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Some scholars critique American exceptionalism as a proud, uncritical orientation. In this article, however, I argue that Frederick Douglass, an outspoken social critic, qualifies as an American exceptionalist thinker. I first identify and theorize two modes of exceptionalist rhetoric: accomplished exceptionalism, which is self-celebratory and largely uncritical, and aspirational exceptionalism, which is self-critical and reflective. I then provide a close reading of “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” to show how Douglass employs aspirational rhetorical techniques. Finally, I discuss the benefits of reading Douglass as an exceptionalist thinker and suggest that his aspirational rhetoric activates reflective and progressive modes of American citizenship.

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The University of Chicago Press


© 2020 by The Jack Miller Center. All rights reserved.


9 American Political Thought

Publication Title

American Political Thought

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