What is exceptionalism? As defined by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is it: 1) the condition of being exceptional or unique; and 2) the theory or belief that something, especially a nation, doesn’t conform to a pattern or a norm. Some historians credit the terms origins to Alex de Tocqueville, the 19th century French historian. Since colonial times, Americans felt of themselves as the preeminent example of a social and morally advanced society. John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill’ illustrated the Puritan religious tones for these ideals. After the Revolution, a combination of secular and sacred ideologies formed that saw the United States as providentially selected to be a ‘divine stage’ for liberty and a new world order. But don’t all peoples of a nation feel an exceptional pride in their nation? Why did/do American’s feel that way?
I believe one of the most fundamentally important facets that contributed to the American exceptionalism spirit this time was the frontier. The frontier, whether a place or process, certainly shaped American thought from a ragtag colonial cluster to a hegemon with muscular muster. I disagree with many Turnerian protégés, however, in that the process of settling the frontier was not a series of successes. The new ‘reappraisal’ of western history shows that not all courses of action taken resulted in progress. Patricia Limerick discusses this well in her essay entitled What on Earth is New Western History? In this essay she tries to quell old myths that are celebrated by those who would like to hold on with a blind eye to false stories. But these interpretations of the west are just as vitally important as the Indian and cowboy mystique. The concept of America and what an American is was fashioned from the combination of myth versus reality. Most of my paper will be examining these topics from Limerick, Ridge and Richard White’s When Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody Both Played Chicago in 1893.
Turner and Cody told the story of the west in two starkly different angles, and with two different approaches. Turner’s narrative was one that told of large, empty expanse of free land that was there for the taking, and was basically free from violence. Cody’s Wild West showed an adventure of conquest and persecution at the hands of the Indians, a ‘correct representation of life on the plains’.(47) But when the two are taken into account together, the biases of each bring to light the complexities that shadowed their explanation for their perspective.