A Fiery Gospel

A conversation about changing the American story.

By Lapham’s Quarterly

Monday, September 19, 2022

An American flag in Detroit, 1942. Photograph by Arthur S. Siegel. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

On The World in Time podcast, Lewis H. Lapham spoke with Kermit Roosevelt III about The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lewis H. Lapham: We find ourselves at the moment in a perfect storm of a national identity crisis—voices at all points of the political compass asking, “Who and what is America? Who are we as a people and a nation? And where is the true American story?” Maybe you can begin by telling us why the standard story is a false story about where our values come from.

Kermit Roosevelt III: I think that we’re in the middle of a really important national conversation about who we are and where our values come from. As to your question, there are a bunch of different things to say about different stories, and historical truth is not the only thing that we think about. I tend not to believe in historical truth as an absolute. I think people have perspectives; there are stories that are useful and there are stories that are less useful. But in terms of historical accuracy, I think sort of the defining feature of our standard story, as I understand it, is this idea that our modern American values of universal liberty and human equality are there in the Declaration of Independence, fought for in the Revolution, written into the Constitution, and then progressively realized over time.

That story really does not stand up well to historical analysis, starting with the very first point, which is about the Declaration of Independence. If we ask what the Declaration of Independence meant in 1776 to Thomas Jefferson—writing it to the Continental Congress, reviewing and editing it—and to the people who read it at the time, I think it’s pretty clear that the Declaration and in particular the phrase “All men are created equal,” which is what we really focus on now, didn’t have the modern values that we associate with it. There are a couple of relatively easy ways to see that. If you take the modern reading of “All men are created equal,” which means something like the government should treat all people equally, or at least treat them with equal concern and respect, take their interests into account equally, then obviously it’s inconsistent with slavery. And since the Declaration is setting out conditions under which people who are treated poorly have a right to rebel, it seems to tell you that rebellions by enslaved people are justified.

But obviously that’s not what Jefferson is trying to establish. We know that in part because the Declaration is about the rights of the colonists, and it’s trying to establish that the colonists are right in rebelling against King George III, not that the colonists are oppressors—which is what follows immediately from the modern understanding of “All men are created equal.” We also know that the colonists felt very strongly that slave rebellions were unjustified because the last and most serious charge that the Declaration levies against King George is that he is inciting domestic insurrections. He is encouraging enslaved people to rebel.

Another even more direct data point in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration is a passage that criticizes not domestic slavery in America but the international slave trade and tries to blame King George for introducing slavery to America. That passage didn’t make it past the Continental Congress. So even though it’s not about slavery in America, even though it’s blaming King George and not saying that the colonists are in the wrong, the Continental Congress takes it out. It just doesn’t make any sense to suppose that the first self-evident truth of the Declaration is a principle that condemns slavery, that shows the colonists are wrong, that shows that enslaved people have a right to rebel. There’s just no way they would have written that.

The thing about the Declaration of Independence that I think we tend not to understand when we look at it is that it was written in a particular historical context for a particular purpose. It’s about relationships within the political community. It gives us a theory of where legitimate political authority comes from, and then it gives us a theory of when legitimate political authority can be rejected. All of that is about the relationship between the people who have formed a political community. It actually doesn’t have any implications for outsiders like enslaved people, people who are not part of a political community.

LHL: Is that what you mean by the exclusive Declaration?

KR: So when I say “exclusive Declaration,” I’m talking about that and Jefferson’s political philosophy, which is drawn from Locke. The political philosophy of the Declaration is about people coming together to form a government by consent, and they consent to its authority. And then the government has duties to those people. But it’s all about relationships within the political community. That political philosophy doesn’t tell you that the government has any duties to outsiders. And enslaved people are outsiders. This kind of exclusivity, where a community of insiders has rights but outsiders don’t, carries forward into the Constitution that’s written in 1787—at least if you believe seven justices of the Supreme Court. Because seven justices of the Supreme Court are going to say in the Dred Scott decision that Blacks can never become U.S. citizens, that there’s an exclusivity principle based on race in the Constitution. A lot of people will say, “But Dred Scott was wrong; Dred Scott was a terrible decision.” And Dred Scott is a terrible decision in terms of the principle that it announces. But it may be an accurate reading of a terrible document. It may be an accurate reading of the 1787 Constitution, which contains principles we would now consider terrible.

The 1787 Constitution contains the Fugitive Slave Clause. It contains the three-fifths compromise. It shouldn’t surprise us that there could be accurate judicial decisions that announced terrible principles, because we know there are some pro-slavery principles in that Constitution.

LHL: We also know that the founders are insiders who form government to secure their own rights, not the rights of outsiders. In that understanding, the phrase “We the people” means “the insiders.”

KR: I think it’s absolutely clear that “We the people” in the Constitution means insiders. It’s talking about basically the citizens of the states. It’s talking about the American people who are members of these state political communities.

LHL: They’re men of property.

KR: Yes. The preamble goes on to reiterate that. Who is the Constitution being established for? Who is supposed to benefit from it? Well, it’s supposed to secure the blessings of liberty and so on to ourselves—we the people—and our posterity.

A limited political community is supposed to benefit from this. What changes that—and this is the pivot moment of American history, which changes us from an exclusive community to an inclusive one—is birthright citizenship, which is part of the Fourteenth Amendment. After that, the idea is if you’re born here, you’re one of us, and the states can no longer exclude you, and the federal government cannot exclude you; you become one of the American people just by virtue of being born here. Our political community is open, and people can enter into it, whereas before the Civil War and Reconstruction it really was closed.

LHL: Right. By “We the people” they meant what Madison described as those of us with the wisdom to perceive and a virtue to pursue the common good. In other words, they’re going to give it to themselves.

KR: Yes. In pre–Civil War America, you definitely have this idea that government exists for the benefit of a limited group of people. Outsiders are dangerous; outsiders are threatening to kill us. The outsiders mentioned in the Declaration of Independence—the Hessian mercenaries, the enslaved people who were rebelling, the Native Americans—are presented as threats to the lives of the colonists. Either outsiders are going to kill us and they’re dangerous in that way, or maybe outsiders will take what rightfully belongs to the insiders. This is a neo-Confederate strand of political rhetoric that you do see in early America, but you see maybe even more strongly now. That’s the way in which this exclusive ideology survives. The idea is there are people who aren’t real Americans. Maybe technically they’re American citizens because of birthright citizenship, but they’re not the real insiders. They’re not the people that the government should be looking after. And these undeserving others are taking what rightfully belongs to the real Americans.

LHL: What about women? Do women qualify as insiders or outsiders?

KR: Women are a very interesting and difficult category as far as the theory of the Declaration of Independence goes, because they are insiders. They’re members of the political community. They’re sort of presumed to have consented to the government. They’re subject to its authority. It has a duty to protect their natural rights. But historically, it does a terrible job of that. Historically, the rights of women are neglected and violated. If you’re looking for people who have valid complaints, according to the theory of the Declaration of Independence as it’s understood in 1776, enslaved people really don’t; the Declaration is not about their situation because they are outsiders. Women do.

LHL: You say that liberty and equality were not the main concerns in the founding era. What were the main concerns?

KR: The main concern at the critical points in American history, if you go back through American history and you try to tell a story about people coming together seeking to promote a particular value, it’s basically unity. If you look at the Declaration of Independence, it’s about separation. They’re separating from Great Britain, but it’s also about unity because the colonies have to come together to fight, to be able to win the war against the British—join or die. Benjamin Franklin says if we don’t hang together, we will hang separately. Unity is the most important thing.

You get a similar situation with the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, because again it’s a crisis moment. Will the American nation survive? We need to come together in order to eliminate the prospect of internal conflict between the states. We need a stronger federal government and a stronger union. And in order to protect ourselves from European powers, we need to be able to speak as one and fight as one if necessary. Again, unity is what’s being pursued.

The more interesting and more troubling point is: unity is being pursued, not equality and not liberty. What’s being sacrificed? And the answer turns out to be equality most of the time, or racial justice. Because if you look at who’s being brought together at these crucial moments in 1776, there are supporters and opponents of slavery, and they have to all get together to fight the British. They have to find an ideology that everyone can agree to.

With the Constitution, it’s free and slave states, because now there are some states that have abolished slavery. You have to get a system that everyone can live with so that they can join together. The result of that is we compromise. We do things like the three-fifths compromise. We make accommodations with slavery. You see this again, really strikingly, with the Compromise of 1877, the abandonment of Reconstruction, when white America basically gives up on the attempt at reforming the former Confederate states and making a multiracial democracy.

Once again, people come together—basically, white Americans come together. And the cost, the thing that’s being sacrificed, is racial justice, because we give up on Reconstruction, and we allow white supremacy to restore itself in the South.

LHL: And then what about the Second World War and the Cold War?

KR: The Second World War and the Cold War are very interesting because they provide a set of circumstances under which racial progress actually does happen. There’s a very interesting book called The Unsteady March, which looks at progress on racial equality through American history and says it only happens when three things come together. One, there’s a war that requires mobilization of African Americans—a war being fought in the name of values of democracy and equality that are inconsistent with racial discrimination and racial stratification at home. And three, there’s a domestic political movement that’s willing to say, “Look, if we’re fighting for these abroad or if we’re fighting for these in this war, we should honor them domestically.” You sort of have that in the Revolution. You definitely have it in the Civil War. You had it in World War II. And you have it also, to some extent, in the Cold War. And in all of these historical moments, we do get some progress on racial justice and racial equality. But the interesting point that this book makes is that when you don’t have those factors coinciding, we don’t have the sort of steady, inevitable progress that we like to think that the standard story sort of tells us, that American history moves toward justice. We have no progress, or we have backsliding.

LHL: Right. That’s your point about how relying on the self-evident truths in the Declaration and the Constitution means looking backward. What do you mean by continuity? They are connecting us to the past, not moving forward into the future.

KR: I think that’s the story that we tell ourselves, which is that our fundamental values of liberty and equality are there at the very beginning, and then they’re sort of gradually realized over time. One of the things that story does is it gives us a sense of inevitable progress. I think that allows even people who are in favor of racial equality, it allows them to sort of sit back and say, “Don’t upset the apple cart, don’t make everything about race. Let’s just be civil and patient, and progress will happen inevitably.” One of the important lessons of American history is that’s not the way things work.

LHL: Tell us why we tell the standard story, and then tell us why we shouldn’t tell the standard story and why we should tell ourselves what you call a better story.

KR: I think we tell the standard story because it’s reassuring and because it gives us a story that can promote unity of a sort. It’s a story that makes it easy for white people to come together behind this idea of fundamental American goodness and inevitable progress. And that’s a reassuring story.

The reason that we shouldn’t tell it is, one, it does leave people out because it asks us to suppose that Thomas Jefferson stated our deepest ideals when Thomas Jefferson enslaved his own children. If you’re asking people to look up to and admire and see themselves in the creation of America, and you’re telling them that’s Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration in 1776, some people will find that alienating. And it’s the people who really believe in equality, it’s the people who are really opposed to slavery, it’s maybe particularly Black Americans but not only Black Americans. It’s anyone who doesn’t want to compromise with slavery.

The standard story brings people together in a sort of reassuring way if they’re willing to accept this idea that our fundamental ideals can coexist with slavery. Who it leaves out, who it marginalizes, is part of the reason I think the standard story is bad and we shouldn’t tell it.

The other main reason is it has this sort of narcotizing effect. It suggests to us that all we need to do is wait and be civil and be patient and America will work itself pure without us having to do anything. That’s a recipe for stagnation and actually regression, so we need a new story, a better story. We need a story that tells us that justice requires action, and maybe justice requires sacrifice. We should be willing to make sacrifices for other people. We should be willing to make sacrifices to make the nation better and more fair, and not just because we think our own rights are being violated but because we care about principles of justice for everyone.

That’s not the Revolution. That’s not the Declaration of Independence. That’s not the 1787 Constitution. The time in American history when people subscribed to those values and died for the rights of others, not their own rights, the time in American history when that happens is the Civil War, and the documents that express that are the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Constitution that we get with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—the Reconstruction Constitution.

LHL: And we should work toward that. I think you say somewhere that even the 1619 Project, the story told by Nikole Hannah-Jones, relies too much on the past.

KR: I think the 1619 Project is great, and I think that the response to it teaches us a lot because the 1619 Project really is telling us a version of the standard story. It’s saying we have these ideals in 1776—we don’t live up to them. And the standard story admits that, too, but people fight for them over time and through American history. We do sort of progressively more fully realize them.

The way in which the 1619 Project differs from other versions of the standard story is that a lot more of the heroes are Black. And it’s very disheartening that some people look at that, and they’re like, “That’s not a story of America. This is a story told by people who hate America.” Because really the only difference is there are a lot more Black heroes. And if that’s a deal breaker for people, it says something bad about them.

So on the one hand, I’m saying that I don’t think the 1619 Project is as radical as its critics suggest. I don’t think it’s anti-American. It’s this familiar story of fundamental, noble American values there at the founding and realized over time. I think in some ways I’m actually more radical than 1619 because that’s the story that I’m trying to dislodge, not just revise. I’m trying to say our fundamental values aren’t there. In 1776 they get read into the Declaration of Independence, and basically they get read into the Declaration of Independence by abolitionists. So our fundamental values come not from the colonists’ struggle against Great Britain but from the abolitionists’ struggle against slavery. And I think this is a much better and more inspiring story, because you don’t have to say the person who articulated our deepest values actually enslaved his own children, which you do have to say about Thomas Jefferson. You can say that the people who articulated our deepest values were reacting against an oppression and injustice that they saw. They were concerned about the rights of other people, not just their own rights. And they were trying to make America a more just society.

Photograph showing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the flag flown during the War of 1812, on display at the Smithsonian Castle.

LHL: You think that the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” would make a better national anthem than “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

KR: I do think that, and I’ve said that before. I received some pushback about the religiosity of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which I guess I have to concede. Maybe it’s not a great idea for us to have a national anthem that explicitly talks about God. I would say we’ve got one of those now, right? If you go through “The Star-Spangled Banner” and look at the later verses that people aren’t as familiar with, one thing you will see is it explicitly mentions God, too. A lot of the older songs do that. The other thing that you find if you go through “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a reference to the victory over the hireling and slave, because it’s about, as most people know, the War of 1812. And in that war, as with the Revolutionary War, a lot of American enslaved people joined the British forces to obtain their freedom, and they fled from their American slavers—often they fought against their American enslavers. That’s just not a very inspiring war to be writing a song about.

If you want to have a song that’s about a war against slavery or a war for liberty, obviously that war is the Civil War. And that, of course, is what the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is about in its most religious passage, which I guess is a downside. It also has this idea of sacrificing for other people, which is, I think, the fundamental Civil War and Reconstruction idea as compared to the Revolutionary War’s fighting for my own right idea. Because the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” does say, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea.” But then it goes on and says, “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” which is the value that I think we want to have central in America: that we will make sacrifices to help other people, to protect their rights, to stand up for these principles of justice.

LHL: Do you see that idea gaining traction?

KR: I don’t know if I would say I see it gaining traction. I see it out there as a site of struggle, certainly. And I think you can see this in a lot of ways. But maybe one of the clearest is people’s reaction to masks. When people were asked to wear masks to protect others from Covid—because it turns out the masks are better at protecting other people than protecting the people who wear them—you had two different reactions, which I think sort of typify founding America, the Revolution, fighting for my own rights versus Civil War, Reconstruction America fighting for the rights of others. Because some people said, “This is an outrageous infringement on my liberty,” “You’re trying to make me a slave,” and “The government is violating my rights.” And that’s founding America. That’s Revolutionary War rhetoric. And then other people said, “You’re asking me to inconvenience myself or bear a burden to protect other people, to protect the vulnerable, and that’s something that I’m willing to do.” And I think we’d be so much better off if we could see that as American virtue rather than submission to tyranny.

LHL: Do you see any evidence of that being expressed lately? Let’s say the riots of the summer of 2020 and the riot on January 6 at the Capitol?

KR: The Black Lives Matter protests are very clearly what I would call Reconstruction-style protests, because they’re saying there is injustice, there is abuse, there are people who are being treated unfairly. Not necessarily me—not necessarily the people who are marching. It’s not just Black targets of police violence who are marching. It’s a big movement. And then January 6, I think, is very much founding-style, Revolutionary-style rhetoric, because there the idea is “The government is violating my rights,” and it’s sort of hysterically overstated; there are conspiracy theories in there.

And honestly, if you look at the Revolutionary War era, some of the colonists’ rhetoric is similarly overheated. By the standards of the time, the colonists weren’t being treated that badly. But in the Declaration of Independence, they basically say, “King George is trying to make us slaves and also murder us all, and our rights are being violated. And we will decide when the infringement is sufficiently important to justify rebellion. And we think it is, and we’re going to take this into our own hands.” It’s violent rebellion against the national government, which is sort of what January 6 is, except I should also say January 6 is not an attempt to separate from the national government—it’s an attempt to take control of the government. So it looks like the Revolutionary War, but it looks even more like the end of Reconstruction, the destruction of Reconstruction—what people call the period of redemption in the South, when the white supremacists took back power because they rejected the results of elections and said, “We’re going to put our people in power.”

LHL: Why at the moment is this discussion so critical? How do you find us at a moment where the finding of a true American story is important?

KR: I think we’re at a moment now where the standard story isn’t working for us anymore. I think in part it’s not working for us because it actually teaches us bad lessons. It teaches us that violent revolution against the national government, treason against the national government, is American patriotism, which I think is a bad lesson. But it’s also inaccurate in a lot of ways. And it requires us to identify with people like Thomas Jefferson, which, frankly, I find pretty difficult, and I think a lot of people find difficult.

The standard story that we have now isn’t working for a number of reasons. And there’s a struggle about how to deal with that because people want a story that’s accurate, that’s honest, that doesn’t downplay bad things that have been done in the past, which our standard story does a lot. But they also want a story that allows us to see an America that we believe in, that we can love, that we can feel patriotic attachment to. And that’s what I’m trying to offer.

A lot of the defenders of the standard story will say to things like the 1619 Project, “You’re going to destroy people’s faith in America. You’re teaching children to hate America. You’re teaching that America is irredeemable and bad and built on racism.” I’m trying to go 180 degrees away from that. I’m saying America is much better than you think. America is not founded in a slaveholders’ rebellion. America is founded in a war against slavery. The Civil War really does end slavery. The Revolution actually protects it. I’m saying we have a much better story.

We have an inspirational set of founders. We have a great document that states our principles; it’s the Gettysburg Address rather than the Declaration of Independence. We have a war that’s fought for those principles. We have a constitution that makes the law. We have all the things you want in the standard story. It’s accurate, and it’s more inspiring. You can say America is a great country built on liberty, where people died to protect the rights of others. You just have to understand, it’s not the 1776 America. It’s more the 1863 America.

LHL: Do you think there’s enough life force in the spirit of democracy and sacrifice in our present circumstances? Is that fair?

KR: I think it is. I think that the people who are defending the standard story and the people who are trying to ban critical race theory, whatever they think that is, in public schools, some of them maybe have bad motives. Some of them maybe are drawn to 1776 because it’s a time of white supremacy.

But I believe that some of them are patriots who just want to preserve some kind of unity—not necessarily at the expense of racial justice, but they want to preserve the idea of America as a nation that you can be proud of and America as a nation that you can believe in. And I think that I have a lot to say to those people, because I’m giving them a better America, a better story, a story that’s more accurate and more true and more inspiring. And we can come together and say, “This is a nation that we’re proud of, and this is a nation that we believe in.” And the stumbling block is not that my story requires you to identify with Thomas Jefferson. The stumbling block is my story requires you to identify with Abraham Lincoln’s side in the Civil War, which for a long time many Americans have had difficulty doing.

But I would say that’s a lesser problem, because if you find it hard to see Reconstruction as the birth of our America, it’s because you identify with the Confederates and people who identify with the Confederacy rather than the United States.

I think it’s okay to marginalize those people and to say we’re forging a unity, and it’s a real unity that is open to everyone, which the unity of the founding era really isn’t. This unity is open to everyone who believes in equality. And it might mean that some white people end up on the outside, which is another way in which it’s different from the founding-era unity or the Dred Scott unity, where the whole point was whites are together and the people on the outside are Blacks. But this says if you believe in equality, you’re one of us. You’re one of the insiders. And the people who are marginalized are the people who identify with the Confederacy.

LHL: But equality in what way? Not in terms of skills or situation in life, but in terms of before the law.

KR: Equality is a deeply contested concept. And what kind of equality we should be hoping for in society has always been disputed. Our modern reading of “All men are created equal” certainly is not supposed to mean “Everyone is equal in their attributes.” People are not the same height or the same weight or the same intelligence. People are different.

One idea is that the government should treat all people equally in the sense that it counts all of their interests equally, which is the principle of equal concern and respect. Another idea is that equality is a permissible goal for government. It is okay for the government to say we prefer equality to inequality. And generally speaking, that’s an idea that we’ve accepted. We have a progressive tax system, for instance; we take more from people who make more money and then we redistribute that in lots of ways. We have programs—probably not as effective or as extensive as they should be, but we have programs that provide support to people who have less. What’s really interesting about the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence versus, say, the Gettysburg Address and the Civil War is that the Declaration of Independence, historically, if you look at when it pops up in Supreme Court decisions, it’s basically always there to fight against redistribution in the name of equality.

It’s there before the Civil War in the Dred Scott decision itself to say the federal government cannot ban slavery in the territories because that’s unfairly taking away from insiders. And it’s there after the Civil War, when the Supreme Court is striking down progressive wage-and-hour legislation, because there it’s saying inequality arises naturally and the government can’t play favorites. The government can’t try to help the less fortunate. There, too, the Declaration actually doesn’t stand for equality. It stands for hands-off government neutrality, where one of the things that the government absolutely is not allowed to do is just to say that it prefers equality to inequality.

LHL: Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

KR: I’m optimistic. I sort of feel like there’s no alternative. If we’re pessimistic now, then what is there to do? I believe we can still make a difference.