Is This An Example of American Exceptionalism That Should Be Taught?

I didn’t have much more to say about this issue until I read John Stoudt’s response to my last post.  [By the way, I love the fact that I can now link to your profile page if I want to single you out.]  Stoudt asks if the Biblical justifications of slavery by Thornton Stringfellow, James Henley Thornwell, Robert Dabney, Benjamin Palmer, and others should not count as examples of American Exceptionalism.  Well, that depends.  If our goal in teaching this concept is to impose our own assumptions about the significance of American history than perhaps not, but if the focus is on how Americans at different times understood their nation than it seems to fit in with the “City Upon a Hill”, “Manifest Destiny”, and the “White Man’s Burden” and Cold War ideology.

Consider the following passage from Stringfellow’s “A Brief Examination of Scripture Testimony on the Institution of Slavery”:

It is to be hoped, that on a question of such vital importance as this to the peace and safety of our common country, as well as to the welfare of the church, we shall be seen cleaving to the Bible, and taking all our decisions about this matter, from its inspired pages. With men from the North, I have observed for many years a palpable ignorance of the divine will, in reference to the institution of slavery. I have seen but a few, who made the Bible their study, that had obtained a knowledge of what it did reveal on this subject. Of late, their denunciation of slavery as a sin, is loud and long.

I propose, therefore, to examine the sacred volume briefly, and if I am not greatly mistaken, I shall be able to make it appear that the institution of slavery has received, in the first place,

1st. The sanction of the Almighty in the Patriarchal age.

2d. That it was incorporated into the only National Constitution which ever emanated from God.

3d. That its legality was recognized, and its relative duties regulated, by Jesus Christ in his kingdom; and

4th. That it is full of mercy.

Such beliefs resonate throughout the writings of pro-slavery Southerners during the antebellum period.  Stoudt recommends Eugene Genoves’s Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture entitled “‘Slavery Ordained of God’: The Southern Slaveholders’ View of Biblical History and Modern Politics” (1985) for further reading.   I have to say that while I use these writings in my classes I never thought of them as examples of American Exceptionalism.  Thanks John for giving me something to think about.  What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Is This An Example of American Exceptionalism That Should Be Taught?

  1. danwright

    Stringfellow's a tough read. A couple of pages of that gave me a headache, but it's instructive to get that view of the Biblical justification for slavery. Does emancipation of the slaves count as American Exceptionalism?
    What I find interesting is that Sarah's slave was told by an angel of the Lord of return to her mistress.
    Maybe I'm just a skeptic, but what if the slave was just hearing voices in her head. How can I be sure it was an angel of the Lord?

    Reply
  2. msimons

    While you can defend Slavery using the Old and New Testament I would not see it as American Exceptionalism but rather a black eye on the Nation.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      Mike,

      You are missing the point here. Of course, we would not interpret this as a reflection of AE, but the concept itself has evolved over time. Clearly, Americans in the early to mid-19th Century did. If the history of the concept ought to be part of a history course then such reading might be included.

      Reply
  3. acwresearcher

    Perhaps I'm missing the impetus for this imperative of “American Exceptionalism” being an instructional focus in American classrooms. I think I have this right, Kevin. Your position is that we should teach that, at various times throughout American history, Americans have thought of themselves as exceptional and the concentration should be on how that definition has evolved rather than on any notion that any era's perception is the correct one or that any one group in history is more exceptional than another. If this is correct, Mr. Wehner should not be able to misinterpret your position.

    Reply
  4. Dan Wright

    Stringfellow's a tough read. A couple of pages of that gave me a headache, but it's instructive to get that view of the Biblical justification for slavery. Does emancipation of the slaves count as American Exceptionalism?
    What I find interesting is that Sarah's slave was told by an angel of the Lord of return to her mistress.
    Maybe I'm just a skeptic, but what if the slave was just hearing voices in her head. How can I be sure it was an angel of the Lord?

    Reply

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