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American History

A Drama of Sweep and Majesty

By Wilfred M. McClay

All too many of us who grew up and were educated in the United States were taught, albeit not always consciously, to regard American history as rather thin and provincial gruel, a subject appealing only to intellectually limited people who do not mind forgoing the rich and varied fare of European history. Many a high-school American history course offered by a bored, dry-as-dust pedagogue has reinforced that impression. Such courses tended to offer American history as a cut-and-dried succession of tiresome clichés and factoids, whose importance was, to an adolescent mind, either unclear or self-evidently nugatory: the terms of the Mayflower Compact, the battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, the provisions of the Missouri Compromise, Jackson's Bank War, the origins of "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too," the Wilmot Proviso, the meaning of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," the difference between the CWA and the WPA and the CCC and the PWA, and so on, and on. Such stupefying courses of study, endless parades of trivia punctuated by red-white-and-blue floats bearing plaster of Paris busts of inspirational bores, are enough to make one suspect that when Henry Ford defined history as "one damn thing after another," he must have had American history specifically in mind.

All this is an enormous shame and profoundly unnecessary. Let me encourage you to sweep away all such narrow preconceptions—and sweep away along with them all narrow filiopietism, and even narrower antifiliopietism, the twin compulsions that so often cripple our thinking about American history—and look at it all afresh. You do not have to decide who you are for and who you are against, who are the heroes and who are the villains. Least of all should you permit the mature study of history to be displaced by Oedipal psychodrama, wherein you symbolically get back at your parents by cheering for the Wobblies and the North Vietnamese (or for the Loyalists and Confederates, as the case may be). Nor, unless you are engaged in a political campaign or ideological crusade—and are, therefore, not really a serious student of American history—need you choose between the red-white-and-blue and anti-red-white-and-blue renditions of the American past.

Instead, you should think of American history as a drama of incomparable sweep and importance, where all the great questions of human existence and human history—the proper means and ends of liberty, individuality, order, democracy, material prosperity, and technology, among others—have converged, been put into play and brought to a high pitch, and are being worked out and fought over and decided and undecided and revised, even as you read this. It is a drama of enormous consequence, with both praiseworthy and execrable aspects, whose outcome even now is far from certain. There is no need to jazz up American history, or dress it up in colorful period costumes, as if it were a subject that is not inherently riveting. On the contrary. The most consequential themes of human history are here in abundance, every single one of them. Whoever is bored with American history is, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson (the 18th-century writer and literary critic), bored with life.

Let me quickly add that I am not here falling prey to the unfortunate tendency to make the United States into the cynosure of all human history. Indeed, I would contend that part of the problem is that American history tends to be taught and studied in isolation, when in fact it is a subject that can only be properly understood as part of something much larger than itself—and simultaneously as something much smaller, that insinuates itself into each of our lives. Both these dimensions, the "macro" and "micro" alike, are neglected by our tendency to stick to the flatlands of the middle range. Let us by all means pay our respects to the flatlands. But we should never allow ourselves to be confined to them, lest we lose sight altogether of the inherent sweep and majesty of our subject.

American Myths and Narratives

So American history needs to be seen in the context of a larger drama. But there is sharp disagreement over the way we choose to represent that relationship. Is, for example, the nation and culture we call the United States to be understood fundamentally as one built upon the extension of European and especially British laws, institutions, and religious beliefs? Or is it more properly understood as a modern, Enlightenment-based, post-ethnic nation built on acceptance of abstract principles, such as universal individual rights, rather than bonds of shared tradition, race, history, conventions, and language? Or is it a transnational and multicultural "nation of nations" in which a diversity of subnational or supernational sources of identity—race, class, gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual practice, etc.—is the main result sought, and only a thin and minimal sense of national culture and obligation is required? Or is it something else again? And what are the implications of each of those propositions for the answers one gives to the question, "What does it mean for me to be an American?" Clearly each understanding will cause one to answer that question in quite a distinctive way.

All three are weighty and consequential notions of American identity. The one thing they have in common is that they seem to preclude the possibility that the United States is "just another nation." Even nations-of-nations don't grow on trees. Perhaps you will sniff in this statement the telltale residue of American exceptionalism, the debunkers' favorite target. Fair enough. But the fact of the matter is that the very concept of "America" has always been heavily freighted with large meanings. It even had a place made ready for it in the European imagination long before Columbus's actual discovery of a Western Hemisphere. From as early as the works of Homer and Hesiod, which located a blessed land beyond the setting sun, to Thomas More's Utopia, to the fervent dreams of English Puritans seeking Zion in the Massachusetts Bay colony, to the Swedish prairie homesteaders and Scotch-Irish hardscrabble farmers and frontiersmen, to the Polish and Italian peasants that made the transatlantic voyage west in search of freedom and material promise, to the Asian and Latin American immigrants that have thronged to American shores and borders in recent decades—the mythic sense of America as an asylum, a land of renewal, regeneration, and fresh possibility, has remained remarkably deep and persistent.

Let us put aside, for the moment, whether the nation has consistently lived up to that persistent promise, whether it has ever been exempted from history, or whether any of the other overblown claims attributed to American exceptionalism are empirically sustainable. Instead, we should concede that it is virtually impossible to talk about America for long without talking about the palpable effects of this mythic dimension. As the sociologists say, whatever is believed to be real, even if it is demonstrably false, is real in its social consequences; and so it does one no good to deny the existence and influence of a mythic impulse that asserts itself everywhere.

It should be well understood, too, that this belief in America's exceptional role as a nation has never in the past been restricted to the political Right. Nor is it so restricted today. Consider the following remarks by former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, in a speech he gave on March 9, 2000, announcing his withdrawal from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination:

Abraham Lincoln once wrote that "the cause of liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one or even one hundred defeats." We have been defeated. But the cause for which I ran has not been. The cause of trying to create a new politics in this country, the cause of trying to fulfill our special promise as a nation—that cannot be defeated, by one or a hundred defeats.

Senator Bradley was, by all accounts, the more "liberal" of the two Democratic candidates in the 2000 primary season. Yet he found it as comfortable as an old shoe to use this special moment to challenge Americans by speaking the old, old language of "special promise." If that is not a tribute to the persistence of American exceptionalism, then it is hard to imagine what would be.

Almost everyone seems convinced that America, as well as American history, means something. To be sure, they don't agree on what it means. (Iranian clerics even credit America with being "the Great Satan," a world-historical meaning if there ever was one.) But few permit themselves to doubt that American history means something quite distinctive. This impulse has, of course, given recent American historians much of their subject matter; for wherever there are myths, can the jolly debunker be far behind? The myth of the log cabin, the myth of the self-made man, the myth of the virtuous yeoman farmer, the myth of the Virgin Land—the debunking of these myths and others like them has been the stock-in-trade of our American historians. One sometimes wonders what they would be doing with their time were there not such tempting myths to explode.

But one will likely wonder to no purpose, because the chances are exceedingly slim that they will ever find themselves in that predicament. Americans seem disinclined to stop searching for a broad, expansive, mythic way to define their national distinctiveness. They have been remarkably productive at this in the past. Consider the following incomplete list of conceptions, many of which may already be familiar to you, and most of which are still in circulation in one form or another:

  • The City Upon a Hill: America as moral exemplar
  • The Empire of Reason: America as the land of the Enlightenment
  • Nature's Nation: America as a nation uniquely in harmony with nature
  • Novus Ordo Seclorum: America as the new order of the ages
  • Redeemer Nation: America as redeemer of a corrupted world
  • The New Eden: America as land of newness and moral renewal
  • The Nation Dedicated to a Proposition: America as land of equality
  • The Melting Pot: America as blender and transcender of ethnicities
  • Land of Opportunity: America as the nation of material promise and social mobility
  • The Nation of Immigrants: America as a magnet for immigrants
  • The New Israel: America as God's new chosen nation
  • The Nation of Nations: America as a transnational container for diverse national identities
  • The First New Nation: America as the first consciously wrought modern nation
  • The Indispensable Nation: America as a guarantor of world peace, stability, and freedom

In addition to these formulations, there are other, somewhat more diffuse expressions of the national meaning. One of the most pervasive is the idea of America as an experiment. This concept of the national destiny was used by none other than George Washington, in his first presidential inaugural address, to denote two things: first, a self-conscious effort to establish a well-ordered, constitutional democratic republic, and second, the contingency and chanciness of it all, the fact that it might, after all, fail if our efforts do not succeed in upholding it. But the idea of the national experiment has, over time, lost its specific grounding in the particulars of the American Founding, and has evolved into something entirely different: an ideal of constant openness to change. "Experimental America" has a tradition, so to speak, but it is a tradition of traditionlessness. In this acceptation, America-as-an-experiment is a pseudoscientific way of saying that none of the premises of our social life are secure: everything is revocable, and everything is up for grabs. One can call this dynamism. One can also call it prodigality.

In any event, none of these mythic constructs enjoys anything like unquestioned predominance in American consciousness. But none is entirely dead either, and some are very much alive. They all work upon, and complicate, the sense of national identity. That there will be more such characterizations devised in years to come seems certain. And that they will give rise to debunking opposition seems just as inevitable. Americans' firm belief that they are distinctive would appear to support a perpetual industry. But my principal point is that such a firm belief is itself a datum of great importance, even if debunking historians can prove—Pyrrhic triumph!—that there is not a shred of truth to it. That Americans believe in, and search for the evidence of, their special national destiny is simply a fact of American history. By the 20th century it had become a fact of world history. The European view of America continued, as it always has, to have a strong element of projection, melding idealization and demonization: America is a vibrant land of innovation, freedom, and possibility, paired with America as an unsettled land of geopolitical arrogance, neurotic restlessness, manic consumerism, and social disorder. For East Asian observers, America the land of individual liberty and dynamism comes in tandem with America the land of intolerable social indiscipline.

That said, however, one has to acknowledge that the sheer number of these mythic versions of America tends to undermine their credibility—just as, when there are too many religions in circulation, all of them begin to look implausible. And so there can be no doubt that, while the desire to discover national meaning continues unabated, the story of American history as told today does not have the same kind of salient and compelling narrative energy that it had 50 or 100 years ago. Perhaps the myths are too exalted, too inflated, to live by, without egregious hypocrisy or overreaching. In any event, we have, in some measure, lost our guiding national narrative—not completely, but certainly we have lost it as a near-universal article of faith. There is too much self-conscious doubt, too little confidence that the nation-state itself is as worthy of our devotion as is our subgroup. Indeed, the rise of interest in more particularist considerations of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and so on have had the effect of draining energy away from the national story, rendering it either weak and indecisive—or the villain in a thousand stories of "subaltern" oppression.

The problem is not that such stories do not deserve to be told. Of course they do. There is always a horrific price to be paid in consolidating a nation, and one is obliged to tell the whole story if one is to count the cost fully. The brutal displacement of Indian tribes, the horrors of chattel slavery and post-emancipatory peonage, the grim conditions of industrial labor, the ongoing tragedy of racial and religious hatred, the hidden injuries of class—all these stories and others like them need to be told and heard, again and again. They should not, however, be told in a way that sentimentalizes them, by displacing the mythic dimension of the American story onto them, and by ignoring the pervasive existence of precisely such horrors and worse in all human societies throughout recorded time. History is not reducible to a simple morality play, and it rarely obliges our moral aspirations in anything but rough form. The crimes, cruelties, inequities, and other misdeeds of American history are real. But they need to be weighed on the scale of all human history, if their relative gravity is to be rightly assessed. It is all very well, for example, to be disdainful of corporate capitalism, or postwar suburbia, or any of the other obligatory targets. But the criticism will lack weight and force unless the standard against which corporate capitalism is measured is historically plausible rather than utopian. One can always imagine something better than what is. But the question is: Are there any real historical instances of those alternatives? And what hidden price was paid for them? That is the kind of thinking that historians are obliged to engage in.

It is not the content of these more particular stories that constitutes the problem for our dissolving national narrative. It is the fact that the push to tell them, and feature them, has been too successful. The story of American history has been deconstructed into a thousand pieces, a development that has been reinforced and furthered by both professional and ideological motives, but one that is likely in due course to have untoward public effects. Which raises an interesting question: Since throughout history strong and cohesive nations generally have had strong and cohesive historical narratives, how long can we continue to do without one? Do our historians now have an obligation to help us recover one—one, that is, that amounts to something more than a bland-to-menacing general background against which the struggles of smaller groups can be highlighted? Or are the scholarly obligations of historians fundamentally at odds with any public role they might take on, particularly one so prominent? Such a conundrum is not easily resolved. One should, however, at least acknowledge that it exists.

* * *

To understand the history of one's own country, even when one feels oneself to be more or less detached from it, is to gain insight into who one is, and into some of the basic elements of one's makeup. At a minimum, this will result in a rewarding sense of rich historical background that serves to frame and amplify one's own experience—as when one comes to absorb and mentally organize the history of the streets and buildings and neighborhoods of one's city or town. Then even the most routine street scenes reverberate in our consciousness with invisible meanings, intimations that flicker back and forth, again and again, between what we see and what we know.

In the presence of great historical sites, such as the Gettysburg or Antietam battlefields, such awareness takes an even deeper hold of our imaginations and emotions. It is like the sweet melancholy of a solo violin, whose haunting voice pierces us, through all the layers of rationality, with the keen edge of loss. There is a continuity of sorts between such profound emotions and the mingled thoughts and feelings that arise in us when we revisit one of the long-forgotten places of our childhood, or mark the gravestone of someone we have lost. Man is in love, said Yeats, and loves what vanishes. Such is the painful beauty of historical awareness. Our efforts to connect with the vanished past do not necessarily make us happier in any simple sense. But they make us more fully human, and more fully at home in the world, in time as well as space. We fail to honor our full humanity when we neglect them.


Wilfred M. McClay is professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where he holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in humanities. In 1995, for The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, he won the Merle Curti Award from the Orgainzation of American Historians for the best book in American intellectual history published in the years 1993 and 1994. This article is excerpted with permission from A Student's Guide to U.S. History by Wilfred McClay (Wilmington, DE, ISI Books, 2000).