spoke on the U.S. Space Mission and how the United States would beat Russia in the “Space Race” and assert their dominance. Kennedy truly believed the nation who proved superior in space was the nation that held the most power (“John F. Kennedy and the Two Faces of the U.S. Space Program”). Reagan, on the other hand, spoke on American exceptionalism in terms of the peace and harmony it offers to so many troubled areas, such as the Middle East, and the fact that no other country can compete with the standards and influence America obtains.

Some 15 years later, the awful occurrence of 9/11 hit and the U.S. changed their mentality to one that was slightly more vulnerable and responsive. In more recent years, President Barack Obama, the first African-American president, has promoted American exceptionalism in many ways. His passion was captured best during his commencement speech given at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2012. In his speech, he emphasized how the U.S. is exceptional over other nations economically and in terms of global security. The most recent, current day connection made to American exceptionalism was shown in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Trump claimed how American exceptionalism has been lost and forgotten over time, and that he was going to reinforce it and “Make America Great Again.” Despite Trump’s claims of America losing her exceptionalism, American exceptionalism has always and will always be prevalent in everyday life. It is shown in so many different ways and contains such great depth that it cannot be lost altogether and will always be shown in forms of American uniqueness and excellence.

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