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Twilight of the Republic

Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition

Justin B. Litke
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Twilight of the Republic
    Book Description:

    The uniqueness of America has been alternately celebrated and panned, emphasized and denied, for most of the country's history -- both by its own people and by visitors and observers from around the world. The idea of "American exceptionalism" tends to provoke strong feelings, but few are aware of the term's origins or understand its true meaning. Understanding the roots and consequences of America's uniqueness requires a thorough look into the nation's history and Americans' ideas about themselves.

    Through a masterful analysis of important texts and key documents, Justin B. Litke investigates the symbols that have defined American identity since the colonial era. From the time of the country's founding, the people of the United States have viewed themselves as citizens of a nation blessed by God, and they accordingly sought to serve as an example to others. Litke argues that as the republic developed, Americans came to perceive their country as an active "redeemer nation," responsible for liberating the world from its failings. He introduces and contextualizes the various historical and academic claims about American exceptionalism and offers an original approach to understanding this phenomenon.

    Today, American historians and politicians still debate the meaning of exceptionalism. Advocates of exceptionalism are often perceived by their opponents as unrealistically patriotic, and Litke's historically and theoretically rich inquiry attempts to reconcile these political and cultural tensions. Republicans of every age have recognized that a people cut off from their history will not long persist in self-government. Twilight of the Republic aims to reinvigorate the tradition that once caused people the world over to envy the American political order.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4221-0
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    What happens if a country’s worldview is radically changed? If the particular priorities and traditions that informed the life of a people are laid aside, something has to fill the void. New ones are taken up and a new worldview is formed. But what if the changes happen slowly and subtly? What if the changes, once in place, are no longer recognized as changes? The traditions, priorities, actions, and words that formerly characterized that country and that people will live on in documents and monuments, but not in the lives of citizens. In other words, the vital elements of the...

  4. 1 The Problem of American Exceptionalism
    (pp. 5-22)

    Wide and seemingly interminable disagreements are prominently on display nearly any time the words American exceptionalism are uttered. They are today a shorthand for the popular view that America is not subject to criticism or constraint—at least not beyond any very minimal level. Those who “support” American exceptionalism often critique the idea’s opponents as unpatriotic and un-American. Yet those who oppose American exceptionalism in this way are difficult to identify.¹ Chief among current opponents of American exceptionalism is, it is said, President Barack Obama, who in his first trip abroad as president espoused a number of equivocal senses of...

  5. 2 John Winthrop: A Divinely Sanctioned, Practically Circumscribed Colony
    (pp. 23-52)

    Though many have held John Winthrop up as the first American exceptionalist, particularly for his now-famous simile that the colony at Massachusetts Bay will be as a “city on a hill,” a few reflections are sufficient to initially draw that claim into question.

    First and foremost, the idea of American exceptionalism is, strictly speaking, concerned with the exceptional nature of the United States of America. Yet Winthrop had never heard of the United States. The fledgling colonies on these shores—even if most of them could be grouped together by their common English origin—had very different aims. These dots...

  6. 3 The Founders: A Providentially Guided, Temporally Bound Country
    (pp. 53-84)

    Some of the most prominent commentators on the question of American exceptionalism have argued that the principal figures of America’s founding generation were ardent imperialists in word and deed.¹ The claim is well established, it is supposed, by the vocabulary of key figures of that period in American politics. The use of the word empire to describe the new country from the Philadelphia convention onward is said to prove the founders’ expansionist ambitions.² This, they say, belies claims to the limitedness of America’s polity, along with the country’s expansion across the face of the continent (a policy that was hotly...

  7. 4 Abraham Lincoln: An Ideally United, Potentially Unbound Union
    (pp. 85-114)

    Up to this point we have moved from the western shores of England to the eastern shores of New England and farther south to Philadelphia. The movement has run from the early seventeenth-century American wilderness to a thriving city in the late eighteenth century. The next jump requires yet another plunge into a new century and milieu, into a time and situation of great consequence for the country: the Civil War.

    What changes, if any, have occurred from the founding period to the Civil War period in regard to the self-conception of the American people? To determine this, we will...

  8. 5 Albert Beveridge: A Racially Defined, Imperially Aimed Nation
    (pp. 115-144)

    From the beginning of this book, the argument has been building toward a contemporary conception of American exceptionalism. The objective has been constant: to identify the various elements that seem to make up the idea and then to trace their evolution through the course of American history. Though the ideas do not cease to change after the turn of the twentieth century, the particular combination seen at that time is recognizably similar to today’s imperial conception of American exceptionalism.

    A floor speech by Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana has come to be regarded as the locus classicus of the...

  9. Conclusion: The Possibility of a New and Traditional American Political Order
    (pp. 145-154)

    The self-conception, worldview, and behavior of the American people underwent a great change by the turn of the twentieth century. The change, while radical, was piecemeal and sometimes slow; it proceeded nearly imperceptibly. The story is one of gradual differentiation from colonial times into the nineteenth century. But then, a crisis. The wounds of the Civil War required bandages not previously known because the war presented a problem—real disunion—that we had not encountered before. To solve this new problem, a new solution was ventured; we came to be bound up together in a radically new way. This new...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 155-156)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 157-194)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-206)
  13. Index
    (pp. 207-214)