Shelby Foote on American Exceptionalism

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foo0-001The following commentary by Shelby Foote comes at the tail end of Ken Burns’s The Civil War

“We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times.  And our generals were the greatest generals of all time.  It’s very American to do that.”

16 comments… add one

  • markrcheathem Nov 18, 2009

    That comment is one of the few Foote comments in the series with which I agree. American exceptionalism is a major theme of Civil War memory.

  • Marc Ferguson Nov 18, 2009

    Another PC swipe at American Exceptionalism.

  • Jarret Ruminski Nov 18, 2009

    I have no problem with patriotism and the acknowledgment of the United States’ many strengths, but I do have a problem when patriotism is deluded into a jingoistic America fetish that oversimplifies United States history and mythologizes events like the Civil War. Sanitizing American history with myth opens the door to an American exceptionalism that is downright hostile to the necessary criticism that serious scholarship demands. For example, casting the Civil War in an overtly romantic light minimizes the serious racial issues that caused the conflict and only fuels the often simplistic popular conceptions of the war’s meaning and continuing legacy. The serious and complicated issues of racial division that caused the war and continues to drive American political and cultural issues today are too important and too glaring to invoke claims of “exceptionalism.”

  • Rob Wick Nov 19, 2009

    Kevin,
    Looking at his quote, am I wrong in thinking that saying “if we'd been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war” as saying that it wasn't necessary to fight it even to end the scourge of slavery?

    As to the claim that it was a PC swipe at American exceptionalism, for God sake the man praised Nathan Bedford Forrest on the program. Foote was not PC. How senseless.

    Best
    Rob

    • markrcheathem Nov 19, 2009

      Good point. In light of his other statements in the series, maybe I gave Foote too much credit by focusing on the latter part of his statement.

    • Marc Ferguson Nov 19, 2009

      I thought it would be obvious that my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek when I made that comment. I momentarily forgot that there are people out there, some of them writing “history” blogs, that say such things in all seriousness.

      ;^)

      • Rob Wick Nov 19, 2009

        Marc,
        Allow me to apologize for failing to realize your comment was not meant to be taken seriously. After I wrote my comment, I started to wonder if that wasn't the case. Hopefully no harm, no foul!

        Best
        Rob

  • Andy Nov 19, 2009

    Lewis Black clarifies this point (language NSFW): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mCDZMWVWuc

  • msimons Nov 19, 2009

    I agree with Foote on this one.

  • Marc Ferguson Nov 19, 2009

    I thought it would be obvious that my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek when I made that comment. I momentarily forgot that there are people out there, some of them writing “history” blogs, that say such things in all seriousness.

    ;^)

  • Rob Wick Nov 20, 2009

    Marc,
    Allow me to apologize for failing to realize your comment was not meant to be taken seriously. After I wrote my comment, I started to wonder if that wasn't the case. Hopefully no harm, no foul!

    Best
    Rob

  • Marc Ferguson Nov 20, 2009

    No apology necessary.

    Marc

  • Arleigh Birchler Aug 31, 2011

    I am not sure I have ever set down and watched all of the Burns/Foote series on “The Civil War”. I did see some parts and that inspired me to learn more about the War. I read all three volumes of Foote’s Narrative. As I recall, he did not paint himself as anything more than a novelist. I could easily be mistaken about that as I did not pay that close attention to all of it.

    My impression was that Foote’s interest in Nathan Bedford Forrest was as a General and a Tactician. Bedford’s cavalry captured my great-great grandfather and most of his company. His raid on the M&O was, from a military point of view, an immense success. That does not make him a good man, simply either a good general or very lucky.

    I agree with Foote’s appraisal of the “American” ego. I have never thought of him as a conservative in any sense of the word. From my limited point of view I thought he was fairly liberal in his political views.

    Another quote that I have heard attributed to Shelby Foote: “I love to see a computer — flying out a window.” I don’t know if the person who told me that story was being totally honest, but it does sound like the kind of thing Foote would say.

  • Arleigh Birchler Aug 31, 2011

    Regarding Rob’s statement: I would not assume that Foote meant that we would have allowed slavery to continue. I take him to be saying that if we were really superior we sould have figured out a better way to end slavery. I do not see that as implying that it would have “just died on its own”, but that if we were really superior, we would have found a way.

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