The Exceptionalism of American Slavery

As I continue to make my way through Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, I can’t help but think about its implications for the way we think about the idea of American Exceptionalism. It’s a timely issue given the recent debates about the revised AP US History curriculum.

Part of the criticism of the revised AP US History curriculum revolves around the assumption that it undercuts and even contradicts a narrative of America’s Exceptionalism. I don’t believe it does and I base such a conclusion on the fact that I’ve read through it. More accurately, it doesn’t say anything one way or the other. I suspect that the vast majority of critics have yet to read it through.

What I’ve never understood, however, is if some people expect me to teach American history through such a lens, whose understanding of the concept should I teach?

Baptist’s slaveowners fully embraced capitalism. Despite the Panic of 1837 slavery resulted in enormous profits throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and helped to push the nation west on its course of “Manifest Destiny.” Americans celebrated this expansion and the wealth created as a sign of its exceptionalism. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why there is such a need to argue that American slavery was not profitable and that it was on the decline by the eve of the Civil War. Better to see it as positioned in sharp opposition from the kind of post-Civil War capitalist surge than as the engine that pushed it forward. We should ignore the fact that it was John Calhoun’s theory of “Due Process” that was later embraced by pro-big-business legal thinkers during the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, this isn’t the version of American Exceptionalism that critics of the AP curriculum would have me teach. They would prefer that I impose my own values or their values on my students rather than have them analyze the political, moral, and economic world views of the people we study in American history. Sorry, but any notion of American Exceptionalism that my students are introduced to will be situated in a specific time and place.

I teach historical thinking, not propaganda.

8 comments… add one
  • Steve Sep 30, 2014 @ 4:33

    I’ve read through the AP guidelines (as part of co-leading a summer institute for APUSH teachers) and find them pretty anodyne–it’s a continental, multi-cultural US history, but IMO they work pretty hard *not* to demand a reckoning with capitalism or exceptionalism. Lots of things to like about the skills and themes, but these are pretty big shortcomings.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2014 @ 5:43

      I agree, Steve. My concern is that the curriculum relies much more heavily on teachers that are comfortable and competent in historical analysis. It will be very interesting to see how students fair on the exam this coming spring.

  • Jimmy Dick Sep 29, 2014 @ 18:33

    Have you seen the discussion on the subject regarding one of the main opponents of the changes to the course? It appears this individual, Larry Krieger, stands to lose money as a result of the changes. His company publishes guides to the AP History course. Since the changes are really about the pedagogy involved, they render the guides useless. J.L. went through the accusations made by Krieger and found them worthless.

    The others who are complaining just used Krieger’s complaints as fodder without investigating them in my opinion. Your statement that most critics haven’t bothered to read through the changes is spot on in my opinion. It is also very revealing that almost none of those critics are historians or educators.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2014 @ 1:00

      It is also very revealing that almost none of those critics are historians or educators.

      That’s because the vast majority of critics are not interested in history education.

      • Jimmy Dick Sep 30, 2014 @ 8:51

        Of course, but they’re trying to pass themselves off as experts in education and history when they are neither. This is part of a massive problem in education, but you know this story by heart since you work with school boards more than I do.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2014 @ 8:53

          Thankfully I don’t since I work for a private school.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie Sep 29, 2014 @ 16:49

    I received my copy last week, and will read it once I finish reviewing another book.

    I agree that the notion of “national exceptionalism” is propaganda but every country is guilty of it. It’s their way of imbibing unity. That doesn’t make it right and definitely inhibits the production of good history, but it is popular and useful to some.

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