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.