Date of Award

January 2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Eric Burin


American exceptionalism is the idea that America is or was somehow unique or different compared to other nations throughout history. Many Americans also believed that America had a special mission to be an example to the rest of the world. Many politicians and intellectuals have debated America's exceptionality since the founding of the country. The debate over American slavery during the antebellum era was in many ways a debate over American exceptionalism. Could America claim American exceptionality while they held on to slavery? George Fitzhugh, an ardent supporter of slavery during the antebellum period, argued that America was not exceptional and should accept slavery just like every other nation had throughout history. His counterpart Frederick Douglass disagreed vehemently and argued for an America that he saw as exceptional in its hypocrisy, but also exceptional in its founding if it could only live up to the ideals of the Founders. George Fitzhugh's Cannibals All! provided great insight into the anti-exceptionalist argument during this period. Frederick Douglass's speeches from 1841 to 1852 were used to analyze his American exceptionalist argument. These two individuals give us a case study of some of the core arguments for and against American exceptionality during the antebellum debate over slavery.