Episode 127: American Exceptionalism with Ian Tyrrell

This episode of Across The Margin: The Podcast presents an interview with Ian Tyrrell, emeritus professor of history at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of numerous books, including True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860 –1930 and Historians in Public. His latest book, American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea, is the focus of this episode and persists as an important and remarkably comprehensive examination of an extremely contentious notion. The idea that the United States is unlike every other country in world history is a surprisingly resilient one. Throughout his distinguished career, Ian Tyrrell has been one of the most influential historians researching the idea of American Exceptionalism, but he has never written a book focused solely on it, until now. The notion that American identity might be exceptional emerged, Tyrrell shows in his book, from the belief that the nascent early republic was not simply a postcolonial state but a genuinely new experiment in an imperialist world dominated by Britain. Prior to the Civil War, American Exceptionalism fostered declarations of cultural, economic, and spatial independence. As the country grew in population and size, becoming a major player in the global order, its exceptionalist beliefs came more and more into focus — and into question. Over time, a political divide emerged: those who believed that America’s exceptionalism was the basis of its virtue and those who saw America as either a long way from perfect or actually fully unexceptional. Tyrrell masterfully articulates in his book the many forces that made American Exceptionalism such a divisive and definitional concept. Today, the demands that people acknowledge America’s Exceptionalism have grown ever more strident, even as the material and moral evidence for that exceptionalism — to the extent that there ever was any — has withered away. In this episode host Michael Shields and Ian Tyrrell discuss the origins of American Exceptionalism, how one would go about quantifying a nation’s exceptionalism, how American Exceptionalism persists as ideology representing reality rather than an account of American actuality, the rise of religious-based American Exceptionalism in the 1970s and 80s, how America can increasingly be perceived as exceptional in a negative light, and much, much more.




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