The Crusader and the Beacon: Different Interpretations of American Exceptionalism in Works of History | Teen Ink

The Crusader and the Beacon: Different Interpretations of American Exceptionalism in Works of History

September 12, 2022
By ZhitongZhou SILVER, Shenzhen, Other
ZhitongZhou SILVER, Shenzhen, Other
9 articles 26 photos 0 comments

…being American is more than a pride we inherit —

It is the past we step into

And how we repair it

—— Amanda Gorman[1]


            When Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop declared his colony a City upon a Hill in 1630, little did he know that he had sown the seeds for both unity and division in the yet-to-be United States. The “singularities” of America, as Henry Kissinger puts it, paradoxically “produced two contradictory attitudes:” some view the U.S. as obliged to “crusade for them [American values] around the world,” while others envision it as “a beacon to the rest of mankind” that best fulfills its destiny by “perfecting democracy at home.”[2]When American exceptionalism has set its believers with a common goal, it has also enmeshed them in a perpetual debate over how to achieve that goal.

This debate involves not only diplomats and administrators but also American historians picturing their national history from different perspectives. Among their works are The American Pageant by David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen and A People’s History of America by Howard Zinn, both of which seek to justify and to promote American exceptionalism with historical evidence. But while the former treated democracy and human rights as inherently American and applicable to other cultures in all historical contexts, the latter presented them as valuable lessons from the everlasting struggle against oppression throughout U.S. history.


America as the Crusader

            According to The American Pageant, God endowed the United States with its unique destiny before its birth. When the Mayflower docked in Plymouth Bay, North America became “a vital laboratory of liberty.”[3] New Englanders’ noble escape from religious persecution made the yet-to-be United States fundamentally distinctive from the worldly Spanish colonies, despite that their motives were similarly profane: more Puritans fled to the “sugar-rich island of Barbados” than to the “storm-lashed shores of Massachusetts Bay,”[4]while Plymouth, the noblest the New England settlements, was soon annexed by its northern neighbors, who were “as much interested in cod as in God.”[5] The United States was predestined to be unique when the few Plymouth refugees sought religious sanctuary and embraced popular governance in the 17th century, regardless of their demographic and political insignificance.

            Apart from ascribing Americans’ democratic and humanitarian commitment to their freedom-loving forbears, The American Pageant incorporates those values into its historical judgments. As an AP textbook, it forcefully categorizes historical events by themes such as “American identity” and “American diversity.”[6]By those contemporary U.S.-centric standards, the Spaniards’ genocidal subjugation of Native Americans was compensated with the “unique blend of the Old World and the New”[7]it created – as if the Incans themselves were willing to have their children poisoned in silver mines and their culture obliterated so that their posterity could enjoy a diverse and potentially racist society. Essentially, The American Pageant promoted American exceptionalism by crusading for the American way of thinking.


America as the Beacon

     Similar to The American Pagent, A People's History traces the historical origins of American identity. But contrary to how Kennedy and Cohen regard democratic and humanitarian values as inherent to American culture, Zinn depicts them as gradually forged by American resistance. Zinn’s account “of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves…of the First World War as seen by the socialist”[8]reveals that compassion and tolerance – the values we take for granted today – have been rarities for most of U.S. history. Resistance, not conscientious epiphanies, fueled America’s moral progress:


If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.[9]


Affirming this argument, Zinn shifts his emphasis from the saviors to the rebels. When discussing slave rebellions, for instance, Zinn dedicates half a chapter to elaborating how they produced “a class consciousness, a class fear” haunting colonial society,[10]contrary to how The American Pageant dismissed them as inevitable trifles worthy of only one paragraph.[11]According to A People’s History of the United States, America is not born, but rather becomes the land of the free.

           Zinn’s recount of the tortuous formation of American identity serves as a precaution against American errors rather than a showy display of American pride. Zinn refused to “accept the memory of the states as our own” or to “accept conquest and murder in the name of progress.”[12] He simultaneously acknowledges the injustice of explaining history with the criteria devised in our contemporary comfort and the futility of “depleting our moral energy of the present” to “grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners.”[13]Zinn’s purpose is not to judge history, but to expose it – to end the status quo where atrocities remain because “we have learned to bury them [atrocities] in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.” [14]Whereas The American Pageant proselytizes American exceptionalism with U.S. history, A People’s History seeks to guide Americans themselves to perfect their beacon of democracy.



           The American Pageant and A People’s History of the United States both fulfill the common American commitment to liberty and democracy via historical discourse, with one seeking to launch a predestined crusade for American values, and the other to polish the hard-won beacon of democracy. Whichever course will create the next American Century is unknown, but with the United States torn apart by remnants of its past, it is high time for Americans to look beyond “the pride we inherit,” towards “the past we step into and how we repair it.”[15]Lady Liberty’s torch must not suffocate in egoistic nostalgia; the Star-Spangled Banner must not droop in unjust reluctance. As an account of U.S. history from the perspective of its victims, A People’s History of the United States successfully serves this noble cause, echoing President Lincoln’s message at a time similar to ours: “[w]e must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”[16]


[1] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb” (poem, 2021 Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 20, 2021).
[2] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1994), 18.
[3] David M. Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant (Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia Pte Ltd, 2016), 43.
[4] Ibid., 43.
[5] Ibid., 43.
[6] Ibid., xxxvii.
[7] Ibid., 20.
[8] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015), 8.
[9] Ibid., 9.
[10] Ibid., 29.
[11] Kennedy and Cohen, 67.
[12] Zinn, 8.
[13] Ibid., 8.
[14] Ibid., 7.
[15] Gorman, “The Hill We Climb.”
[16] Abraham Lincoln, “Annual Message to Congress – Concluding Remarks” (congressional address, 1862 Annual Message to Congress, Washington, D.C., December 1862)


Kennedy, David and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia Pte Ltd, 2016.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2015.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1994.

Gorman, Amanda. “The Hill We Climb.” Poem delivered at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 2021.

Lincoln, Abraham. “Annual Message to Congress – Concluding Remarks.”1862 Congressional Address, Washington, D.C., December 1862.

The author's comments:

A review of The American Pageant and A People's History of the United States.


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