The Problem with Patriotism Today
On rescuing Andrew Jackson from the extremists and restoring both pride and prejudice to America’s great history.
President Donald Trump, in dependable jingoistic fashion, has declared Jan. 20, the date of his inauguration, an official day to venerate patriotism. America has always been a famously patriotic country. Thus, to proclaim what is already obvious is to have darker motives. “A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart,” reads the proclamation. In fact, Trump misrepresents American history. American history is morally unresolvable. In the course of conquering the frontier, both in the South and in the West, Americans enslaved blacks and virtually extinguished Native American life. But in settling a continent rich in natural resources beyond imagining, overlaid with the greatest internal river system on Earth, America found itself with the economic and geopolitical capacity to save civilization in two world wars and the Cold War that followed. One circumstance led to the other. In a better world, it would have been different, but it wasn’t. We should be both ashamed and proud. And because our history is complex, the teaching of it requires texture and nuance, not ideology or opportunistic politics.
The 19th-century French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan wrote: “To forget … and get one’s history wrong, are essential factors in the making of a nation; and thus the advance of historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” For generations, historians have been stripping away the myth of Manifest Destiny to reveal all the cruelties of a brawling frontier society. Trump has reversed this process with his deliberate disrespect for books and experts, his deliberate misinformation, and his ahistorical sensibility in general. In this way, he does violence to our sacred past, both the good and the bad of it. The fact is, mass democracy, because it tempts populism, has not only been dynamic but dangerous. Yet there is no unity of goodness. American history is unique from European history in that it can more consistently weave strands of redemption into the worst tragedies. That is something we should never forget — and which should make us proud.
Consider our seventh president, Andrew Jackson: one of the protean figures of the early republic, whose military genius in the War of 1812 kept the British from capturing New Orleans and closing the Mississippi, thus dividing the union. Jackson, long before Trump, led the first populist revolt against elites in American history and was also pivotal in helping along statehood for Texas and for fostering the career of James K. Polk, our greatest one-term president, who doubled the size of the continental United States in four years. But because Jackson quashed Indian rebellions and was responsible for the westward removal of the Cherokees that wantonly killed thousands in the late 1830s, he will be taken off the $20 bill. That may well be justified, but to discard him wholly in this age of frenzied internet smackdowns is to erase part of the rich tapestry of American history upon which our very identity depends. That is not to defend or praise Jackson the way Trump has: Our new president is wholly ignorant of the complexities I have enumerated above.
The situation is famously likewise with John C. Calhoun: vice president, secretary of war, and one of the most gifted orators and political theorists in the history of the Senate. Calhoun was a prominent anti-British hawk in the War of 1812 and later reorganized the War Department. Another complex, larger-than-life figure of the early republic, he is now rightly condemned for his pro-slavery stridency. But to remove statues of him from public places in Washington, D.C., and South Carolina, and his name from a Yale residential college, as some propose, would be another step in the simplifying and ideologizing of our history. The communists would airbrush figures out of photographs of their ruling pantheons in the wake of a purge. We are on the road to doing similar.
The academic clerisy and the writers of history textbooks have too often been complicit in this trend. True, we must also bear in mind that it is normal for history to be modified and adapted to the needs of the present. But while historical reputations may change over time, delegitimizing rather than merely critiquing the core drama of the American experience — the settlement of a continent, which Jackson and Calhoun did so much to foster — will leave us morally helpless in dealing with the challenges of a dangerous world that cries out for our help. If we feel ourselves unworthy, it will ultimately be impossible for us to project power as we should. And being worthy is not a matter of simplifying our past but also about feeling rightly uncomfortable with parts of it. But all this is a matter of nuance and sensitivity, to which Trump’s populism is as much a danger as the hard-line academic left.
Actually, the real American past — multilayered and beautiful, despite its bouts of ugliness, and also holding stores of inspiration — is right there in front of our eyes, ready to be deployed in the intellectual battlefront. I am talking about American history as taught by National Park Service rangers and commemorated on historical markers that seemed ever-present during the month I recently spent driving across the country. It is accurate, balanced, thoroughly researched, and immune to academic fads. Military history — that is, the erection of forts on the prairie, plains, and mountains in order to manage Indian affairs in the 19th century — is paramount in importance according to this version of history, followed by the activities of settlers, the many steps toward equality of women and African-Americans, the establishment of labor unions, and so forth. This is a nuts-and-bolts story told in plain English, free of jargon and full of nationalism and heroism. And it has been published in a plethora of books and pamphlets available at visitor centers in parks across the country. Why can’t we infiltrate the schools with it — in order to avoid the extremes of populism on one hand and hard-core academic political correctness on the other?
On an even more powerful level, there are the great works of American history and landscape written by mid-20th century liberal historians (albeit not liberal enough for today’s academic left — the kind whom the likes of Trump would either disparage or wouldn’t understand). To wit, Bernard DeVoto, a columnist for Harper’s for 20 years until his death in 1955, was the lyrical historian of westward expansion, devoting his literary life to the subject, particularly in three great books: The Year of Decision: 1846, about the country’s dramatic geographical growth during the Polk presidency, a story which encompasses everything from Native Americans to Mormons; Across the Wide Missouri, which chronicles the Rocky Mountain fur trade so crucial to Manifest Destiny; and The Course of Empire, about the exploration of North America from Christopher Columbus to Lewis and Clark. DeVoto’s rugged, twangy, unapologetic prose, buttressed by research in the Harvard library and the experience of a Utah boyhood, provides a vivid restoration of the past based on original sources. DeVoto intuited deep in his bones, perhaps better than anyone else before or since, that the conquest of the Great Plains and the Rockies had been a necessary prelude in order to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II. He despised the isolationism that is seeing a rebirth now. At the same time, his aversion to triumphalism allows him to approvingly quote Ralph Waldo Emerson on the tragedy of the Mexican War: “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn.” DeVoto, while celebrating the American expansionist impulse, throughout his narratives dependably recognizes the moral ambiguity of it.
“DeVoto was not a cloistered scholar,” writes Stephen E. Ambrose. “He got out on the trail, by foot, on horseback, and by canoe. He traveled where his characters had gone, seeing what they saw, listening to what they had said, and arguing for the conservation of their world.” How sad it is that this man, this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award — a liberal environmentalist to the core — who in his last years struck up a rich and penetrating friendship with Adlai Stevenson, even as he waged intellectual war against J. Edgar Hoover and the red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is, incredible as it may seem now, almost no longer read. Alas, in post-Vietnam War academic circles, the tendency to reduce American history to the crimes of slavery and “genocide” has simply left little room for DeVoto’s full-bodied description of the 19th-century American West.
There is, too, The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb, published in 1931, 11 years before DeVoto’s own masterpiece, The Year of Decision, a book inspired in part by Webb’s earlier one. Webb, a Texan all his life, had one subject: the Great Plains as the key to unlocking the mystery of everything America was and was to become. Reading Webb, it becomes clear that the history of the United States hinges on the history of the pioneers adapting to the Great Plains, or “Great American Desert” as they first conceived of it. After all, it was the Great Plains that gave us the cowboy culture. America’s east-to-west geographical orientation, as generations of citizens have come to know it, is the conceptual and cartographic result of that successful struggle to conquer the Great Plains. Indeed, the heroism of the Oregon Trail lay not in settling the Oregon Territory — which in many parts constituted a hospitably well-watered, timbered terrain similar to the Eastern Seaboard — but in actually getting to Oregon in the first place.
Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian was first published in 1953; it is dedicated to DeVoto and is partly inspired by Webb’s book. One can argue that the modern basis of American power, and what America can do with it, was given form by these three men in the middle decades of the 20th century. They were merely studying geography in the classic 19th-century sense of the word: whereby geography is a starting point for the study of history and culture — which is sometimes more illuminating than 20th-century political science methodologies. Their books form a canon without which America’s place in the world and in geopolitics is much harder to fathom. “Throughout the vast concave bowl of the continental interior,” Stegner writes, “was illustrated the unifying effect of geography, for here where everything ran toward the center instead of being dispersed and divided by central mountains, the people could never be divided into a hundred tribes and nations as in Europe, but must be one.”
All three men argued and intuited that since the West was arid, the myth of rugged individualism had to be complemented by a government-directed communalism, in order to manage water resources. In other words, these men were liberals, yet because of their unabashed pride in the American past, it is hard to find them in school curriculums. Is there a greater indictment of the academy? Still, between them and the park rangers and the roadside historical markers, American history — in terms of a healthy, moderate objectivity — lives on.
Take note, I do not advocate replacing a liberal history with a conservative one or, heaven forbid, a populist one, but for replacing a hateful, deconstructionist left-wing history with an old-fashioned liberal one, written by the kind of liberals who barely exist anymore (and have been largely forgotten by today’s intelligentsia). Unless we can do that, we will lose our sense of the past and thus have no future as a people. For our geography, despite the know-nothing neo-isolationist dogma coming out of the White House, gives us great global responsibilities in an increasingly smaller world.
This essay was adapted from Robert D. Kaplan’s recently published book, Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World.
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