The spirit of a historiography that kicked over the Cold War consensus about America (United States of) was codified in the 1619 project, which is why the latter drew such fire from such members of the old guard as Sean Wilentz. Wilentz goes on at length with his problems with the post-liberal framework in his review of two new books on the American Revolution and the antebellum American state in the NYRB. The critique is deftly summed up here:
“Two ambitious new studies, Liberty Is Sweet by Woody Holton on the Revolution and American Republics by Alan Taylor on the decades that led to the Civil War, examine far more than the history of American slavery and racism. Both take up the array of political and social transformations that shaped the nation’s growth from an aspiring republic hugging the eastern seaboard to a boisterous, even bellicose capitalist democracy that spanned the North American continent. Yet both books advance claims in accord with interpretations of white supremacy as the driving force of American History. Holton and Taylor are serious scholars, and given the larger stakes involved, the reliability of their conclusions on these matters assumes importance in debates that go far beyond the academy.”
So much in this paragraph, and in Wilentz’s critique, depends upon the definitive article! Substitute ‘a’ for ‘the’ in the phrase “interpretations of white supremacy as the driving force of American history’ and you have the real stress of the 1619 project, which is about making a judgment call about the degree to which the white supremacist ideology, or assumption, was a driver of American history. The drivers should explain how a rigged up framework holding together thirteen British colonies actually functioned to expand its domain across the continent and assert itself as a nation. It should explain how the ethnic cleansing of the native nations contributed to this expansion; how slavery functioned to furnish the economic foundations of the nation; how Civil War and emancipation failed signally to dissolve white supremacy; and how these various compounding inequalities coexisted with a notion of the nation as the “leader of the Free World’ in the 20thand 21st century. Among other things…
Wilentz follows in the traces of a liberal centrist interpretation of American history that was strongly inflected by the Cold War and its Manichean anti-communism. In this version, America was uniquely freedom-striving – its Revolution, unlike the French Revolution, was uniquely moderate and led to no totalitarian monstrosity. This was the American Revolution as Hannah Arendt saw it, and was used for left-baiting purposes by a generation of French anti-communists, like Francois Furet, both to attack the French Revolution (and by implication, the Russian one) and to legitimate the neo-liberal turn towards limiting government “intervention” in the economy.
I’m wholeheartedly for the spirit of the 1619 project, and look forward to its expansion to account for twentieth century American history. In particular, it is striking, to me, that here we can close the gap between American foreign and domestic policy – a gap that has called into being a separation of intellectual labor that misses the big, syncretic picture. For instance – to give an amateur’s pov – I’d like to see how white supremacy drove one of Woodrow Wilson’s progressive era programs: the idea of the right to “self-determination’ of a people, aka ethnic group, which Wilson successfully interjected into the negotiations at Versailles at the end of WWI.
Myself, I see every connection between that high “liberal” project and Wilson’s view of domestic American history, in which the essence of the United States was a white protestant elite. As we know from Wilson’s domestic policies, he was in full retreat from Theodore Roosevelt’s very moderate policy of civil rights for African Americans – in line with a Republican Party tradition - symbolized by Roosevelt’s reception, in the White House, of Booker T. Washington. Roosevelt himself was your standard Social Darwinist, convinced of Negro “inferiority’, but as so often with Roosevelt, his timidly radical gestures echoed much more loudly than his personal conservatism. With Wilson, the idea of African-American inferiority was infused much more emphatically in his policies – as in his purging the Civil Service rolls of black Americans. I think this background has been somewhat neglected in its effects on American foreign policy and, specifically, in its junction with a radical ethno-centric ideology in Europe that doomed such multi-ethnic entities as the Austro-Hungarian empire. The notions of self-determination and its shadow side, the notion of some superiority of the chosen ethnic group, was not Wilson’s creation – but the spread of the idea, its legitimacy as a basis for a new world order, owed a lot to Wilson. Wilsonian liberalism in the academic world – with Princeton as its capitol – still flourishes, and still lacks an overarching historical account.
I’m a piker in these matters, but I would love to read some such account.