American Rule- Are we exceptional?
American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People
Jared Yates Sexton 2022
“America’s original Noble Lie is the mischaracterization of its founding. The facts of its conception, its independence, and the process by which its Constitution was penned and then sold to the world have been twisted to fit a larger story of universal morality, white supremacy, and social Darwinism, and it has been used since its beginning as a means of manipulation and control.” Jared Yates Sexton
What is America? Is it a shining city on a hill of freedom and prosperity blessed explicitly by God, or a mediocre and violent nation-state bent on dominating its peoples with convenient lies? Being born in the center of the USA, it's hard to be objective. The narrative story of America is still a point of debate. Many prefer the rose-colored view of American progress, from a noble Revolutionary War to the saviors of democracy against the evil Nazi Reich and Soviet Communist Empire. The myth of America as a land of freedom and opportunity lives on, but its long history is marked by flawed leaders and horrible injustices that have been conveniently left out.
If your only knowledge of American history is from grade-school history books, you are missing out on a lot. The first book I remember that shook my understanding of US History was Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, published back in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was just about to use the Shining City On a Hill story to win the presidency and remake the government. We've come a long way since then. The founding fathers are no longer looked upon as infallible vessels of God. Christopher Columbus has been exposed as a monster. The genocide of Native Americans and disgraceful treatment of freed slaves in the century after the Civil War is more well known. Going forward, a new concept of what America is about is trying to emerge, but it fights against the old, outdated one at every turn.
The latest attempt to chronicle the mess that is American history is by author and professor Jared Yates Sexton in American Rule. This book is a depressing 300 page slog through the worst aspects of the period from 1776 to the present, but important to read to get the entire picture. Only 2 pages at the end try to put an optimistic spin on this depressing story, and it's a wonder we all survived and somehow managed to dominate and influence the word's economy as screwed up as our leaders were.
Mind you, American Rule is a cherry-picked set of stories involving many of the scandals and scoundrels that many of us already know about. It leaves out many of the more inspiring people and unsung heroes that made more of a difference than the usual cast of clowns that qualified as US Presidents. But then again, any attempt to write history has to pick and choose which stories to tell and which to leave out. Here are some of the stories that I learned from this book:
1- Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man who promoted populism and democracy, but eventually gave in to federalism and single-handedly expanded the American empire with one purchase. Jefferson fought against the Federalists, who wanted to limit the power of the masses and preserve power in the hands of the elites. But he was an elite himself. He wrote a passionate condemnation of slavery into the Declaration of Independence that was later taken out, while he himself owned 600 slaves, only 10 of which he ever freed.
2- The Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 was never authorized to create a brand new constitution, but only to revise the Articles of Confederation. Sexton and other historians claim that the convention greatly exceeded its authority, and that the framers of the constitution were un-elected elites bent on setting up rules that would benefit them and their control of America going forward. Those elites were shaken up by Shay's Rebellion in 1786, an uprising in Massachusetts against unfair laws that favored the wealthy, The Electoral College was devised by these elites to keep the appearance of democracy while making sure that most of the important decisions would be kept in the hands of a few wealthy land owners. The new constitution was sold as a part of a story of American exceptionalism, though it kept slavery intact and only allowed white, property owning males to vote. (About 6% of the population at the time).
3- Abraham Lincoln was more ambivalent about slavery than we were led to believe. He wanted to preserve the Union at all costs, and was willing to negotiate slavery if it meant states wouldn't secede. For freed slaves, Lincoln proposed deporting them to Haiti or Africa in the sincere belief that freed black people didn't belong and couldn't fit in. Unfortunately for him, the entire economy of the south depended on cotton and free slave labor, so he never got anywhere. The math of the electoral college changed in 1860 so that the South and Democratic party no longer could dominate like it had, and Lincoln was elected without even being on the ballot in most southern states. Seeing the writing on the wall that they would always be in the minority, they chose to break away completely. This leads to my favorite quote from the book:
"A dominant group faced with losing power combated their new reality by embracing fascism and discarding established institutions and embracing new ones- guaranteeing continued dominance." (To put the 21st century into perspective)
There is much, much more about American history including the disastrous elections of 1800, 1876, 2000, and 2016 that involved behind the scenes drama and put into question the entire legitimacy of our democracy. Sexton discusses the rise of the robber-barons in the late 19th century and how capitalism took over government. He goes into how a racist professor like Woodrow Wilson was rebranded as the champion of world peace, and how Hitler modeled much of his Nazi Germany on how America treated its Native Americans and Blacks. It is dark, dark stuff, but important to keep in mind to avoid unrealistic models of the present and future.
Is America exceptional? It was lucky to be situated on a continent rich in resources and devoid of competitors who threatened to invade. That gave America free reign to expand and grow into the power that it did, complete with convenient mythology that made it sound like God's chosen land in a world full of inferior and suspect nations. In that way it's exceptional. But as far as the scourges of racism, slavery, war, excessive capitalism and greed, America is just like most of the rest of the world. Those things are everywhere- Asia, Europe, Africa, and Australia. We are maybe unique in the way we discount those inconvenient stories to think we are the moral center of the universe. The rest of the world knows better and sees us for our strengths and our weaknesses. American leaders throughout history were as flawed, overconfident, and greedy as anybody else for the most part.
If we can confront this unpleasant truth once and for all, perhaps we can finally choose better leaders and better pathways going forward. History is about learning from the past, not constructing noble lies. As George Santayana said, "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."