A View of American History That Leads to One Conclusion

For many historians today, the present is forever trapped in the past and defined by the worst of it.

Ship approaching Plymouth Rock
Daniel Zender / The Atlantic; Getty

When I was in school, American history was taught as a series of triumphs over wrongs that belonged to the past. Slavery was evil, but the Civil War ended it; then the civil-rights movement ended segregation. The vote was extended to more and more Americans—starting with white men, then women, Black people, and finally even 18-year-olds—thus fulfilling the promise of democracy. There was no atoning for the near elimination of Native Americans, but somehow it didn’t invalidate the story of progress. Abroad, the U.S. led the cause of freedom against fascism and communism; Japanese internment, McCarthyism, and Vietnam were mistakes that didn’t erase the larger picture. It was an optimistic narrative, reassuring, shallow, and badly in need of a corrective.

We’re now living in a golden age of fatalism. American culture—movies and museums, fiction and journalism—is consumed with the most terrible subjects of the country’s history: slavery, Native American removal, continental conquest, the betrayal of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, colonialism, militarism. In scholarship, works whose objective is to puncture our hopeful but misguided myths dominate, and titles such as Unworthy Republic, The End of the Myth, Illusions of Emancipation, and Stamped From the Beginning claim prestigious prizes. This mode of analysis doesn’t just revise our understanding of American history, illuminating areas of darkness that most people don’t know and perhaps would rather not. It also draws a straight line from past to present.

In a country world-famous for constant transformation, historical fatalism believes that nothing ever really changes. Mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow”; modern police departments are the heirs of slave patrols. Historical fatalism combines inevitability and essentialism: The present is forever trapped in the past and defined by the worst of it. The arrival of the first slave ship on these shores in 1619 marked, according to The New York Times Magazine, “the country’s true birth date” and “the foundation on which this country is built.” Cruelty, inequity, and oppression endure in the American character not only as elements of a complex whole but as its very essence. Any more ambiguous view—one that sees the United States as a flawed experiment, marked by slow, fitful progress—is an illusion, and a dangerous one.

The new fatalism has its own historical causes, and they’re not hard to see: the failures of the War on Terror and the neoliberal economy, stubborn inequality, the disappointments of the Obama presidency, videos of police brutality, global warming, the rise of Donald Trump. There is no shortage of evidence to justify a dark interpretation of American history. But what’s striking is how eagerly the new fatalism crosses from empiricism into metaphysics. In search of original facts, historians and journalists go digging where the ugliest facts are buried, and what begins in research ends in dogma. They aren’t just looking to fill in gaps of knowledge, or going where the historical evidence leads them. Instead they replace one myth with another one, as powerful and even attractive in its way as the naive story of July 4, 1776, being the fountain of liberty and equality for all. Disillusionment is as appealing to some temperaments as wishful thinking is to others.

Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power, by Jefferson Cowie, a historian at Vanderbilt University, is a gem of the new fatalism. Synthesizing brilliant research in fluent prose, and writing with an indignation that’s all the more damning for being understated, Cowie explores the history of Barbour County, in Alabama’s Black Belt, at the southeastern corner of the state. Here, white settlers drove out Creek Indians in the early 19th century; white planters made cotton fortunes on the seized land with Black slave labor; defeated white Confederates restored their wealth and power using Black convict labor and a Jim Crow constitution; white mobs enforced their racist social order with lynchings. When the civil-rights movement eventually reached Barbour County, in the mid-1960s, white politicians kept Black voters out of power with intimidation and chicanery. By then, a native son of Barbour County named George Wallace was ruling Alabama as its arch-segregationist governor and taking the cause of white resistance national.

Cowie’s theme is how the sacred American creed of freedom serves to justify racial domination. At every turn in the harsh tale of Barbour County, white residents resisted challenges to their supremacy by invoking their birthright as free people. At nearly every turn, the federal government made inadequate efforts on behalf of equal Black citizenship, before yielding to the demands of white “freedom” backed by violence. “Those defending racism, land appropriation, and enslavement portrayed themselves, and even understood their own actions, as part of a long history of freedom,” Cowie writes. In his infamous 1963 inaugural address vowing “segregation forever,” Governor Wallace used the word freedom 24 times. To Wallace and his constituents, the real tyrant was the federal government, issuing its court orders and sending down its marshals and troops to impose its laws against the will of white Alabamians. Cowie quotes a blunt question from the 18th-century British essayist Samuel Johnson that could have been the book’s epigraph: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

In the uses of freedom, Cowie argues, domination is as central to the American creed as individual liberty and self-government. Freedom as white power “is not an aberration but a virulent part of an American idiom.” The history of Barbour County “was not much different than what happened in the rest of the Black Belt, the South, or the nation.” For proof, Cowie recounts the nationwide appeal of Wallace’s presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972 (“We’re going to show there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country,” Wallace said before the ’68 election). The stories Cowie has excavated in Barbour County “are not simply regional tales lost in the dark, overgrown thickets of the past. They are quintessentially American histories—inescapably local, yet national in theme, scope, and scale.” The historian concludes: “To confront this saga of freedom is to confront the fundamentals of the American narrative.”

These claims are the heart of Cowie’s book. In one sense, they’re incontestable. Few Americans today embrace the overt goal of white supremacy, but the freedom to take away someone else’s rights at gunpoint is as American as the freedom to insult the president or make a pile of money. If you drive through rural Pennsylvania, you’ll see the Stars and Bars flying from houses in towns where the main square features a monument with a long honor roll of Union dead. The January 6 insurrectionists carried Gadsden banners and Confederate flags and railed against government jackboots. Though they might not state it openly, for some Americans Black equality + the federal government = tyranny is a permanent equation.

But on second glance, there’s something strange and willful about picking Barbour County, Alabama, as the exemplary American place. It would be hard to find a more brutal and benighted one, but fatalism makes the selection understandable. The Times recently published an op-ed under the headline “What If Hale County, Ala., Is the Heart of America?” Hale County—about 200 miles northwest of Barbour—was the setting for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Depression-era portrait of white tenant farmers; today the county’s Black majority remains deeply impoverished. Perhaps Barbour County and Hale County are the twin hearts of America.

My mother’s side of the family comes from Birmingham, Alabama, which is notorious for its history of white supremacy and violence. But the recent history of Birmingham, with its Black mayors and progressive politics, tells a somewhat less fatalistic story than Cowie’s tale of Barbour County. Another historian might argue that the history of Kings County, New York, where I’m writing this essay, can equally claim to represent the nation’s past. What if Brooklyn were the heart of America? That would give a very different picture of freedom—one largely shaped by immigration, ethnic competition, coalition building, and liberal state power, in addition to racial discrimination. But it might be better not to go looking for the national essence anywhere.

Cowie tells us that he wanted to write about white resistance to federal power, and “Barbour County found me.” He did indeed go digging where the ugliest facts lay buried, some quite close to the surface. When he took the step from writing superb history to diagnosing American character, the choice of place determined the conclusion. But constructing a narrative of the country’s past is the business of everyone, not just the professionals, and getting the facts right isn’t enough. As the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country, “Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.” The stories we tell ourselves about the past allow us to see the country we want.

Did America become America in 1619, or 1776, or some other year? There is no objective answer. The answer is a choice, an expression of values, and the choice implies a story. Politics is a competition between stories—and it’s as politics that the new fatalism leads to a dead end. On a landscape strewn with the deflated remnants of old myths, with the country’s essence distilled to its meanest self, what moral identity is it possible to build? Punctured myths make us better students of history, but they leave nothing to live up to. Shame is a shaky foundation for any project of renewal. You can’t tell someone that he’s made a mess of his life because of his own bad character and then expect him to change. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals,” Rorty wrote: “a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

Cowie argues for a new narrative to combat that of Barbour County: “a vigorous, federally enforced model of American citizenship that is not afraid to fight the many incarnations of the freedom to dominate.” In other words, he wants the United States to start doing what, in his telling, it has largely failed to do for 200 years. But white resistance to federal power runs so deep in Freedom’s Dominion that no other model is plausible. If Barbour County is the dark heart of America, the course of the story is foretold. Progressive scholarship makes progressive politics seem hopeless.

Our political moment, composed of catastrophism and stagnation, offers no obvious way out. This impasse produces the magical thinking of fatalism: History is a living nightmare—wake up to justice! A popular idea calls for change by plebiscite and demography: Rewrite the Constitution, get rid of its anti-majoritarian features, create true democracy, and a new majority will carry out the progressive policies the country wants. In Two Cheers for Politics, the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy makes an eloquent case for more democracy as the path to national renewal. He suggests extending the franchise to noncitizens and holding a new constitutional convention every 27 years. Purdy acknowledges that democracy means giving power to people and ideas you might not like. Still, I sense he believes—despite election after election showing this country to be almost evenly split—that the correct majority will rule.

There’s no shortcut out of our impasse. The only way forward is on the long road of organization and persuasion. This is the theme of Timothy Shenk’s recent book Realigners. “There’s no one thread tying the history of American democracy together, no abiding center, no single answer,” Shenk writes. “But there is a recurring question: How can you build an electoral majority?” Shenk—whose progressive credentials include co-editing Dissent magazine—rejects “skeleton-key histories” such as the new fatalism that draws “a straight line from slavery in the seventeenth century to systemic racism in the twenty-first.” Realigners is about Americans—political leaders and thinkers, given that democratic politics is a contest among elites for popular legitimacy—who changed the country by helping to create majorities that lasted long enough to break with the past. They’re not the usual suspects. Shenk’s protagonists include the Democratic Party kingpin Martin Van Buren; the radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner; Mark Hanna, William McKinley’s campaign mastermind; W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter Lippmann, Bayard Rustin, Phyllis Schlafly.

Shenk’s portraits and stories are not the stuff of utopian dreams. Electoral majorities are extremely hard to build in our system. They depend on the convergence of public sentiments, historical events, political talent, institution building, and luck. They have to sustain contradictions and bring opponents together in unlikely coalitions. They never last more than a couple of decades. The only constant is change. The new fatalism gives us an open-and-shut vision of the past, but for inspiration in shaping the future, we have to look elsewhere.

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