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Wednesday, January 10, 2018


The comments engendered by the colloquy between Professor Pigden and myself has been, to my way of thinking, uncommonly thoughtful, scholarly, and interesting, even by the rather high standard maintained in the give and take of comments on this blog.  I was particularly taken by Musing Marxist’s thought experiment about South Africa, in part because of my thirty year long experience there.  Rather than pick at this and that point in one or another of the comments, I thought I would tell you briefly about the context of the joke about Mr. Shapiro’s Wedding Suit with which I began the second chapter of my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.  It will help to frame the general response I wish to make. 

The book is an affectionate testimonial to my colleagues and students in the UMass Afro-Am department, from whom I learned so much and with whom I spent the happiest sixteen years of my half century long teaching career.  In the first chapter, I told the story of how I came to join the department and what I learned there.  I then undertook first to tell the received story of America, and then to follow that with a rendition of the true story of America, as my colleagues had taught it to me.

The device I chose to set the stage for my account of the true story of America was an analysis of the changes that were introduced into the treatment of slavery in successive editions of the three most prestigious and successful American History college textbooks of the middle of the twentieth century:  America:  The Story of a Free People, by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager;  The Growth of the American Republic, by Samuel Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager;  and The American Pageant, by Thomas A. Bailey.  Nevins, Commager, and Morrison, as some of you surely know, were giants of the academic History profession, Pulitzer Prize winners, multiple times presidents of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.  Bailey, whose textbook was as successful as theirs, was not quite as revered as they, but he was nevertheless honored by his profession with presidencies and awards.

Each text went through many editions and was used in classrooms over periods of forty years or more.  I managed to track down almost all the editions of each, and I read through their treatments of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and [in the latest editions] the Civil Rights Movement.  The emendations to those parts of the text, edition by edition, were extraordinary, a documentary testament to the changes taking place in the larger society and to the pressures the authors were under to make their texts palatable to successive generations of students.  I shan’t try to recapitulate here my account in the second chapter of my book.  You can take a look at it if you wish by following the link on this site to

What I found so striking was this:  each text began, in the first edition, with a reverential rendering of the standard story of America as a City Upon a Hill, an exception to the nations of Europe or Asia, the only nation founded consciously as the embodiment of an idea, The Idea of Freedom.  Slavery was treated as a “peculiar institution,” as an afterthought, as a minor blemish on a nation conceived in Freedom.  The slaves were described as child-like, happy, well-treated by their loving and thoughtful masters.  Very slowly, a word or a phrase or a paragraph at a time, each new edition was revised, until, by the sixth or eighth or tenth edition, the original account of slacery was all but obliterated.  And yet, at no point was the premise of the story challenged.  America remained The Land of Freedom, the exceptional land, the only nation self-consciously established as the embodiment of an idea, the Idea of Freedom.

It seemed clear to me that even these distinguished and enormously accomplished historians, despite their command of all the latest scholarly research, were so deeply in thrall to a fundamentally false story of America that they were incapable of writing the simple truth of America so long as they clung to that original story.  Struggling to capture the peculiarity of this literary and conceptual situation, I hit upon the device of the old joke about Mr. Shapiro’s wedding suit. 

The central point of my little book was that it was not reading thousands of pages and swotting up masses of facts that enabled me to liberate myself from that false story.  It was actually moving across campus, joining a new department, making a life commitment to the fate of the collective academic and political project on which my new colleagues had embarked, and thus in the precise literal sense of the expression adopting a new standpoint, a new point on campus where I stood [and sat, and taught] that opened my eyes.

Now, clearly, if the times call for it, I can do what Professor Pigden suggests.  I remind you that only fourteen months ago, I was walking door to door in Durham, canvassing for Clinton, for whom I felt a deep contempt, cheerfully encouraging people to come out and vote for her.  But what I find difficult, if not impossible to do is to issue a full-throated call for all of us to be true to the ideal of America as a Land of Freedom, as the Leader of the Free World, as the Last Best Hope for Mankind, and struggle to make American what it has always been and aspired to be, A City Upon a Hill.


s. wallerstein said...

Given the bull-shit rhetoric with which all or almost all nations sing their own praises, I find it hard to believe that the U.S. is the only nation self-consciously founded on the idea of freedom. Some Latin American countries probably started out with the same bull-shit rhetoric and possibly some ex-colonies in Africa too.

So not only is the rhetoric false in the case of the U.S., I would bet that it is not the only nation with the same level of bullshit and self-laudatory hypocrisy in their founding myth.

According to the Chilean national anthem, Chile is a oasis against oppression. That's a country which committed genocide against the Native Americans, has massacred striking workers on all too many noted occasions and went through the 17 years dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, all the while singing the national anthem.

Matt said...

Hi Prof Wolff,

I can't seem to find your Autobiography of an Ex-White Man on as you mentioned. Did you mis-speak or is it supposed to be there?

Jerry Fresia said...

Speaking of corrections and later editions:

I would like to amend my previous comment to include the viewpoint of Gerald Horne (The Counter-Revolution of 1776) who argues that the Founders, who were enslaving human beings, sought independence from Great Britain, in part, because of the deepening anti-slavery sentiments there; thus independence would deliver to them protection of their "peculiar" institution.

Matt said...

To pick up the discussion of Martin Luther King from the last thread, this new (forthcoming? I'm not 100% sure it's out in print yet) book on the political philosophy of King looks great - full of interesting articles by very good philosophers:

Anonymous said...

I see nothing wrong with Professor Wolff's ill-fitting suit analogy. The professor's effort to demonstrate that Prof Wolff "really" had something like software in mind when he was discussing political systems can fairly be called fatuous--if it isn't altogether uncharitable. The customer in this case represents the distinguished professors of history apparently blinded by the shine of some imagined city on a hill. These are customers of ideology -- not a consumer of political systems.

LFC said...

Nitpicky correction:

Samuel Eliot Morison (one "r")

LFC said...

P.s. As I suggested in a comment in the other thread, I think it's possible to distinguish the rhetoric of American exceptionalism from an appeal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. One can avoid the former and still do the latter.