You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Incoherence of American History

We ascribe too much meaning to the early years of the republic.

It’s been some time since public school curricula sat at the center of America’s culture wars, but panicked parent politics have returned with a vengeance. By mid-July of this year, 10 states had banned the teaching of “critical race theory,” a progressive school of legal scholarship that conservatives have redefined as an attack on American patriotism and a conspiracy against white K-12 students. In Texas, a representative bill signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott specifically bans the state’s educators from teaching that racism and slavery are “anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” The right’s motivations here are plain. Conservatives are hoping to engineer a wide and enduring backlash to the examinations of racial inequality and America’s past that have been shaking up Democratic Party politics and popular culture for the better part of the last decade.

American Colonies: The Settling of North America
by Alan Taylor
Penguin Books, 544 pp., $21.00
American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804
by Alan Taylor
W.W. Norton & Company, 704 pp., $40.00

It should be said that this is an effort doomed, in the long run, to fail: Our cultural moment didn’t begin in America’s public schools and it won’t end in them either. It will take more than the antics of Republican state legislators to inspire a conservative national pride in a generation of children who learned their civics under Trump. And for those, young and old, who have found themselves newly hungry for unvarnished perspectives on our history, there is more reading material available than ever. Try as the right might to muzzle our teachers, we all have the 1619 Project and far more provocative material at our fingertips.

American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850
by Alan Taylor
W.W. Norton & Company, 544 pp., $35.00

Still, much of the soundest scholarship on our history remains largely inaccessible to lay readers—either sequestered away from the general public behind academic paywalls or too dense and dry to hold the interest of broad nonacademic audiences. Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, isn’t among the historians who have prominently utilized social media and other platforms to open up that work in recent years. But he has written three highly accessible introductions to early American history that belong on every American bookshelf: 2001’s American Colonies, on the European arrivals to the New World and the Colonial era; 2016’s American Revolutions, on the Revolutionary War; and this year’s American Republics, which covers the early republic from the end of the war through the Compromise of 1850. Their power lies not in the provision of a tidy counternarrative to our cherished national myths, but in their suggestion that we can afford to dispense with sweeping narratives altogether—that we can find what we really need from American history in its chaos and contingencies.

Of the three books in Taylor’s series, American Colonies reads the most like a conventional textbook, albeit an unusually frank one. The pages teem with statistics and dates, the chapters are organized in tight chronological order, and the subheads (e.g., “Land and Labor,” “Epidemics,” “Family Life”) are straightforward. But in American Revolutions and American Republics, Taylor takes on a more thematic approach. Chapter subheads in the latter include “Terror-Death” and “Hell-Carnival,” both borrowed from harrowing primary documents of the period that the book covers.

This is American history narrated through gritted teeth, and there’s never been a larger audience for it. But although the liberal reading public is in an iconoclastic mood, reverence for one obviously significant part of our founding story—the American Revolution itself—seems poised to survive the cultural moment mostly unscathed. Even as the hypocrisies of the Founders have been subjected to new scrutiny, liberals routinely frame those hypocrisies as betrayals of the principles that motivated the break from Britain and were given expression in our founding documents. Whatever the flaws of the men who made it, Americans across the political spectrum believe, the Revolution was a well-justified insurrection that united colonists, animated by reason, against their irrational and tyrannical British overlords.

In American Revolutions, Taylor challenges that narrative and nearly two and a half centuries’ worth of rocky schoolhouse fables with a thorough and complex examination of the Revolutionary War and its intersecting causes, including major factors largely lost to public memory. With the Proclamation of 1763, for instance, Britain had barred settlement west of the Appalachians, in a vain attempt to both prevent expensive conflicts over Native American lands and keep Colonial goods flowing to British-controlled markets. Just over a decade later, the Quebec Act of 1774, which expanded that territory and the rights of French Canadians and the church within it, aggravated anti-Catholicism in the Colonies below. These and other edicts fed suspicions among some colonists, who had grown accustomed to a lighter hand from British authorities, that a wayward Parliament sought to crush their freedoms altogether.

Taylor gives taxation and representation their due, of course. In the 1760s, citizens in England were paying roughly 26 shillings per capita to the empire each year. Colonists in America paid roughly 1 shilling per capita, despite broader Colonial prosperity and the expense of the French and Indian War. Given that the colonists were ostensibly among the war’s major beneficiaries, most Britons reasoned that it would be fair to have them pay down more of its costs. But the British mishandled the implementation of their new taxes as badly as they would go on to mishandle the next war—they came just as colonists were entering a real economic downturn. The demobilization of the British army at the end of the French and Indian War triggered a depression as the British slashed their military expenditures and former troops entered Colonial labor markets, bringing wages down. The new taxes felt steep to many of those struggling, and revolutionary elites worked diligently to channel their discontent in directions that served their own immediate interests.

The Boston Tea Party is perhaps the paradigmatic example of how elite messaging drove outrage, and Taylor debunks our folk history of the event—the British overtaxed our tea!—with palpable exasperation. To help the struggling British East India Company undercut smugglers importing tea from the Dutch, “Parliament in May 1773 reduced [his italics] the tax on tea shipped by that company to the American colonies,” Taylor explains. That move angered Colonial merchants, especially those who had been selling smuggled Dutch tea, and they scrambled to protect their businesses by denouncing the Tea Act, Taylor writes, “as a plot to seduce Americans to sell their liberty for the tea of a British monopoly.” That December, over 90,000 pounds of cheap tea were dumped into Boston Harbor to the benefit of that city’s merchant class.

As elite Patriots stoked anti-British fervor, they also mitigated class tensions by controlling or sidelining radical populists like the shoemaker and mob leader Ebenezer Mackintosh, whose followers had raucously demonstrated against both the Stamp Act and wealth inequality. “Samuel and John Adams sought to marginalize Parliament’s supporters and nullify the stamp tax without unleashing class warfare,” Taylor writes. “Rich Patriots needed reassurance that the resistance did not threaten them.” They were given it as organizations like the Sons of Liberty—a network of underground political clubs created to oppose British policies—gradually grew in influence. “The leaders,” Taylor explains, “were respectable tradesmen and merchants, but most had achieved wealth rather than inherited it, and they often worked beside common journeymen and apprentices in their shops or on their wharves.”

Those connections with common colonists facilitated the organization of parades, rallies, and other events that encouraged mass participation. At the same time, the initial grievances of protest discourse were joined by a heady conspiracism. Boston’s town meeting insisted that “‘a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partly executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty,’” Taylor relates. “That rhetoric struck Britons as so irrational that it must cover a colonial conspiracy by reckless demagogues out to destroy the empire by seeking American independence. Neither plot existed save in the powerful imaginations of political opponents who distrusted one another.”

Taylor rightly characterizes the war that finally broke out at Lexington and Concord in 1775 as a world war that triggered clashes as far away as India between Britain and its European enemies—the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch—and as a civil war that pitted revolutionaries against both the British and their fellow colonists. Historians estimate that 40 to 45 percent of the white American population was for the Revolution at its outset. About 40 percent are believed to have been warily neutral, while 15 to 20 percent were likely Loyalists who opposed the war outright, including religious and white ethnic minorities—Scots, Anglicans, Quakers—who feared abuse if the distant crown lost authority to their prejudiced Colonial neighbors.

The Patriots would ultimately prevail over the Loyalists not just militarily, but through ostracism, forced oaths and apologies, ritualistic shaming, and the destruction of Loyalist literature before, during, and after the conflict—activities endorsed explicitly by many revolutionary leaders (“So universal has been the Resentment of the People,” John Adams wrote excitedly in his diary, “that every Man who has dared to speak in favour of the Stamps … has been seen to sink into universal Contempt and Ignominy”) and implicitly by the Continental Congress, which recommended the creation of local “committees of inspection” charged with identifying and outing opponents of the British trade boycott as “enemies of American liberty”:

Inviting everyone to spy on their neighbors, the committees ferreted out, seized, and burned stashes of tea and conservative books while a crowd gathered at the county courthouse to hoot at the culprits. After confessing, the suspects had to ignite the condemned items in festive bonfires that rallied public support for the new committees and intimidated the wavering.

Cancel culture—“‘I never knew how painful it is to be secluded from the free conversation of one’s friends,’ a Pennsylvanian lamented”—was a weapon in a revolutionary arsenal that also included mob and military violence against dissenters. In 1775, Thomas Brown, a Loyalist, was visited at his home in Georgia by a gang of Patriots and beaten, tied to a tree, tarred, set on fire, and partially scalped for refusing to boycott British goods. In Connecticut, a critic of Congress, one Dr. Abner Beebe, was abducted, stripped naked, and covered in hot tar and pig feces. In 1777, a Virginia shoemaker who had shouted “Hurrah for King George” at passing Continental soldiers was thrown into the James River, but continued jeering his assailants, even as he was tarred and feathered in punishment.

It should come as no surprise—but likely would to most Americans—that the war itself was as replete with the dispossession, torture, and rape of civilians as any other major conflict. During a particularly brutal period in the Carolinas and Georgia from 1780 to 1781, Taylor writes, the “taboo against harming women broke down,” on both sides. “Women and Children have been tortured, hung up and strangled, cut down, and hung up again,” one resident of the North Carolina backcountry recorded, “som[e]time branded with brands or other hot irons in order to extort Confessions from them.” In Georgia, Taylor adds, “Loyalists tortured a Patriot woman by using a musket lock as a thumbscrew. A French officer reported finding a pregnant Patriot murdered in her bed with a message scrawled on the bed’s canopy by her Loyalist killers: ‘Thou shalt never give birth to a rebel.’”

One of the major atrocities that Taylor highlights elsewhere during the war implicates George Washington directly. In 1779, Washington ordered an offensive against the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Natives in retaliation for guerrilla raids against the Continental Army. In April, the main village of the Onondaga people was destroyed, and women of the tribe were captured, raped, and killed. “Because the most militant Onondagas had already withdrawn westward to Niagara,” Taylor explains, “the attack victimized peaceable villagers who were easy pickings for a surprise attack.” This was nevertheless followed by another summer offensive under Major General John Sullivan, who had been ordered by Washington to bring about “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements … that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.”

Washington’s appearances in American Revolutions are scantier than one might expect, but the glimpses Taylor does offer the reader suggest a ruthless and image-conscious man beset by anxieties that occasionally swelled into a state of suppressed panic, as illustrated by his private reaction to the proclamation from Lord Dunmore, the Colonial governor of Virginia, offering freedom to Patriot slaves who joined British forces. The escapees hoping to join up included runaways from Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Washington personally denounced Dunmore as not only a military enemy but an “Arch Traitor to the rights of Humanity.” “If my Dear Sir that Man is not crushed before Spring,” he worried in one 1775 letter to Richard Henry Lee, “he will become the most formidable Enemy America has—his strength will Increase as a Snow Ball by Rolling.” Were Dunmore to be killed in battle, Washington mused in another letter, “the World would be happily rid of a Monster.”

The Continental Army had less to fear from Dunmore than Washington imagined. In 1776, he cut his losses and fled Virginia for New York with 500 of his Black recruits, leaving another 1,000 behind on Virginia’s Gwynn Island to die of a smallpox outbreak. “Their fate provided fodder for Patriot propaganda that cast the British as duplicitous seducers of foolish slaves,” Taylor writes. “Many blacks survived capture at Gwynn Island only to die gruesomely when vindictive Patriots set fire to their flimsy brush huts, ostensibly to stop the spread of smallpox.” Nevertheless, a substantial number of ex-slaves did manage to find opportunity in British opportunism—their war effort amounted to the first mass emancipation on American soil. An estimated 20,000 ex-slaves fought against the American Revolution, over twice the number of Black soldiers that fought for it. “Upon the approach of any detachment of the King’s troops,” the British soldier Banastre Tarleton observed, “all negroes, men, women and children … thought themselves absolved from all respect to their American masters, and … they quitted the plantations and followed the army.”

Eventually, of course, that army was defeated—a disaster for Loyalists who, fearing further persecution, fled America by the tens of thousands, as well as for Natives who fell victim to vindictive settlers before the war had even ended. In 1782, a band led by one David Williamson invaded Indian country seeking vengeance on tribes that had assisted or fought for the British. “Unable to track down elusive enemies, the vigilantes instead seized Gnadenhutten, a peaceful Delaware village led by Moravian missionaries,” Taylor writes. “At Gnadenhutten, Williamson’s militiamen interpreted the European kettles and clothing as damning proof that the villagers had raided settlements rather than as evidence of their Christian conversion and civility. The militiamen butchered 96 captives—28 men, 29 women, and 39 children—by smashing their skulls with wooden mallets before scalping them for trophies. The natives died while singing Christian hymns.”

Such were the wages of liberty as settlers understood it and as purchased by war debts partially financed after the war with—and one can tell Taylor relishes the irony of this—regressive taxation. “In 1786, for example, taxes in Massachusetts were at least four times higher than before the war,” he notes. “Many states relied on poll taxes levied at the same rate on every man, poor and rich. Recalling the prewar protests over small British taxes, some rural people complained, ‘Our Grievances Ware Less Real and more Ideal then they are Now.’” These and other economic complaints—from rural colonists, commoners, and ex-soldiers—metastasized into a revival of mob activity and uprisings like Shays’ Rebellion, driving Colonial elites to consider drastic measures to curb, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “the depredations which the democratic spirit is apt to make on property.”

“Losing faith in republicanism,” Taylor writes, “some gentlemen wanted to substitute a constitutional monarchy to control democracy in the states.” In March 1787, Washington considered “the potential ‘utility’ and perhaps ‘necessity’ of a switch to monarchy” but doubted that the country could recover from a counterrevolution. The Founders opted instead to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution—a document that would subordinate state governments subject to capture by an unruly public to the sovereign and less accessible national government that stands today.

Many Americans—or at least many Americans above the Mason-Dixon line—have been taught that the union the Constitution forged was tested by steadily escalating sectional tensions over slavery, an issue that a series of strained compromises failed to resolve and that gradually led to a breakup and bloody conflict few intended or imagined possible until it happened. But in American Republics, Taylor tells a different story—one of an extremely fragile union perpetually on the verge of fracture and collapse, over slavery and less well-remembered tensions, from the moment the ink on the Constitution was dry.

As early as 1802, for instance, Madison and other American diplomats worried that French control of the port of New Orleans would lead to a grand secession crisis—not between the North and the South but between the East and settlers in the West. Settlers needed access to the Mississippi in order to sell their goods abroad. It was thought that Napoleon might cut off American trade on the river, encouraging settlers to secede and join the French to regain access to overseas markets. This was among the concerns that led to our purchase of the entire Louisiana Territory in 1803. More famously, at the Hartford Convention, some Federalist opponents of the War of 1812 considered splitting New England from the Union.

We were a country wrestling with both our internal divisions and our geopolitical weakness on a continent dominated by European powers—empires that expected, quite reasonably, the union’s imminent failure. And, as Taylor argues, the push for westward expansion, imagined now as a manifestation of America’s confidence in its own future, was animated largely by America’s insecurities. The concept of “manifest destiny,” he writes, not only justified settlement for its own sake but also reinforced “the defensive imperialism so long nurtured by fearful Americans.” Chief among their fears was that runaway slaves, Natives, and foreign troops might hatch destabilizing plots from territories uncontrolled by American settlers, a notion that made enlarging the nation seem strategically prudent.

Senator Robert Walker of Mississippi and other expansionists argued, for instance, for the annexation of Texas on the grounds that the British would otherwise emancipate slaves there and send north into the United States “the millions of the Negro race whom wretchedness and crime would drive to despair and madness.” Andrew Jackson, whose star rose on both his military exploits and his crude xenophobia after the War of 1812, nurtured similar delusions up to his death. Slaves in Mississippi, he speculated in an 1844 letter, would be “worth nothing because they would all run over to Texas and under British influence [be] liberated.” He feared a future in which “hordes of savages” and former slaves, stirred up by the British, would wage war throughout the South.

By then, America had itself backed insurrections to further its own growth. The annexation of West Florida in 1810 began with a rebellion by wealthy planters against the Spanish, secretly supported by the Madison administration and quickly followed by the deployment of American troops. Denying that his government had rallied the planters to begin with, Madison claimed the military had been sent in merely to restore order. The episode inaugurated a new strategy for American expansion, Taylor notes: “American settlers would rebel against a colonial power, establish a free republic, and create disorder that the United States could exploit to seize control. This model fostered aggression cloaked by claims of honoring international law.”

The model was attempted again in the remainder of Spanish Florida—before the territory was invaded by Andrew Jackson and ceded by Spain after the War of 1812—and, more gradually, with the annexation of the Republic of Texas in 1845. In 1846, President James Polk ordered 4,000 troops onto Texas’s contested borderland. “We have not one particle of right to be here,” an American officer at the time reflected. “It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California.” After the inevitable Mexican attack, Polk claimed that Mexico had “shed American blood on the American soil,” and that conquering California would help “defray the expense of the war which that power by her long continued wrongs and injuries had forced us to wage.” Taylor: “We have a long tradition of presidents seeking to make Mexico pay for American ambitions.”

The Mexican-American War is the central event of American Republics and arguably the period it covers. And, as with the Revolution, Taylor augments his analysis of war politics, including the conflict’s impact on the slavery question, with an unvarnished look at the war as it was actually conducted and, even at the time, condemned—not only by its political opponents but by voices within the American military. General Winfield Scott told Secretary of War William Macy that American troops had “committed atrocities—horrors—in Mexico, sufficient to make Heaven weep & every American, of Christian morals, blush for his country. Murder, robbery & rape of mothers & daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of the families, have been common all along the Rio Grande.”

Ulysses S. Grant, who served as a junior officer during the war, was among those sickened by it. “I do not think,” he would later write, “there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.” One of the events that built that impression for the war’s critics was the 1847 massacre at Agua Nueva, where an Arkansas company called the Rackensackers, commanded by a friend of President Polk, avenged the death of one of their own by herding civilians into a cave for execution. “Women and children were clinging to the knees of the murderers and shrieking for mercy,” an American witness later recounted. “Nearly thirty Mexicans lay butchered on the floor, most of them scalped. Pools of blood filled the crevices and congealed in clots.’”

It’s plainly important to Taylor that his books stand as accounts of all the blood we’ve let seep through the cracks. Historical ignorance and denial obviously aren’t exclusive to the United States. But outsiders have long found American self-regard in the face of uncomfortable realities extraordinary. “Newspapers, politicians, and orators praised fellow Americans as ‘the greatest people under the canopy of heaven’ and expected confirmation from European visitors,” Taylor writes of the early republic. “A Briton reported that Americans had ‘a restless and insatiable appetite for praise, which defied all restraint of reason or common sense.’ Another traveler thought that they practiced ‘the self-deception of believing that they really are that which they only wish to be.’”

That habit of self-deception can imbue the reading of work like Taylor’s with the thrill of accessing illicit knowledge. And one of the most subversive and challenging ideas all good works of history offer is a sense that history can also move backward. In American Colonies, Taylor takes a moment to describe the initial racial order in Virginia, where Black slaves were, at first, allowed to accumulate enough property to purchase their freedom and go into planting themselves. “Because the colonial laws did not yet forbid black progress, the black freedmen and women could move as they pleased, baptize their children, procure firearms, testify in court, buy and sell property, and even vote,” he writes. “Some black men married white women, which was especially remarkable given their scarcity and high demand as wives for white men. A few black women took white husbands.”

All this collapsed when population growth among slaves allowed the preservation of African cultural practices, and laws that codified racial differences were introduced, obscuring white class distinctions under the shroud of white racial solidarity and rendering “white Virginians indifferent to the continuing concentration of most property and real power in the hands of the planter elite.” Similarly, in American Republics, Taylor notes that the early years of the American republic, which saw slavery collapse in the North, also saw attempts to constrain or roll back the rights of free Blacks who “lost the vote in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee between 1806 and 1838.”

Reversals like this don’t jibe well with the way most of us are taught to understand our history—through strictly forward-moving narratives that often presuppose an astounding moral ignorance on the part of our forebears. The Founders, the preferred story goes, were radical, earthshaking visionaries strangely blind to or powerless against injustices that now strike us as obvious. The evils of slavery and Native dispossession, we imply to ourselves, had to be discovered like gravity or the atom—true human equality was an idea whose time had simply not yet come. But Taylor’s work highlights figures who, while flawed and decidedly less than fully egalitarian, were clearly more ready for it than others—from Bartolomé de las Casas and other early critics of the treatment of Natives by Spanish conquistadores to more familiar figures like Benjamin Franklin, a former slave owner himself, who submitted a petition to Congress in 1790 urging not only an end to the slave trade but the formation of a plan “to extend liberty ‘without distinction of color, to all descriptions of people.’”

Similar petitions in the antebellum era gathered the signatures of hundreds of thousands of Americans who were not, actually, “ahead of their time”—a pernicious and illogical phrase. They were as inescapably of it as the slave drivers and equivocating politicians they opposed—including the many figures who left behind ample evidence of their private guilt and moral embarrassment over the wrongs we rightly castigate them for. The generalization that our predecessors couldn’t have known or done better is challenged by the examples of those who did. Many intellectually capable of making more morally defensible decisions simply found material and ideological reasons to make others.

One leaves Taylor’s work understanding this fully—this isn’t Great Man history, but Some Guys history. The political leaders and famous personages that tower over our imaginations are condensed to life-size. They make grubby, horrid choices; they bumble, fumble, and scheme their way through moments of import alongside the extraordinary supporting cast of madmen, buffoons, and grifters that Taylor brings to life. One William Augustus Bowles appears before the British in a feathered turban to convince them that Creeks, Cherokees, and American settlers can be united in a campaign to push the Spanish out of Louisiana and conquer Mexico. He presented an ultimatum, vowing to invade Canada if the British did not back him. Aaron Burr pads out his life after killing Hamilton with a plot to seize Spanish territory, perhaps for his own new nation, and is captured and tried for treason—but not before fleeing a double-crossing co-conspirator “disguised as a common farmer, complete with a fake beard.” José de Gálvez, inspector general for the Spanish crown in New Spain, has a mental breakdown in 1769 trying to subdue frontier Natives. “One night, Gálvez burst from his tent to announce a plan to ‘destroy the Indians in three days simply by bringing 600 monkeys from Guatemala, dressing them like soldiers, and sending them against’ the natives,” Taylor writes. “He then assumed, in succession, the identities of Moctezuma, the king of Sweden, St. Joseph, and finally God. But none of them could defeat the Indians.” Two years later, Gálvez returned to Spain and was placed in charge of American policy as secretary of the Indies.

“Hell-carnival”—the phrase of one James Davidson, a Jackson-era emigrant to the lawless Mississippi frontier—is the best conceivable description for all this. American history for Taylor is both a horror and a farce. American Colonies is as much about kidnapped Native children being thrown overboard and shot for sport by Jamestown colonists as it is about wayward Puritans copulating with pigs. “In 1642, the New Haven authorities suspected George Spencer of bestiality when a sow bore a piglet that carried his resemblance,” Taylor writes. “He confessed and they hanged both Spencer and the unfortunate sow. New Haven also tried, convicted, and executed the unfortunately named Thomas Hogg for the same crime.” In American Republics, the requisite material on the Bank of the United States, the Wilmot Proviso, and the dawn of the industrial age share space with the death of Secretary of State Abel Upshur—accidentally killed during a public demonstration of a large naval gun called “the Peacemaker”—and an account of violent competitions between urban fire brigades. “If two or more companies reached a fire, brawls broke out over priority, while buildings burned,” he writes. In Philadelphia, the rivalry between two companies, named after Washington and Franklin, grew so intense that each joined forces with ethnic gangs, “including the Notorious Killers, who liked Washington better than Franklin.” In December 1842, a false alarm set by the Washingtons lured the Franklins into “an ambush by several hundred foes.”

When we set aside the romance of powdered wigs and the prose of eloquent slave owners and genocidaires, this is mostly what’s there—an unfathomably stupid and cruel world both totally alien and immediately recognizable to us now, living in what is nevertheless, from an egalitarian standpoint, the very best America anyone has ever known. Are the historical record and the historical trajectory we’ve taken causes for optimism or despair? The answer, if we’re honest with ourselves, is probably neither.

Some on the right are fond of saying that America is a nation and not an idea. What they actually mean by this is that America is, conceptually, the rightful inheritance of a particular segment of the country with a particular set of ideas about America. Their perennial debates over this with liberals—which they tend to frame as clashes between realism and naïve idealism—are really debates between dueling idealisms. But the initial assertion taken in itself is more right than wrong. Before it’s anything else, America is a polity—a material entity governed by a particular set of durable institutions and populated by 330 million people inextricably bound up together here in our present. It is a field of contestation where our present—and our future—might be shaped to our benefit and the benefit of all humanity. And that great contest fully justifies itself. That is identity and purpose enough.

The angst over statuary, school curricula, and all the rest in recent years has been underpinned by the conviction that asking what we’re to do with American history amounts to asking what we’re to do with America—once we’ve settled whether the American conscience is defined by original sin or high ideals, we seem to believe, we’ll understand our destiny. But America has no destiny. It has no conscience. There is no American DNA, no American soul. America will not be carried off into hell for its crimes; it is not fated to repeat them. But no moral engine will pull this country and the world inexorably forward either. In the last century, the world has seen both extraordinary expansions of social and political freedom and bloodshed on an extraordinary, technologically facilitated scale. We live longer and we live better thanks to an economic system that has nevertheless produced previously unfathomable levels of inequality and that, for the short-term profit and convenience of a relative few, is gradually undoing the basic systems that have sustained stable human life on this planet.

The popular narratives we construct, to noble and ignoble ends, do not and cannot do justice to the interplay of agents, institutions, systems, and ideologies that actually shape history. We can find logic in the chaos. We might discern, in historical material, forces and circumstances that may have made, and may still make, certain outcomes likely or liable to recur. None of this amounts to spiritual predestination. You simply will not find, even in the best histories, binding instructions from the dead as to who or what the living ought to be.

Our tendency to look over our shoulders for direction has understandably given American historians a profound sense of responsibility. In some, that sense of responsibility has given rise to anxieties that darker readings of the American past might exacerbate our political divisions and prove corrosive to our national ambitions. And those anxieties come through in Gordon Wood’s recent review of American Republics for The Wall Street Journal, a piece that hits Taylor not for factual errors, but for his seeming antipathy toward Thomas Jefferson—a sin, Wood suggests, for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair at the University of Virginia—and his chosen emphases. “Unfortunately,” Wood writes, Taylor “never offsets his depressing story with an account of the exhilaration, enthusiasm and promise inherent in this flawed democratic country that attracted millions upon millions of European immigrants.” Although Taylor isn’t technically wrong, Wood implies, he is unacceptably dour—as though the final obligation of the American historian is to be an unfaltering cheerleader for the American project.

But the fate of that project depends less upon historians than it does upon us, their readers, and the contours of the historical moment we happen to find ourselves within. And the most valuable things historians have to offer those of us who want to take the country in new directions are the missing pieces in our understanding of how we got here—suppressed memories, lessons, and legacies to wrestle with, and an appreciation of forgotten events and decisions that continue to shape our lives today. If they correct or omit the official catechisms we’ve spent generations reciting millions of times over, so much the better. We needn’t believe in myths to believe in ourselves.