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In this paper, I address the problem of the usefulness of the notion of American exceptionalism by examining the views of a number of classical theorists concerning the peculiarities of American history, emphasizing particularly its religious background. Ultimately, I follow Aristide Zolberg in arguing that there are as many `exceptionalisms' as there are cases under examination, and that the proper mode of studying these questions is unavoidably comparative and historical. Comparative historical analysis is the only means of determining what is typical and what is distinctive (not `deviant,' the invocation of which concept would inappropriately imply some sort of `norm'). Here, however, I will in the main compare only implicitly, highlighting particular features of American historical development while suggesting how these differ from other relevant cases, in an effort to make sense of how the United States can be at once a leading defender of human rights and a leading violator of such rights, as well as a vision of a prosperous future for many that at the same time is marked by striking and increasingly large inequalities of wealth and income.