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Unexceptional Exceptionalism: Noah Webster's Cosmopolitan Nationalism

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Need cosmopolitanism contradict nationalism? 

Noah Webster, widely seen by historians as an ardent nationalist, might seem to have thought so.[1] After all, he argued against a foreign education for American youth, worrying that cultural and intellectual independence would never occur so long as Americans immersed themselves in the history, customs, and languages of nations other than their own.[2] Yet in truth Webster himself complicated the simple binary between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Few writings better crystallize Webster’s oddly cosmopolitan brand of nationalism than his 1793 abolitionist tract, “Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry.” In what follows, I argue that Webster deploys a cosmopolitan analysis of slavery to at once establish the unexceptional nature of American slavery and the exceptional nature of American freedom, thereby arriving at a nationalist argument for abolitionism.

The cosmopolitan orientation of Webster’s argument against slavery (eventually one for nationalism) is evident in the very formulation of his thesis. “Slavery, in all its forms and varieties, (your emphasis or his—you should indicate) is repugnant to the private interest and public happiness of man,” Webster writes. The impact of despotism, as manifested in slavery, Webster insists, is “the same in all countries; subject however to inconsiderable modifications from climate, soil, religion, or other incidental circumstances."[3] Despotism transcends all historical contexts, disregards all societal particularities. 

The universalism inherent to Webster’s thesis is telling. It indicates immediately that American slavery is not exceptional, that indeed it so conventional that it can be entirely comprehended by reference to numerous civilizations around the globe. The danger in this universalist argument, for the attentive nationalist, is immediately obvious: if expanded and taken to its logical conclusion, it suggests that no society has a claim to true cultural originality or moral superiority. A globalist perspective potentially relativizes all societies as equal.

However, this universalist argument is integral to the success of Webster’s attack on American slavery and the racism that sustained it. By demonstrating via an extensive comparative analysis that slavery always renders both the master and the slave “lazy, cruel and ferocious”—whether in contemporary Greece, Poland, Ireland, France, England, Prussia, or the Ottoman Empire—Webster proves that the “indolent and villainous” behavioral patterns of African slaves in America, their “peculiar features,” can in fact “justly be ascribed to their depressed condition.” Despotism, in the form of slavery, always reduces men to sloths and beasts. As such, Webster insists, “modern philosophers need not resort to an original difference of race” to explain the general “dullness” and cruelty of the enslaved Africans. After all, “slavery necessarily enervates the vigor of the human mind, in all climates and among all nations.”[4] What distinguishes men from one another is not their essence but their environment.[5]

Webster thus transmutes his cosmopolitan outlook into an argument for a universal and unchanging human nature, a single one whose expression is regulated by varying social and political contexts. Webster states this most clearly when declaring that “men are all brethren, the children of one common father.” Men have the same roots and are therefore fundamentally the same. That similarity, in turn, is reflected in the societies that they construct, which for all of their differences still operate in accordance with a logic so immutable that it is basically a law of nature—namely, that a liberal sociopolitical order always facilitates human flourishing, while a despotic one always induces decadence. 

Webster does not deny that this universalist conception of human nature erases any real difference between the American and the foreigner, and thus any narrative of American exceptionalism. Indeed, while Webster accedes that power might not have rendered American slave-owners as “proud, insolent, cruel [and] vindictive” as slave-owners elsewhere, it is not because Americans “are born with better hearts than other men,”[6] but rather because American slave-owners tend to delegatethe immediate exercise of despotism” to “substitutes” like the slave driver. Here we see, again, that Webster locates variances in human behavior not in human nature, but in particular societal arrangements that engage it differently.

Yet it is because Webster believes that all human beings share a common nature, and that thereby all human societies, no matter how different, conform to certain natural laws, that he is able to evolve a vision of American nationalism from within a cosmopolitan frame of analysis. If all societies are mechanical entities wherein an input of liberty necessitates an output of moral-industrial progress, then all societies have the potential to access liberty’s goods. Yet Webster’s (figurative) global tour showed that many contemporary societies did not, in fact, enjoy any meaningful degrees of political or civil liberty. From that cosmopolitan perspective, America’s state of affairs appears particularly impressive. Webster, “with tranquil delight,” can “contemplate that happy portion of freedom and that rational government allotted to the United States of America,” where inhabitants are so accustomed to the fruits of liberty that they would find it “strange and even astonishing” that the value of liberty is still the subject of debate in places like Russia, Germany, and Italy.[7]

Yet all is not well, for the persistence of slavery obstructs the joy that “the prosperous state of the country would otherwise inspire in every patriotic bosom.” Note here how Webster quietly pits patriotism against slavery, finally constructing the dichotomy towards which his entire essay had been building. For if indeed the institution of slavery undermines moral integrity and retards material prosperity—that is, if the institution of slavery cripples national health—than there can be no greater act of national devotion than to engineer its demise. Webster makes explicit the nationalistic character of abolition when he calls upon the “patriotic and humane gentlemen” of “the southern States” to devise a means by which America could grant “freedom to a miserable race of men, without injuring their owners and obstructing the cultivation of the country.”[8] 

To be abolitionist, then—to be “humane”—is to be nationalist. The dismantling of slavery is the ultimate patriotic act, as it would mark the removal of the last chains keeping the American nation from ascending above all, so far above is it already.[9]

What emerges from Webster’s treatise, then, is an argument for American nationalism that is not grounded in some utopian account of a special American genius, but rather in the simple claim that America has progressed further along the liberal path than its contemporaries—and that the presence of the abolitionist movement is greater evidence still of America’s unceasing appetite for an ever more perfect liberalism. That America is just one nation among many—comprised of citizens who share a common core with the remainder of humanity, and a society as obedient to natural law as any other—only confirms its exceptional nature. Despite playing by the same rules as everyone else, America has emerged (or will emerge) as an unmatched exemplar of liberty. Thus Webster manages the paradoxical task of asserting American nationalism—and American exceptionalism—from within a cosmopolitan framework that would seem to deny the very possibility of either.


[1] McHugh, Jess. "The Nationalist Roots of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary." The Paris Review. March 30, 2018. Accessed February 14, 2019. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/03/30/noah-websters-american-english/.

[2] Webster, Noah. On the Education of Youth in America. Boston: I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1790.

[3] Webster, Noah. Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry. Hartford, CT: Printed by Hudson and Goodwin, 1793

[4]Webster, Noah. Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry. Hartford, CT: Printed by Hudson and Goodwin, 1793

[5] We need not dwell on the historical soundness of Webster’s comparative analysis (or lack thereof), which collapses a wide array of different types of slavery across different eras and societies under a generalized umbrella of “tyranny,” treating each as though were it a close cousin of African American slavery in the 18th century. Webster’s elision of critical differences in historical and sociopolitical context is dubious (see how he refers to Polish peasants as slaves) but only marginal to our purposes here

[6] Webster, Noah. Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry. Hartford, CT: Printed by Hudson and Goodwin, 1793

[7] Webster’s praise for his nation is effusive: Here the “population has exceeded all European calculations; already has the active genius of America [has] begun manufacturing establishments; already do her ships traverse the globe, and collect wealth on the ocean and the islands, from the Straits of Magellan to the inhospitable regions of Kamchatska; and in the short period of 170 years…a trackless wilderness [has been] converted into fruitful fields and meadows, more highly cultivated than one half of Europe.” Note here how Webster deploys his comparative methodology to glorify American bounties

[8] Webster, Noah. Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry. Hartford, CT: Printed by Hudson and Goodwin, 1793

[9] Webster thus sees no shame in instructing his countrymen to emulate the “illustrious examples” of the “happy effects of liberty upon domestic and rural economy” supplied by the likes of the former Polish Chancellor Zamoiski, who enfranchised the peasants of six villages. “Is there no Zamoiski, no Stanislaus in the southern departments of our free Republic, who will hazard one effectual experiment?” Webster asks. In pointedly referring to America as a “free Republic” while highlighting exemplars of freedom from other countries, Webster shames his countrymen for not living up to the lofty promise of their nation. It is not becoming of America’s noble stature, Webster seems to suggest, that the American South cannot supply men of greater moral integrity than the mere likes of Poland.

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