Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of essays by Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson where he uses history and the humanities to help us think through new ways of going forward, as individuals, a community and, ultimately, a country. These are not so much settled opinions as invitations to a widespread conversation, even if a sometimes difficult one.
We all know the old narrative — essentially that America was a great nation living according to great ideals, and though we sometimes didn’t quite live up to them, we were better than any other nation in all of human history. Thanks to the ways in which more voices have been heard in the construction of history in the last 40 years, and to the really important work of several generations of scholars to tell something like the whole story of the American experiment, not merely one comfortable to powerful white males, we now know that that old narrative was an agreeable lie. Just ask the Mandan or the Crow Indians or ask the descendants of slaves or children of the Japanese internment during World War II. Still, it has been an amazingly tenacious narrative. It’s the one that conservative thinkers like Dinesh D’Souza, William Bennett and Lynne Cheney embrace with such outrage that anyone could disagree with them.
The new narrative of the academic left — that America has always spouted largely empty ideals to cover the fact that, in essence, we are no different from other nations in history, equally driven by thirst for power, social hierarchies, racism, imperialism, sexism, and greed — is (to me) a disagreeable lie. We are not as good as our lofty ideals. We are also not a nation whose idealism and magnanimity are merely rhetorical.
The truth, surely, is somewhere in between. I know of no person in a calm spirit who would refuse to accept that there is something very special about the United States of America, both in our history and in our ideals. It’s not just that we are the richest and most powerful nation in the world (though we are), but there is something unusually aspirational in our national experience. Until we can find a new consensus on at least a core narrative of our national unfolding, we not only cannot cheer up as a people and solve some of the difficult problems before us, but we are in danger of a genuine constitutional fissure. Some of the alarmists think we may see serious secession movements in the decade ahead or that the country could break up into no less than two new republics: coastal blue and heartland red. I disagree. Disillusionment and cynicism cannot be our national outlook. Nor can a kind of naïve and self-satisfied patriotism, that overlooks the dark side of American history or pretends there are not significant unresolved issues in American life.
The problem is that there are several Americas now and we no longer have a shared national understanding of who we are and what we should signify at home and in the world. Great nations have shared values, shared aspirations, and a shared historical narrative. That does not mean everyone agrees, but there has to be at least a baseline understanding of our national purpose (and our history) that we can agree on, and from which we can formulate policy debates.
American Exceptionalism and Exclusions
It would be easy enough to account for the collapse of a common American narrative. The old one had too many exclusions — of African Americans, of women, of the poor, of indigenous peoples, of ethnic and religious minorities. It’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. Meanwhile, the United States had its own Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s. The old paradigms were shattered or fractured, and a wide range of new study focuses attainted scholarly legitimacy at the nation’s colleges and universities. Then the coming of fashionable postmodernism produced a generation of disillusioned academics and public intellectuals who called into question a wide range of American “verities”: objectivity, truth, justice, freedom, equality, beauty, separation of powers, free speech, due process, etc.
While I don’t think it even minimally fair to argue that establishment academics “hate America,” I do think there has emerged a fierce new orthodoxy at some of our colleges and universities that has, among other things, been particularly hard on any notion of American exceptionalism. Or even America’s essential goodness.
The debate about just what “American” means has been going on since the very beginning of our national experiment. The debate has always been sharp, but almost everyone feels that it has taken on a particular virulence in the third decade of the 21st century. From a historical perspective, the Founding Fathers represent a useful allegory for the range of views about the American project.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the chief exponent of the most idealistic view — America as a shining secular city on the hill, a beacon of liberty and happiness for people everywhere, the template for what will eventually be a successful worldwide movement towards enlightenment. Jefferson believed that whatever was un-perfected in American life could be fixed with good will and public education.
Hip Hop Lyrics, Broadway Musicals, and the American Story Revisited
Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), the namesake of the popular American musical, was not altogether without idealism, but he was more interested in American geopolitical glory than in what we now call soft power. He dismissed Jefferson as an “intellectual voluptuary,” and regarded him as either a gadfly or an impediment to America’s greatness. Hamilton did not think the people were up to the challenge of self-government. He believed nations must do whatever is in their interest, without any fuzzy loyalty to friendship or old alliances. Hamilton believed that the world was driven by ambition, by the search for profit, by the desire for power and dominion, and by the thirst for military glory. He was a pessimist about human nature. His famous June 18, 1787, address to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia decried average people as “the rabble.” Because of his pessimism about the bulk of humankind, Hamilton insisted that presidents and senators should serve for life, that the president should have an unqualified veto over acts of Congress and that governors of individual states should be chosen by the national executive.
Somewhere in the middle was John Adams (1735-1826), the crabby realist, who wanted a republic as much as Jefferson did, but who was pretty certain that the people were not quite up to the challenge, at least without some checks and guardrails to prevent an unthinking “tyranny of the majority.” Adams respected, admired, and even loved his friend Thomas Jefferson, so much that he took the first vulnerable step of repairing their friendship in 1812, after the partisan passions of the 1790s had driven them apart. Adams nevertheless believed that Jefferson was a utopian visionary insufficiently grounded in the real world. He once asked Jefferson if he had “been fast asleep in philosophical tranquility” when the passions of the French Revolution made Philadelphia (then the seat of the U.S. government) a locus of significant social and political unrest. Adams regarded his fellow humans as rascals, especially if they got a little power in their hands.
For Adams, who did not share Jefferson’s belief in the “perfectibility of man,” but who found Hamilton’s ambition and glory-seeking nauseating, creating a stable republic required three important elements. First, the president must be an individual of exceptional character who rose above partisan politics. Second, there must be a solid moral and religious core in the hearts of the people. Third, the constitution must have a large number of checks and balances to prevent any branch of the government, any faction, any party, any geographic section, or any individual from grabbing too much power.
For John Adams, checks and balances were the only hope.
There were other voices, of course. Benjamin Franklin reckoned we were all scamps, but with bemusement and some good sense, we would always manage to muddle through. Abigail Adams warned her voluble husband to “remember the ladies” when he and his fellow patriots fashioned a new constitutional system for the now-united colonies. Benjamin Banneker and Phillis Wheatley did what they could to convince the white founders of the dignity and capacity of African American slaves and free Blacks. The Iroquois (Cayuga) leader Logan appealed “to any white man” to recognize Native American rights, sovereignty, and generosity of spirit.
More than 200 years later, all this seems a little quaint. We are jaded and we are effectively cut off from the wisdom of the past by the collapse of the humanities and social studies in America. We are now presentists — unprecedentedly fixated on our own time and increasingly ignorant of our history. It shows. The past was prologue. The abandonment of civics and ethics in our K-12 curriculum, and the loss of rigor in social studies, have cut us off from the heritage of America as never before. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Tainted Cultural Touchstones
It is depressing to ask what now is the common inheritance, the common culture, or the agreed-upon narrative of the American project. In ancient Rome, the epic poet Virgil wrote a national epic (the Aeneid) to make sense of the troubled history of the Roman people. For many centuries the Aeneid was not only the best narrative of the rise of Rome and its culmination in the rule of August Caesar, but it was one of the central texts of western civilization — at least until the 17th century. The United States, which bears considerable resemblance to ancient Rome in all of its phases, glories and follies, has no such core text or (now) even a cluster of core texts. If Huckleberry Finn has now been fatally derailed by Twain’s constant use of the N-word, and if the Lewis and Clark Expedition is now seen as the harbinger of an imperial occupation of the Native American world, where do we turn for a story or a text that embraces the American experience in a way that simultaneously explains and uplifts, analyzes and inspires?
A nation without a shared narrative is a nation that has lost its confidence. When a nation loses its confidence, it ceases to do big things. The New Deal was successful because Franklin Roosevelt crafted a compelling national narrative of suffering and recovery. Think of the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, the Grand Coulee Dam (with its troubadour Woody Guthrie), rural electrification, and Social Security. John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier rushed a space capsule to Tranquility Base on the surface of the Moon in 1969 and attempted to address the historically intractable problems of civil rights. Ideas matter. Words and stories matter. A compelling narrative can move a people forward.
Woody Guthrie helped fashion the narrative of the dignity of labor during the Depression.
What is the story of America in 2020? The conservatives appear to want to lock the country into some previous narrative — the world of "Leave It to Beaver" or "The Andy Griffith Show" — and the progressives have been unable to fashion a narrative that extends beyond the worldviews of their own coalition of tribes and interest groups. If your narrative doesn’t embrace the world beyond your base, it’s not going to bring healing to America.
We need to have a serious national conversation about who we are and who we would like to be through the rest of the 21st century. I don’t think we can really go on without that common sense of national purpose. It won’t be easy to forge the new consensus, because we now acknowledge that our history is much more complicated, rich, nuanced, and (frankly) troubled than we were previously willing to acknowledge.
We should not, in my opinion, leave that narrative to the academics because for all of their brilliance they are often out of touch with the lives of the mass of American citizens, certainly those of the vast interior. Academics should be involved in the project at every turn, but the story needs to be fashioned by the broad public of America. We need Walt Whitman not and Noam Chomsky for this purpose. If I were Congress, I would appropriate several billion dollars to the National Endowment for the Humanities, to the National Endowment for the Arts, national public media, and to the U.S. Department of Education to convene the requisite conversations across the continent for the rest of this decade.
All the stakeholders need to be at the table this time. The flowering of books, essays, works of art, music, and dance that would come out of this great conversation would help all of us make sense of things. These acts of national deliberation might actually help to heal us. After 9/11 we created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to protect us as we traveled. After an earthquake or hurricane, we send in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). At this critical juncture in our history, we need to send in the “national guard” of the cultural agencies to help us move forward with confidence in re-forming a national narrative that does justice to every constituency. The emergency, in my view, is that grave.
Recovering the Promise of American Possibilities
The currently fashionable view that the United States is in decline or slow-motion collapse, that the best of our days are behind us, that we are likely to fissure into mutually hostile enclaves and regions, is premature. We have been through very difficult times before. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of our national demise are greatly exaggerated. But we are going to have to get deadly serious about the crisis of national confidence, and I think we now all agree that it is not going to be solved in the political arena. It’s in the deeper, broader, more representative American culture that the breakthrough is likely to come.
As is so often the case, it is that fabulous crafter of the national narrative, the imperfect genius Thomas Jefferson, who helps us understand American possibilities. Compromised though he is, he can still point the way. In his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1801, Jefferson called America:
a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation . . . enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter -- with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?
Eleven years later, safely out of office, but chastened by the strain of steering the American republic through the troubled waters of the Napoleonic wars, in the first of his retirement letters to John Adams, Jefferson retained his insight and his fundamental optimism:
and so we have gone on, & so we shall go on, puzzled & prospering beyond example in the history of man. and I do believe we shall continue to growl, to multiply & prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, wise, and happy, beyond what has yet been seen by men.
We must find a new — and authentic — optimism.
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book, Repairing Jefferson's America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship, is available at Amazon.com.