Published: September 20, 2013

In his recent address to the nation urging a military strike in Syria, President Obama appealed to “American exceptionalism” to make the case. American ideals were on the line in Syria, he argued, and the United States had a special responsibility to act. But that claim didn’t sit well with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, as he made clear in a New York Times op-ed. All countries had distinctive qualities, Putin said, and encouraging Americans to see themselves as more special and unique was “extremely dangerous.”

So how did an argument about Syria and international diplomacy become one about American identity? And what is “American exceptionalism” anyway? From the Puritan vision of a “city upon a hill” to the 19th century concept of manifest destiny; Woodrow Wilson’s early 20th Century vision of the United States as a model for the world, and Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the Puritans in the 1980s, the notion of “exceptionalism” has run through American history. In this episode of BackStory, the Guys go behind the rhetoric of exceptionalism to unpack its history and meaning.