Authors

Samuel Moyn

Document Type

Article

Abstract

"A history of moralism," the late intellectual historian Henry May once observed, "would come close to being a history of American thought." It was a forgivable exaggeration, for his point still stands when it comes to the exceptionalist American self-understanding that May's comment as much enacted as described. From the beginning, Americans have often been prone not simply to assume an uncomplicated belief in what May called "the first and central article of faith in the national credo . .. : the reality, certainty, and eternity of moral values." They have also overwhelmingly tended to infer that, as "perhaps the most often stated corollary of all, the United States, as a special leader in moral progress, had a special responsibility for moral judgment . . . ." This fact helps explain why, during the era in which their straightforward allegiances to these longstanding truths remained uncontested, Americans signed on with uncommon alacrity and enthusiasm to the mission of European international law to provide moral reform of the world. Improvement in the name of America's special insight into the ethical realities of the universe could not, to be sure, remain restricted to the nation's own borders. One might have predicted that the country's self-image would not survive the stress of its evolution from self-appointed exemplar for the world to tentative engagement in the world. Yet, in the initial age of American empire, no serious disturbance followed. For that matter, how fundamentally did America's self-image ever change under pressure? This question is what seems to be most at stake when reckoning with the powerful story told in the last chapter of Martti Koskenniemi's classic masterpiece, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations.

Date of Authorship for this Version

2013

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