The Intellectual Construction of America

Exceptionalism and Identity From 1492 to 1800

By Jack P. Greene

228 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 46 illus., notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4631-5
    Published: February 1997
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6177-6
    Published: November 2000

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Jack Greene explores the changing definitions of America from the time of Europe's first contact with the New World through the establishment of the American republic. Challenging historians who have argued that colonial American societies differed little from those of early modern Europe, he shows that virtually all contemporary observers emphasized the distinctiveness of the new worlds being created in America. Rarely considering the high costs paid by Amerindians and Africans in the construction of those worlds, they cited the British North American colonies as evidence that America was for free people a place of exceptional opportunities for individual betterment and was therefore fundamentally different from the Old World. Greene suggests that this concept of American societies as exceptional was a central component in their emerging identity. The success of the American Revolution helped subordinate Americans' long-standing sense of cultural inferiority to a more positive sense of collective self that sharpened and intensified the concept of American exceptionalism.

About the Author

Jack P. Greene is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University. He is author of several books, including Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture.
For more information about Jack P. Greene, visit the Author Page.


“[An] exceptional book.”--Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism

"Just as the debate over American exceptionalism seemed to reach its conclusion--or at least to reach a stalemate--Greene has asked us to refine the question. Was America exceptional? It all depends."--American Historical Review

"Greene's important book, in reminding us of the ways in which contemporaries identified America as an exceptional place promising opportunity unattainable in the Old World, has shifted the terms of debate for those who are interested in the relationship between colony and metropolis in the early modern period."--Journal of Southern History

"This beautifully produced volume is topical, readable and provocative. It will fuel debate over which master narrative, if any, best explains American identity."--American Studies

"This is a beautifully presented work, with well-chosen illustrations that are contemporary to the points being made in the text."--Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Jack Greene has engaged two issues of great interest: American exceptionalism and the construction of national identity. The argument he offers is complex, subtle, and supported by vast documentation. This book will compel scholars to rethink the issue of exceptionalism and likely will give the idea new life."--Richard L. Bushman, Columbia University