The Americans and the History That Made Them

A departure from the triumphalist account.
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Topic: “The Americans and the History That Made Them”


David Kennedy: I’m working on a book, the working title of which is “The Americans and the History That Made Them”. And the title has a little bit of a barb in it, if one stops and thinks about it. In fact my publisher and editor would prefer that the title would be “The Americans and the History They Made”, because that title would suggest the triumphalist account about how we built a nation, and isn’t it great and so on.

And I don’t deny that story, but the larger point I’m trying to make which is implied in that title, “The Americans and the History That Made Them”, is that this society and the peoples that have lived in it have been permitted certain kinds of pathways of historical development that weren’t necessarily available to others, and that we played out our story within very certain, specific historical concepts that have made us the particular people that we are historically construed.

So the first sentence in the book sums up the entire matter. And it goes like this; more or less like this: America was conceived in the Renaissance; born in the Reformation; came to the age of independence at the height of the Enlightenment; grew to maturity in the century of the Industrial Revolution; and came into the fullness of its powers in the century of total war.

So the idea is there are five major stages of historical development that are common to the western world as a whole: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and so on. And there are five big themes here – the America of the imagination, how people have just made sense out of the whole American project . . . both Americans and others; religion; politics; the economy; and its closely attended phenomenon, immigration and foreign policy. So each of these themes has a specific, chronological anchor in a recognizable era in the history of the western world as a whole; but the American story in those larger contexts, those successive contexts, doesn’t conform to the larger pattern necessarily, and the particularities and the peculiarities of the American story that interest me.


July 4, 2007