The Tragedy of a Nation “Born Perfect”

An anonymous comment in response to David Blight’s recent Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College.

“In this enduring vision the United States was essentially born perfect and then continued its improvement.” — David Blight

The “tragedy” in US history seems to me to be embedded in its historiography: the repeated description of the immense human sacrifice to remove a deep stain from America’s past. This should have been more “effortless”, right? And on the way, those that had to remove the stain (not all that voluntarily) began to complain and the other side simply denied there ever was one. But in the end those that should have complained never got a voice until recently and only through the foggy interpretations of what slavery meant by focusing mainly on battlefields and where flanks of Union troops met Confederates, nothing of which even sheds a glimpse on the actual society in which slavery existed.

How does and American get away to be greeted by other nationals with the expectations of great movies, I-Pods and discounts at MACY’s, while a German will never lose the smell of genocide, despite BMW and Mercedes? How insane it must be to sit in a history class in 1965 being black and hearing not just of the great General Lee and his men but also of this “great” nation? At least in that sense we all treat our victims the same: if we ever begin to acknowledge their plight we make the rules, how much and how long they can voice their grievances and discourage anybody from eluding to those grim facts that may just stir emotions that will make it difficult to “reconcile”. It is probably easier to move on by telling yourself that your ancestors fought a decent war and at what cost.

What I appreciate about historians like Blight and [John] Hennessy is that they offer those grim facts without giving us the intellectual band-aid to distance us from them. Especially with Blight I feel a deep sense of being pulled out of my chair to the window of history. I know he is theatrical. But it restores my sanity. The effect of living here would also have done a trick on my psyche to sometimes forget the complexity of American history, hadn’t it been for the constant presence of your research in my life. US history in the US is so well packaged and compartmentalized that it takes some will to pull down the veil of romanticized distortion, even among all our liberal friends.

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2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of a Nation “Born Perfect”

  1. Patrick Young

    Kevin, sit with immigrant kids from Latin America taking high school classes where they are taught that U.S. history is about defending and spreading democracy to see how a black kid in 1961 experienced a class on the Civil War era.

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  2. Brendan Bossard

    It seems to be the tendency of each nation’s historiographers to idealize their beloved country’s histories to varying extents. The question is whether its citizens are willing and allowed to place its history in the public square for public debate. In places like China, you question the wisdom of its Revolutionary leaders at the risk of your life. In America, you risk a black eye in a bar-fight, at most.

    As far as Blight’s assertion that some people believe in a “perfect” America that has only improved since its inception, I have never met one of these. This is a straw man, in my opinion.

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