As with the climate, in politics we are running out of time. America’s retreat from democracy cannot persist. Though Native Americans, Black people, women and plenty others of us were excluded from America’s compact of equality and opportunity, many are still nostalgic for once upon a time. Some see even so flawed a quest for “a more perfect union” as admirable enough to deem it beyond reproach. After all, the argument goes, the American experiment always included and valued most. So that’s alright. All do not think that way.
Kermit Roosevelt III illuminates tumultuous today by examining the contentious beginning. With The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, he thoughtfully explains our growing confusion as to what the creation meant and means.
How can so many, looking back to the intentions of the founders, be so misled now? How have we misinterpreted what America has always been about? Citing an evolution as profound as “an eye for an eye” metamorphosing to “God is love”, Roosevelt’s investigation gives lie to every originalist argument today. One might even be tempted to view the United States’ contradictory impediment of slavery like Christianity’s “blessing” of original sin, the absence of which, theologians say, precludes salvation.
Roosevelt is a Penn law professor and a great-great grandson of the “trust-busting” 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. He is careful to give credit where credit is due. He notes his book was prefigured by Nikole Hannah-Jones’s powerful 2019 essay, Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.
Created for the New York Times’ groundbreaking 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones’s piece relates: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie … despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans … have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves – Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.”
Roosevelt endorses this sentiment by stating that the Declaration of Independence was not conceived as a document dedicated to impartiality. Au contraire. As he puts it, it protected the rights and interests of “insiders” from the striving and ambitions of “outsiders”, a push and pull, he says, that remains in effect.
The nub of the Declaration, Roosevelt asserts, is that when supposedly free people are oppressed, it is incumbent upon them to rebel. Ironically, it was only with the arrival of the civil war, rebelling southern states invoking the supposed tyranny of efforts to end their oppression of others, that America was redeemed.
The result was not just a second revolution. It presented us with a second constitution, one that in important ways undid the slavery-supporting first constitution.
And yet despite the indifference of that document to individual rights, Roosevelt writes: “We tell ourselves a story that links us to a past political regime – Founding America, the America of the Declaration of Independence and the Founders’ Constitution – to which we are not the heirs … We are more properly the heirs of the people who destroyed that regime”, who “defeated it by force of arms”.
Abraham Lincoln appreciated this. So did Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Yet each strategically choose to give credence to the more broad appeal of the founding myth. Both the Gettysburg Address and the I Have a Dream speech do this. So many, their authors understood, find embracing an origin story based on the ideal of universal inclusion more palatable than our tainted reality.
Moreover, the second constitution, contingent and evolving, requires both “the blood of patriots and tyrants” Thomas Jefferson proscribed to sustain liberty and the “eternal vigilance” he also recommended. To ward off neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, far-right Christians and the like takes the fortitude of activists like Black Lives Matter combined with the sacrifice of a Bobby, Martin, Malcom or John. There is no less grievous way.
Realizing our promise, Roosevelt insists, requires completing the reform of Reconstruction and the civil rights era. Relics supporting the privilege of “insiders” – the electoral college, encumbrances of voting rights, pay-to-play election financing – all must be banished.
The Nation That Never Was makes one all too aware of the ways insiders protect their advantage. Always they urge patience in what they see as a benevolent, color-blind system. Professing that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”, even King grew weary waiting.
So have I. Concerned about the modest size of a newly protected historic district, Harlem residents were reassured by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission that they needn’t worry.
“This is our opening salvo. We’ll be back to do more…”
Their return only took 44 years.
Roosevelt is at his poignant, tragicomic best when calling-out perennial efforts to rationalize and justify the biases of white supremacy into public policy and law. Did the supreme court chief justice, John Roberts, really believe his 2013 ruling eviscerating the Voting Rights Act? He said racially motivated voter suppression was a problem of the past, that “the nation is no longer divided” into states with a recent history of voter suppression and those without.
Plessy v Ferguson, the overturning of Roe v Wade, depriving the franchise to so many inhabitants. American history is not a saga of anomalous outrage. Every incident of persisting misogyny, homophobia or racism brings to the fore the problem Roosevelt seeks to address.
No matter how familiar Laozi’s truism, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, some people today are just like those in all the other volumes I’ve reviewed here. Wether in Wilmington’s Lie, Learning From the Germans, The Other Madisons or The Groundbreaking, the common obstacle to change and healing is reluctance to even admitting that anything bad ever happened – much less that an injustice stands unamended.
The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, is published in the US by University of Chicago press