The Better Story

Index to posts in this series

In the first chapters of The Nation That Never Was, Kermit Roosevelt explains the many problems with the standard story of the US. In the last chapter he offers us a better story. What follows is mostly Roosevelt’s version, but I’ve added more history. Roosevelt’s is at pp. 202-4.

A Version Of The Better Story

During the Revolutionary War, the colonists established a federation of the 13 original colonies. They wanted to keep their existing governments, and feared a strong central government. Their first try, the Articles of Confederation, failed because the central government was too weak and the states frequently ignored it. Then they tore up the Articles and replaced them with the Founders Constitution. In order to gain support for a stronger central government, they put in provisions supporting the continuation of slavery and gave states with smaller white populations greater power in the national government.

From the very beginning Black people resisted slavery by escaping and rebelling in the face of murder and torture. That continued under the Founders Constitution. They and the Abolitionists set up escape routes, and tried every legal route to saving escapees. They rallied, protested, spoke, wrote, appealed to Congress, and demanded freedom and equality. Gradually the movement for freedom became an powerful political force, driven by the principle that all men are created equal. They meant equality in a actual society, not in a hypothetical natural law sense as in the Declaration of Independence, Leaders included Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.

Urged on by the Black people and the Abolitionists, the United States government resisted the expansion of slavery into the territories, which the Supreme Court supported in Dred Scott. That led to a war with the Slave States which was won by the United States. A major factor in the victory was the 200,000 Black soldiers who fought and died to end slavery. The victorious United States threw out the governments of the seceding states, forced the enactment of the Reconstruction Amendments, and passed laws to enforce them. This is called the Second Founding.

The Second Founding recreated the United States under the principles laid out by its Leader, Abraham Lincoln. His most famous statement of these principles is in his Gettysburg Address: the United States is “… conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….”

This became our guiding principle. Lincoln told us that we must dedicate ourselves to the principle of equality that the brave men of the United States had died for. He told us we were starting anew with this principle foremost in our minds:

… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

But not everybody agreed that we were starting over. The secessionists never quit. Their first step was to murder Abraham Lincoln. Then they took power in the former slave states. The Supreme Court gutted the Reconstruction Amendments. That enabled the secessionists and White Supremacists to establish legalized segregation, blessed by the Supreme Court in cases like Plessy v. Ferguson.

Black people never quit either. Despite participating in more wars on behalf of a segregated nation and being treated like dirt on their return, through decades of lynching and white race riots, they continued to fight for equality. After the Second World War, they began to achieve success and for once the Supreme Court didn’t block them.

The, beginning in the 1980s, the White Supremacists pushed back against equality, and achieved partial victories, especially in the revanchist Supreme Court. But Black people persevere, and with them all people of conscience, and this time other marginalized groups join the march towards equality, Black, Brown, Asian, LGBT, young people, all of us together.

That’s our nation: always striving for equality, always striving for fairness and equality, always fighting the darkness.

Addendum on Abraham Lincoln

When the Civil War started, Lincoln was willing to accept slavery as the price of unifying the states. That changed during the war. Roosevelt says the Fort Pillow Massacre played a big role in that change. Lincoln had established units of Black Soldiers. They were among the defenders of Fort Pillow, near Memphis in April, 1864. The secessionist troops under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest, later the first head of the KKK, captured a group of US troops trying to surrender, including approximately 300 Black soldiers and their White officers. The Southerners murdered the Black soldiers in cold blood. A few days later Abraham Lincoln gave a speech called the Address At The Sanitary Fair. Here’s a short section.

A painful rumor, true I fear, has reached us of the massacre, by the rebel forces, at Fort Pillow, … of some three hundred colored soldiers and white officers, who had just been overpowered by their assailants. There seems to be some anxiety in the public mind whether the government is doing its duty to the colored soldier, and to the service, at this point. At the beginning of the war, and for some time, the use of colored troops was not contemplated; and how the change of purpose was wrought, I will not now take time to explain. Upon a clear conviction of duty I resolved to turn that element of strength to account; and I am responsible for it to the American people, to the christian world, to history, and on my final account to God. Having determined to use the negro as a soldier, there is no way but to give him all the protection given to any other soldier.

Why This Is A Better Story

Roosevelt offers several reasons why this is a better story. It has the advantage of being accurate, of course. The standard story ignores the role of Black People in our history. The better story includes Black people and tells us of their valor and perseverance, and the contributions they made to the story of America. In doing so it makes room for the contributions of other groups ignored by the standard story. The better story opens the way to real unity of all of us regardless of all the many ways in which we are different.

The better story gives us a new set of heroes. It valorizes the soldiers who personified the words of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn Of The Republic: “… As He died to make men holy let us die to make men free ….” These regular people, Black and White, are worthy of emulation. That’s not entirely true of the Founders, who fought for their own freedom, and were morally compromised by the denial of freedom to their slaves, their enslaved concubines, and enslaved children.

We can respect the leaders of the Second Founding, Lincoln and the Senators and Representatives who enacted the Reconstruction Amendments and related legislation. We do not have to consider their personal lives, because the better story is about contributions to the future, not an unhealthy fixation on the always problematic past.

Similarly, the better story tells us about the wrong way to be an American. People who oppose these heroes and the values they lived out, and their contributions to our democracy, are not good citizens.

The better story shows us how we can be better citizens: by trying to make America a better place.

27 replies
  1. Ginevra diBenci says:

    As always, thank you, Ed. This post sounds…wistful, as if you can’t quite bring yourself to believe in “the better story.” Remember there is nobility in the complexity and doubt you typically invoke, the play of shadow along with the light.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Projection perhaps. I understood from this that Ed was sure of the better story, but understood how difficult it would be for a third of Americans to hear, let alone to accept.

      Their information bubble, reinforced under fascists like Ron DeSantis, contains and is dependent upon an utterly different narrative. It’s one reason Howard Zinn felt compelled to write his seminal, A People’s History of the United States, in 1980, at the start of the new Jim Crow.

      It’s ironic, given the traditional statistic about the American Revolution: roughly 1/3 were for, against, or indifferent to the aims of the revolution.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Well, I do believe this is a great story, but as Roosevelt points out there is another story told from the perspective of the slavers and their successors, the White Supremacists. Right now, that one is being told more loudly, and no one is telling the better story, particularly not Democratic politicians. On bad days I worry that the ugly story will triumph by co-opting the people Roosevelt talks about in this passage:

      We Americans are not perfect, either. Some of us are bad. Some are indifferent and unwilling to sacrifice for others. Some are easily distracted, misled, manipulated.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Too true. Earl is probably right about projection on my part, since rooting out and combating disinformation (“the agreed-upon lie” of history) has been my mission since forever. Nowadays I do it with the history of the present via true-crime TV, and even that limited focus is overwhelming, although my American Studies background remains relevant.

        Balancing complexity and nuance against the larger narrative is my own cross to bear. I shouldn’t impose it on you too.

        Also, my specialty is Native people and colonial religion. So I have blind spots.

  2. RipNoLonger says:

    This is a very powerful introduction, to me at least, of The Better Story. I really appreciate your thoughtful postings on topics that bear more reflection that we normally give in our quotidian readings and writings on current events.

  3. Savage Librarian says:

    From 1959 – 2013, one of the schools in Jacksonville, FL, was named Nathan Bedford Forrest High School because the Daughters of the Confederacy vigorously lobbied for it despite opposition by the students there and from the general community which was comprised of many military members.

    Sporting events routinely played “Dixie” and flew Confederate battle flags. Several attempts were made to change the school name through the years until it was successfully changed to Westside High School in 2014. But I think there is a school in Tennessee that still is named after Forrest. Maybe they will eventually join The Better Story one day, too.

  4. Suburban Bumpkin says:

    Several months ago I read African Founders – How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals by David Hackett Fischer. It expanded my understanding of the history of slavery as practiced in the United States from the time before there was a United States to the Civil War. He follows the practice down the east coast into the gulf and how the different colonists and their beliefs/attitudes regarding slavery affected how it was practiced in different regions. He cites studies that traced which regions/cultures in Africa the enslaved people came from and how their beliefs and knowledge contributed to the society they were forced into. Throughout he weaves stories of individuals and how their skills and knowledge influenced things such as farming and boat building.
    Apologies for a poor book report but it is a lot to take in and the brutality as the further south it went still haunts me, let alone the fact that unless you intentionally seek out this knowledge, you just get what I call the happy, happy, joy, joy version of history.

    • tinywriting says:

      Fischer also wrote ‘Historian’s Fallacies’. This is a wonderful book and the cornerstone of my personal library for more than fifty years.

      [Welcome back to emptywheel. Please use the same username each time you comment so that community members get to know you. This is your third user name. Thanks. /~Rayne]

  5. wasD4v1d says:

    And there is another dimension to Lincoln – he made national policy of experiments in mechanized agriculture, establishing America as an exceptional, indispensable nation because it suddenly was able to feed not only itself, but a starving world – well, Europe. The south wanted none of this, the white plantation owners wanted to preserve the privilege and power of slave culture. While northern boys marched south to end slavery, Lincoln sent immigrants west along with the inventions of his home state: John Deere’s miracle steel plow, Cyrus McCormack’s reapers, and Indiana boilers. He enacted the national railroad system to carry this materiél, and established the USDA. All this and more I learned reading “Six Thousand Years of Bread” (H.E. Jacob, 1942, ebook $6). The author of this book, an Austrian, was somehow liberated from a Nazi concentration camp and made his way to America; his manuscript had already been smuggled to the NY public library. And yes, he had things to say about Hitler, too – and how food insecurity was Hitler’s weapon of mass destruction, the opposite of our inestimable Lincoln.

    Time to add Kermit Roosevelt’s book to my e-reader.

  6. e.a. foster says:

    don’t know what the ‘better story” will be for the U.S.A. Better stories have been written and worked for, but at this particular point in history it would appear no better books are being written. State after state passes laws which take rights away from citizens.
    The story I see is things will continue to get worse in the U.S.A. with more rights removed with many leaving the country. There are Gov.s and other politicians who are starting to make Putin and Xi look normal.

    All countries have their problems and ugliness but some countries were expected to work to rise above it. For awhile it looked like things might change, but with the election of Trump and maga agendas the country may be going back wards. When a duly elected official is voted out of the legislature and disenfranchising those who elected them, there is a problem. Where will it stop? Perhaps only white males who own land may sit in Legislatures and child labour will once again be acceptable.

    • Rayne says:

      This: “it would appear no better books are being written” is incorrect. It’s the reason why there are so many right-wing attempts at book banning, because old AND new BETTER STORY books alike are threats to the right-wing’s narrative about the birth, growth, and continuation of this nation.

      These three nonfiction texts have been published inside the last four years and have been targeted for banning: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall; Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi; and The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The last text the right-wing has seen as the biggest threat to its attempts to craft a false history of the U.S. because it explains how slavery was present at the earliest days of colonization.

      What also makes these books better story material — as well as now-banned fiction books like The Hate U Give and Ghost Boys — is that they are written by Black Americans. The right-wing doesn’t want to hear from the voices they are marginalizing.

      • Ginevra diBenci says:

        Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. Irresistibly readable, an instant classic as they say.

        • Rayne says:

          It’s on my To-Be-Read list. IMO the concept of caste may explain to whites who don’t grok internalized oppression why someone like Enrique Tarrio is a member of a white nationalist/white supremacist group. By participation he elevates his personal caste.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Besides the books Rayne named, I highly recommend Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, a history of racism in the US that goes into the rationales and justifications offered for it. It was simply infuriating to read.

      Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 by Lawrence Goldstone , a history of the racist decisions of SCOTUS post-reconstruction, which I’ve got on my e-reader.

      Also there is a lot of new scholarship on the 14th Amendment, as Justice Jackson says in oral argument in a recent case. She may have been referring to this book, among others: The Original Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment: Its Letter and Spirit by Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick. I heard a podcast interview of Bernick talking about it and when I read the transcript of oral argument in Merrill v. Milligan i remembered it.

      There is a lot more out there.

  7. jaango1 says:

    I am an aficionado of a “new” or adjusted Democracy and which, the legal community will never address and due solely their self-interest. And by that a law firm addresses its needs and concerns of its “clients” is necessary, but is it necessary to have any legal talent that conducts “lobbying” as part and parcel to our democracy? And accomplished without “due process” or for a generic law, generally applied? Thus. the existing bias within the Third Branch of Government, can and should be conveniently harangued, and writ large. or from their self- perceived status as a Judgeship to activist judges.

    Subsequently, national “lobbying” efforts of the next few years, will be subjected to Arizona’s next Senator, Congressman Gallego, and whom has announced his candidacy for Arizona’s Senatorial Position. Of course, he will be easily elected given that my state’s current Senator has defined herself as an Independent, of “moderation” Therefore, the new Senator Gallego, not being contested by his former wife and now current Mayor of Phoenix, will not be facing much of a high mountain to climb.

    Consequently, the new Senator Gallego will have a swift four-year term to achieve his then pending status, once President Biden is re-elected and leaves after his four-year term expires. Thusly, Gallego is a self-avowed “progressive” and becomes the Senate Chamber’s czar of our nation’s “progressive movement.” He will have both the capacity to craft a single-member Progressive Caucus, and set the construction of the Progressive Movement’s “agenda” into motion. And in doing so, this capacity to acquire a vast quantity of donor dollars for his presidential campaign as well will bring more “progressives” into the Democratic Alliance.

    In closing, should my political view achieve a tad of fruition, the Republicans will have to depend on Rubio of Florida or Ted Cruz of Texas to the debate floor. And their dilemma will come forth in their inability to corral the Independent-minded Republicans.
    And into the pending political brinksmanship, I can easily predict that America’s large block of “lobbying” experts will be easily collecting their ten percent cash cow of lobbying fees from their independently-minded wealthy political donors.

    And please Note this is my apology to the Moderators for my exceeding the word limitation.

    [Moderator’s note: I’m letting this through but please do NOT clutter threads with overlong off-topic comments. This one is not about a “better story” at all but about Arizona politics, bordering on partisan campaigning. / ~Rayne]

  8. bennieq says:

    Thank you, Ed Walker and commenters for straightforward statements to tell a better story of racism and slavery in American history. Please expand the story to include American Indians and sovereignty, which is a political issue, not an issue of race. As Tuck and Yang said, “Decolonization is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our society….”

  9. HardyWeinberg3 says:

    Thanks for this. It’s interesting that the supreme court is always on the wrong side except for about a 20 year period where they let their humanity inform their view of the constitution.

  10. Mart7890 says:

    Little late to the party. A few years ago I was assigned work at Lincoln University in Jeff City, MO. I had never heard of it and was surprised to learn it was an HBCU, with a wonderful history. After a platoon of black soldiers returned to town after fighting for the North they started a school for black children. Grew it to a HS and eventually an accredited college. Would be a great story to teach all Missouri children (yea right). Link to a better telling of the history.
    The giant platoon statue on the quad is awesome with the soldiers helping each other to advance.

  11. Franktoo says:

    Roosevelt’s historical revisionism appears wrong to me. “All Men Are Created Equal” sparked a wave of abolition in the northern half of the 13 colonies – which ALL permitted slavery when the Declaration was signed. One year later, Vermont declared its independence and wrote a constitution that banned slavery. The other northern states followed. This was the first movement towards abolition. There wouldn’t have been a Civil War that freed the slaves without the aspirations the Declaration and the abolition that followed. Abolition didn’t begin with William Garrison, but Garrison was among the first to advocate that Northerners become involved in abolition of slavery in Southern states.

    The Constitution was not drafted to implement the Declaration; it was a political compromise that could win approval of all of the states. It did not recognize the right of one man to own another, though some slave-owning delegates advocated for this. Fredrick Douglas rejected Garrison’s opinion that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.

    The problem with placing our nation’s founding and inspiration with the Civil War generation is that their efforts contained as much compromise, hypocrisy and failure to live up to aspirations as those of the Revolutionary War generation. Lincoln infamously prioritized preserving the Union far ahead of creating a “new burst of freedom”. Keeping the Border States in the Union was his first priority. He was willing to settle for a limited right to vote for former slaves who were educated or had served in the Union army until Louisiana applied for readmission to the Union under a constitution that allowed former rebel soldiers to vote, but not former black soldiers to vote.

    The Civil War generation presided over the failure of Reconstitution. Despite the 14th and 15th amendments, blacks were soon denied the right to vote until the 1960’s and to equal treatment under the law. We needed a “Second Reconstruction” led by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Someday, we may need a Third Reconstruction and will need to take inspiration from the Founders, the Civil War generation and the Civil Rights Era.

    The other reason for the development of current disdain for our Founders, who inspired freedom and humans right movements around the world, is our desired to see everything in today’s politics in terms of black and white and to see the other party as an irredeemable and unchanging enemy. Thomas Jefferson was a 33-year-old idealistic revolutionary when he wrote the Declaration, a 58-year-old party leader when he became president and a 75-year-old when the issue of slavery began threatening national unity. Were his changes hypocrisy, or changes that occur in many of us as we age?

    • Rayne says:

      This: “Thomas Jefferson was a 33-year-old idealistic revolutionary when he wrote the Declaration, a 58-year-old party leader when he became president and a 75-year-old when the issue of slavery began threatening national unity. Were his changes hypocrisy, or changes that occur in many of us as we age?

      Oh pish. Jefferson was a revolutionary because he rejected monarchism. No matter what he may have subsequently done with regard to the slave trade and slavery in the colonies, states, and territories after the revolution, Jefferson was a slave owner in 1775 and remained so until his death, his own estate Monticello built by slave labor. Don’t even get me started on his relationship with Sally Hemings; she and her progeny by Jefferson were never formally emancipated even with his death.

      Changes with aging, my left foot. This is how America’s white men gaslight the rest of us — they talk about freedom but retain a death grip on power.

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