The story America told about itself for the first few hundred years went a little like this. Persecuted in their homelands, brave settlers (it went without mentioning that they white) departed Europe for what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “fresh green breast of the New World.” Once there, they built a society free from the serfdom and stifling hierarchies of the old country, devised a liberal democratic faith unique on this Earth, and, faced with oppression from King George III, revolted against tyranny to establish the freest nation the world had ever seen. Since 1776, this free and equal society has led the world to new frontiers of liberty and plenty. They called it American Exceptionalism.
Ok, perhaps that’s a bit of a caricature. But the gleaming light that American myth makers cast upon their nation’s past was prodigious–and blinding. As Steve Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, two seminal themes in American history–the annihilation of American Indians and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade–number among the ten deadliest atrocities in the history of humanity. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade engendered a form of human bondage unique among civilization in its brutality and lethality. Eighteen million Africans died in the course of five centuries’ human trafficking. Between 15 and 50 million Indigenous people were killed by European colonization.
That bloodshed was central to the development of America does not make us a uniquely sinful country. If there is a country whose history counts as the most violent of any nation in the world, it is likely China, the location of four of Pinker’s ten nightmare events. But clearly American history cannot be cast as a 400-year endeavor in creating goodness for all the world to share. Nowhere, in fact, has this contradiction been more clear than in the American South.
The vast majority of African slaves trafficked into the future United States of America were brought, in chains, to Southern plantations. They and their descendants would live as slaves for 250 years. (In his 1865 Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln was already talking about centuries of oppression. Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose). The South was physically, economically, and ideologically constructed on racialized chattel enslavement. Despite the fact that this region’s history refutes the most ardent claims of American Exceptionalism, Southern Republicans are leading the right’s war to keep Exceptionalism at the heart of history education.
The Governor of Tennessee thundered that Volunteer State students will be taught “unapologetic American exceptionalism.” North Carolina Republican senate frontrunner Ted Budd chimed in that “American exceptionalism” should be the core of historical education. The blindness of these conservative ideologues is remarkable. Not only do they inhabit a country whose past is far more troubled and contradictory than Romantic historians like George Bancroft once said, these politicians represent the region of the country that stands as the most vivid counterpoint to a narrative grounded in triumphalism.
There is a further irony. White, Southern historical memory has since the Civil War been less bright and more mournful than the way Americans in the North and West recollect their nation’s past. This spirit of regret came from the fact that the disgraceful Confederate cause went down to defeat. But in reaction to their ancestors’ alienation from the national mainstream, Southern conservatives like Ted Budd are overcompensating with a jingoistic passion for American Exceptionalism. They have chosen to forget the past as it was. That should induce pessimism about a future where Dixie traditionalists run the U.S.A.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.