The dangers of romanticising American history

Posted on July 5, 2011


On 4th July The Economist’s Lexington blog published a quote by US historian Bernard de Voto calling American history the most “romantic of all histories” and celebrating this romantic vision as the basis of American achievements. I argue that in fact the tendency to romanticise US history, or more specifically to present America’s rise as a struggle against all the odds, fuels a brand of exceptionalism that can easily and often does slip into ugly chauvinism.

It’s ok to be a bit romantic about your history. After all as Benedict Anderson (or was it Ernest Gellner?) said “getting one’s own history wrong is what being a nation is all about”. But when this drifts into willful delusion and myopic exceptionalism it becomes a problem.

The problem is not so much that Americans tend to idealise their past leaders and gloss over inconvenient truths about them (although I wouldn’t want to suggest they are representative, Sarah Palin’s mangled account of Paul Revere’s ride and Michelle Bachmann’s claim that the founding fathers, many of whom were large-scale slave owners to the end, fought to abolish slavery are two recent examples of this.) We all do this to certain degrees about the individuals who we feel represent our beliefs, and when people get it badly wrong they are usually quite quickly corrected (as Palin and Bachmann both were.)

It is more the suggestion that America has somehow defied natural laws and powerful empires through a constant David and Goliath struggle to rise to the top and stay there. This ignores the American state’s (and prior to independence, proto-state’s) frequent use of superior strength – often drastically so – to defeat, repress and exploit its real or perceived enemies. It is a particular kind of settler nationalism, not dissimilar from strains in Australian, South African and Israeli national myths, that sees the survival of a small group in an unusual and often hostile environment as a kind of immaculate conception. Settlers were certainly tough and industrious people, but they had important advantages over the indigenous populations they came into contact with and for the most part exploited these ruthlessly.

In the case of the US, this idea of overcoming adversity is a trope that runs through the sanitised version of its history. It underlies accounts of foreign wars (even though after 1812 it was invariably the stronger combatant, and often the aggressor) and of the challenges to domestic injustices like slavery (which was carried out later and more reluctantly than in most other slave states) and segregation (which was far more the achievement of civil rights campaigners than of US democracy itself, which until then had badly let down Southern blacks). The inversion of power relationships in the retelling of these stories is extremely dangerous and fuels a particularly chauvinistic form of patriotism. It probably doesn’t need to be said that some of the greatest crimes in history have been committed by strong people presenting themselves as weak.

America’s rise from colonial backwater to sole superpower might seem pretty extraordinary – and in many ways it was – but it is still subject to the same forces and trends as the rest of world history. Crucial among these are:

1) Primitive accumulation of land and resources, primarily through dispossession and extermination of the native population, and of labour, initially through slavery and later immigration

2) A rebellion by local elites against a distant and unaccountable colonial system (a close run thing!) and their forward-thinking development of a bi-partisan democracy grounded in a property-based legal system, which thanks to rapid territorial expansion was able to appease the lower classes

3) A process of industrialisation in the urban North, based on imported European technologies and fed by European immigration, whose access to cheap raw materials and an enormous domestic market allowed it to eventually overcome European rivals. (Incidentally this set it on course for a clash with the feudalistic, slave-holding economy of the South, which bore far greater resemblance to the predominantly monocultural agrarian societies of Latin America and probably would have continued to do so had it achieved secession)

4) The use of hard power (such as the repression of nationalist movements in Central America and the Caribbean) and soft power (most notably the Marshall Plan) over more than a century to achieve and protect its superpower status

This is not to say that America was born in an unusual level of sin. To varying degrees all nations were, and the fact that dispossession and slavery happened in similar environments elsewhere suggests that, if not inevitable, there were certainly very powerful forces driving them. Rather it is to argue that the American story is a fascinating, and often uplifting one, but one that follows the same iron rules as everywhere else. We all – and Americans in particular – exaggerate America’s uniqueness at our peril. It is surprising that The Economist, which prides itself on an aversion to myths of victimhood and historical destiny should excuse this kind of thinking. It is good at exposing these myths when it comes to others but clearly has an ugly blind spot when it comes to the US.

Posted in: History, US