"The American republic, which is still relatively young, was from the outset singularly favored. It started from scratch on a vast and virgin continent, which was so sparsely peopled by Indians that they could be eliminated or pushed aside. Such a magnificent opportunity for a great democratic experiment may never come again."
Thus begins The American Pageant by distinguished historian and past president of the Organization of American Historians Thomas A. Bailey. The American Pageant is one of the most successful of the many college American History texts. First published in 1956, it went through six editions before Bailey's death in 1983, but top-selling college texts take on a life of their own, and the fourteenth edition, still carrying Bailey's name, along with those of the current revisers, appeared in 2008. You can get it, deeply discounted, from Amazon.com for only $126.22. I have actually examined all six editions published during Bailey's lifetime, and I can report that the bitter irony of those opening lines is, so far as Bailey was concerned, completely unconscious.
This celebratory tone, rich in unintended irony, is echoed in the competing texts from that same period, written by teams of historians even more distinguished in the profession than Bailey. While preparing to write Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, a memoir of my experiences in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I actually engaged in what is, for me, a very rare act of scholarship. I examined multiple editions of three texts: Bailey's American Pageant; America: The Story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager; and The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morison and [again] Henry Steele Commager. Older readers of this blog may recognize the names Nevins, Morison, and Commager. All three were giants of the American History academic establishment, repeatedly chosen to preside over various professional associations and universally admired both for their scholarship and -- especially in the case of Commager -- for their deep devotion to the highest ideals and practices of American democracy.
The story they tell is one with which all Americans are familiar: A vast, virgin continent, populated by devout Protestants seeking freedom of religion and land from which to wrest a decent living, an exceptional country, the first in history to come into existence by a genuine social contract among all the men and women living in this new society carved from a fertile wilderness. Together, they threw off the shackles of Old World tyranny and fulfilled their promise as a "city upon a hill." Lest you imagine that I am exaggerating for comic effect, let me quote just one passage from Nevins and Commager's America: The Story of a Free People:
"America emerged out of obscurity into history only some four centuries ago. It is the newest of the great nations, yet it is in many respects the most interesting.... It is interesting because, from its earliest beginnings, its people have been conscious of a peculiar destiny, because upon it have been fastened the hopes and aspirations of the human race, and because it has not failed to fulfill that destiny or to justify those hopes. ...
But what of slavery, the "peculiar institution" as John C. Calhoun and others called it? Bailey, Nevins, Morison, and Commager devote so little attention to the institution of slavery, even in their discussion of the debates over the formation of the U. S. Constitution, that it must come as something of a surprise to the unwary reader to learn, many hundreds of pages later, that a civil war was fought over the matter. Their descriptions of ante-bellum slavery will strike the modern reader as parodies or satires. It is important, however, to take them seriously, for they articulate the collective historical amnesia and fantasies of White America well into the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, we are seeing today a revival of those myths in the bizarre claim by Michele Bachmann, received with rapturous applause by many millions of Americans, the Founding Fathers themselves led the fight against slavery. Listen to just a few passages on the subject, selected from these major college level history texts:
First, Commager and Morison:
"As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved the abolitionists to wrath and tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its 'peculiar institution.' The majority of slaves were adequately fed, well cared for, and apparently happy. Competent observers reported that they performed less labor than the hired man of the Northern states. Their physical wants were better supplied than those of thousands of Northern laborers, English operatives, and Irish peasants; their liberty was not much less than that enjoyed by the North of England 'hinds` or the Finnish torpare. Although brought to
When Commager joined forces with Nevins, the result was no better. Here is their description, in a chapter titled "The Sectional Struggle," of plantation slavery, based on an account given by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1854. Olmstead describes a Southern plantation he had seen on his travels, what Nevins and Commager describe as "one of the first-rate cotton plantations in
Commager, recall, was famous not only as an historian but also as a fierce liberal defender of Constitutional guarantees and First Amendment rights. Morison was the very model of an upright upper class Harvard scholar and gentleman. Nevins was the star of the Columbia History Department and the author of a vast, detailed, multi-volume history of the Civil War. Collectively, they authored well over a hundred books, which were received as monuments of painstaking, scholarly, objective historiography.
This is the story these men told as they stood on the crest of the hill and surveyed the pageant spread out before them. Try if you will to imagine what it was like to be a thoughtful, intelligent Black man or woman, reading this version of one's own history, struggling -- against the overwhelming weight of professional approbation, of degrees and honors, of universal acclaim -- to raise a voice and say, "That is not the true story of America."