Eric Foner Defends American Exceptionalism

It is really hard to argue that the United States is not an exceptional nation.  It was the first nation born out of the Enlightenment.  In the early 19th century it was probably the most democratic place in the world.  As Chesterton said, it has always been a “nation with the soul of a church.”

American exceptionalism has fallen out of favor in recent decades, especially among liberals.  When understood in the context of the history of American foreign policy, American exceptionalism has produced some ugly results.  Unfortunately the idea of American exceptionalism has often gone hand in hand with some of the worst forms of imperialism.

And then there are those Christians who connect American exceptionalism to the providence of God. They believe that the United States is exceptional because it has somehow been uniquely blessed by God.  I am not going to go into the various problems with this view, but if you want to delve deeper into this idea I would recommend John Wilsey’s forthcoming book American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

Eric Foner, the liberal historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York, might not  come immediately to mind when thinking about the defenders of American exceptionalism.  Yet, in this piece published in The Nation, Foner shows how the United States’s commitment to birthright citizenship makes America exceptional. 

Here is a taste: 

Birthright citizenship–the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen–has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. This summer, it has suddenly emerged as a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. Following the lead of Donald Trump, candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have called for the repeal or reinterpretation of the amendment, to prevent children born to undocumented immigrants from being recognized as American citizens.

The situation abounds in ironies.  Now a Republican target, the 14th Amendment was for many decades considered the crowning achievement of what once called itself the part of Lincoln.  Today, moreover, birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have berated President Obama for supposedly not embracing. Many things claimed as uniquely American–a devotion to individual freedom, for example, or social opportunity–exist in other countries.  But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world.  No European nation recognized the principle.  Yet. oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.

Read the rest here.

12 thoughts on “Eric Foner Defends American Exceptionalism

  1. John can do what he wants since it is his blog. If you can't handle the heat, go back to game shows. I really should not argue with you at all since your posts need no one to point out your tunnel vision.

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  2. I don't think you will stop anything either, Jimmy, and will continue to hound me with personal attacks about anything I write to Dr. Fea in place of principled argument on the topic at hand. If you had a principled argument, you would make it.

    Dr. Fea permits your bad behavior for his own reasons. I have no choice but to accede to his method. But I don't like dealing with surrogates, John. Foner's argument is garbage, for reasons given.

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  3. I object to Foner's dishonesty here. His premise is false: There is no tenable link between American exceptionalism and birthright citizenship, except in Foner's rhetoric.

    This does not mean the rest of his work is unworthy. I've run across no objections to his scholarship. But when historians attack as partisan “intellectuals,” they should be called on their hackery, as here.

    And you personal attacks against me are lies. Please stop.

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  4. Object all you want. The problem you have is that you don't like what Foner said. Too bad. Why don't you go to Columbia and take a class under him? You had a chance in his Civil War & Reconstruction course through EdX.

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  5. Foner is dishonest here: Birthright citizenship is not a key component in the eyes of the defenders of “American exceptionalism.” Neither do the biggest proponents of birthright citizenship even accept the notion of an “American exceptionalism.” There is no meaningful link.

    Neither would Foner use this principle as regards the death penalty, where the situation is reversed. There is no principle at work here, only a clever innuendo that to oppose birthright citizenship is to hypocritically reject “American exceptionalism,” a blatant sophism.

    (FTR, my objection is formal: I oppose the death penalty and think birthright citizenship is a reasonable [albeit not the only reasonable] reading of the 14th Amendment. Your ad hom attack on me is a lie, Mr. Dick. Please argue honestly.)

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  6. Left wing shibboleth? Just why was the 14th Amendment passed? The people who passed knew exactly what they were doing and why. I do believe John pointed this out using a primary source.

    Eric Foner knows more than you do, Tom. You just do not like what he says. That's pretty standard among the conservative crowd who dislike the way the Constitution has been interpreted and wish for a completely different interpretation.

    I like the way Foner defined his view of what makes America exceptional. In that category he is correct. America is great because of its people and the principles it was founded upon. It was not created by God nor is this his chosen nation.

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  7. The sophism of this really bugs me.

    But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world. No European nation recognized the principle. Yet. oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.

    “Birthright citizenship” is the last thing most think of when the term “American exceptionalism” is used.

    “I get always a little uptight when I hear politicians say how exceptional we are.”–John Kerry

    Neither would Dr. Foner dream of making this same argument in favor of the death penalty. We should be like Europe when it fits the left-wing agenda. We should be unlike Europe when it fits the left-wing agenda.

    Nice racket.

    DEVELOPED NATIONS*
    Birthright Citizenship

    NO
    Andorra
    Australia
    Austria
    Belgium
    Bermuda
    Cyprus
    Czech Republic
    Denmark
    Faroe Islands
    Finland
    France
    Germany
    Greece
    Holy See
    Hong Kong
    Iceland
    Ireland
    Israel
    Italy
    Japan
    Liechtenstein
    Luxembourg
    Malta
    Monaco
    Netherlands
    New Zealand
    Norway
    Portugal
    San Marino
    Singapore
    Slovakia
    Slovenia
    South Korea
    Spain
    Sweden
    Switzerland
    Taiwan
    United Kingdom

    YES: USA, Canada

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  8. Eric Foner, the liberal historian who teaches at Columbia University in New York, might not come immediately to mind when thinking about the defenders of American exceptionalism.

    Not after you see him twist it into a commercial for birthright citizenship, a left-wing shibboleth.

    Birthright citizenship–the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen–has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

    Foner is out of his depth of expertise here: This is not a historical fact; it's a legal opinion, albeit a long-standing one [and FTR, one I do not find unreasonable]. But the principle is not “imbedded”: The other side has a reasonable argument as well.

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228127294_Birthright_Citizenship_Illegal_Aliens_and_the_Original_Meaning_of_the_Citizenship_Clause

    Unfortunately, in the eyes of educators like Dr. Foner, apparently there is no “other side.” So it goes. Anyone who departs from the prevailing orthodoxy becomes an “extremist,” Dr. Foner's students will “reasonably” conclude. The limits of critical thinking lie in the limits of the information made available.

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