Exceptionalism Exposed: A Historical Tug of War

A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History, by Thomas Bender. Hill and Wang, 368 pages, $26.

It takes a man with a certain singular talent to write a history of America empty of originality and devoid of insight. William J. Bennett is that man, and America: The Last Best Hope should be enough to end his reputation as a historian—if he had one.

Mr. Bennett was once Ronald Reagan’s chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Secretary of Education and “drug czar.” He subsequently wrote several uplifting volumes, including The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass and The Death of Outrage, in between gambling binges in Atlantic City and Vegas. Nothing legally dubious about that, of course, and he’s got a talk-radio show now, where he prognosticates on virtue, moral compasses and outrage—and why he’s for them.

I’m reminding you of these biographical facts only to demonstrate that America is not the work of some beetle-browed antiquary beavering away in the archives for the greater glory of scholarship, but that of a politico adept at writing middlebrow best-sellers that teach us valuable lessons. In other words, his America is a political and moral tract masquerading as history.

Mr. Bennett resents how the “sense of American greatness, of American purpose, of American exceptionalism” has been eroded by “[n]ewspaper columns and television reports” that are “full of cynicism.” That means we need “to tell the truth, get the facts out, [and] correct the record” in order to encourage a “positive” attitude to “Lincoln and the Founders”—who are apparently suffering from “[o]bscurity and oblivion.” Ultimately, Mr. Bennett wants to inspire “a new patriotism,” of the sort promoted by (please!) “the Old Man who dreamed dreams”—Reagan—so that Americans can “fall in love with this country.” This is history, not as enlightenment or as scholarship, but as inspiration.

Mr. Bennett is right in one regard: Even with lots of trendy graphics, history textbooks are deathly boring, a result of their authors’ sensitivity to identity politics combined with a keen eye for sales. So, to aid his retelling of a coherent, stirring national story of American genius and exceptionalism, Mr. Bennett accordingly emphasizes traditional drum-and-trumpet history with all its lashings of patriotic gore, good and bad Presidents, noble sacrifices, immortal speeches, hazardous wagon trails, etc.

The downside is that the inspirational interpretation of American History is so alien to any reasonably tutored adult’s sensibilities that one wonders whether a single sun hangs in the heavens of Mr. Bennett’s home world. He subscribes to a school of history so old that it was the one they demolished to make way for the old school. Here’s an example: In Chapter 1, which covers 1492 to 1607, Mr. Bennett has 67 endnotes; of these, fully 50 cite a few works by such paleolithic pop historians as Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and Daniel Boorstin. The sole coelacanth he left out, unsurprisingly, was Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who still thinks F.D.R.’s election in 1933 meant History came to a . Of the 17 left, eight refer to a book by Robert Royal, of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, called 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History.

The ironic result of Mr. Bennett’s thudding unawareness of modern research is that his supposedly entertaining, engaging and educational narrative of, say, the background and course of the Revolution is desperately dull: It’s been said a million times before, all that stuff about star-spangled, lantern-jawed Yankees pulling together for the cause of—wait for it—Liberty!, to oust those tyrannical, effete Brits.

Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have learnt about the strength and diversity of loyalty to the Crown, the illegal trading with the enemy in which thousands of Americans participated (with Washington’s tacit support), the widespread unenthusiasm for independence among Whigs, the Continental Army’s remarkable incidence of disease picked up from nymphs du pavé, the purging of politically neutral farmers and shopkeepers by patriot fanatics, the denunciations by neighbors and the hanging of those deemed too ambivalent about eventual American victory? Surely one can challenge the consensus view of the Revolution and its comfortable certainties without necessarily being an America-hating, ivory-tower tenured radical.

And on that note, it takes a man with a different but equally peculiar talent to write a history of America that omits the War of Independence. And that man is Thomas Bender, a professor at New York University. Well, he doesn’t exactly omit it, since he manages to devote two paragraphs in a book of 368 pages to the fighting—but he thinks that whole Revolution thing didn’t really happen, at least as we commonly perceive it.

In short, Mr. Bender takes exception to exceptionalism. It’s time “to mark the end of American history as we have known it,” he believes. The Bennettian form of nation-state history, taught in schools “to forge and sustain national identities,” is flawed owing to its assumption that the nation is “the natural container and carrier of history,” which he calls a “nineteenth-century ideological framing of history.” That is, national history is merely a product of the iron-and-blood nationalist era, and in our cosmopolitan, increasingly borderless world, we deserve something less parochial, less arrogant. Which is why Mr. Bender’s book sets American history in a global context: what was happening everywhere else, and how it influenced events here. To that end, the Revolution, he writes, is part of a “large historical narrative” encompassing other contemporaneous conflicts and rebellions that also made “claims of universal human rights.” (Bill Bennett, in the opposite corner, calls it the “Greatest Revolution.”)

I admire Mr. Bender’s spunk, and it’s refreshing to see such an inventive, jarring perspective. Even so, his thesis is not critic-proof. First, there’s always the danger of contextualizing historical events so much that one loses any appreciation of their distinctiveness, and second, he’s fatally wrong in assuming that national history is some brittle new innovation, one easily shattered and replaced by his cosmopolitan model.

As early as the mid-12th century, Europeans were identifying their nations with defined borders. Whereas in 1066 William the Conqueror—who saw himself as vanquisher of the tribe inhabiting his new Norman satrapy—crowned himself Rex Anglorum (“King of the English”), within a century Henry II had pointedly adapted his title to Rex Angliae (“King of England”), thereby linking geography to a national consciousness. And then what about Shakespeare’s (national) history plays, with John of Gaunt’s evocation of “this England,” populated by a “happy breed of men”? No, nation-states have existed for a very long time, which makes me think that Mr. Bennett’s nationalist historiography, despite its limitations and vulgarity, has a more natural basis than Mr. Bender assumes.

In any case, Mr. Bender needs to be careful that his own perspective isn’t brittler than the one he’s proposing to replace. A Nation Among Nations, after all, is a product of the modern transnationalist impulse. Today, we have N.G.O.’s, multilateral institutions and corporations answerable to no domestic, democratic government and committed to “global solutions” and self-defined “international standards.” The problem with transnationalism—exemplified by the European Union, human-rights watchdogs and fickle businesses—is that its unelected, unaccountable adherents neither represent the people nor dwell among them, and thus lack credibility and popularity.

Thomas Bender’s interpretation, in short, isn’t likely to make much headway against the mighty nationalist wind, and Bill Bennett is already threatening us innocents with a sequel taking events to the glorious present. God save us—and the Republic.

Alexander Rose is the author of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, published in April by Bantam Dell. Exceptionalism Exposed:  A Historical Tug of War