The editors note the existence of some bipartisan myths that transcend party or ideology, but overwhelmingly, myths included in “Myth America” ​​originate from or reside on the right. In an analysis that spans 20 chapters, more than 300 pages, and centuries of American history and public discourse, the emphasis is striking. Don’t leftist activists and politicians in the United States create and promote their own self-affirming versions of the American story? If such lofty innocence is real, let’s hear more about it. If not, it may require its own debunking.

One of those bipartisan myths, generally endorsed by politicians of both major parties, is the nation’s ur-myth: American exceptionalism. In his essay on the subject, David A. Bell, another Princeton historian, may dismiss this term. “Most countries can be considered exceptional in one sense or another,” he writes. Today, the phrase is commonly deployed as a “coil” in the nation’s culture wars, argues Bell, a practice popularized by politicians such as Newt Gingrich, who has long touted the United States as “the most unique civilization in history.” and attacks anyone who does not bow to the concept. “For Gingrich, demonstrating America’s exceptionalism has always meant less than condemning the left for not believing in it,” Bell writes.

While exploring earlier arguments about the unique nature of America, Bell touches on John Winthrop’s 17th-century sermon “The Model of Christian Charity”, in which the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that the Puritan community ” as a city upon a hill”. (a line that President Ronald Reagan expanded upon centuries later as “the shining city on the hill”). Context is essential in any discussion of American exceptionalism, although Bell downplays the sermon’s relevance to the debate of exceptionalism, because the text “breathes with tormented doubt” as to whether the colonists could meet the challenge and because the sermon “virtually remained “unknown until the 19th century.”

It is an interesting notion, at least to this non-historian, that the initial obscurity of a speech (or a book or an argument or work of any kind) will make it irrelevant, no matter how much, to later generations. Why not be important It’s the same attitude that leads Akhil Reid Amar, professor of law at Yale and author of a chapter on the myths surrounding the Constitution, Federalist No. 10. writes, for its argument that the federal government would protect minority rights more effectively than the states, “but in 1787–1788, almost no one noticed Madison’s masterpiece.” Unlike other Federalist essays that resonated widely during the debate over constitutional ratification, Amar writes, No. 10 “failed to make a deep impression in American coffeehouses and taverns where patrons read aloud and read both local and out-of-town news”. Let’s talk about letters. Alas, Mr. Madison, your article was not trending, so we are removing it from the history home page.

To his credit, Amar is consistent in prioritizing immediate popular responses in his historical assessments. He criticized Charles Beard’s 1913 book, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution”, arguing that the Constitution was an undemocratic document. “If the document was really undemocratic, why did people vote for it?” Amar asks. “Why did tens of thousands of ordinary working men enthusiastically join massive pro-constitutional rallies in Philadelphia and Manhattan?” Even in the wake of the 2020 election and the January 6 Capitol attack, however, it seems clear that in a free society people can be mobilized for democratic and undemocratic causes with great gusto, if They believe that such reasons are just.

Other contributors to “Myth America” ​​are more inclined to look past first impressions. In a chapter chronicling the transformative impact of the Reagan presidency, Zelizer notes how “the ‘Reagan Revolution’ has reshaped American politics. This trope remains central to the national discourse,” even though it has “more than one Been a political talking point.” description of reality. (Reminder: calling them tropes or talking points is an effective shorthand way of dismissing opposing views.) When Zelizer looked at a collection of historians’ essays published in 1989, months after Reagan left office, and in which the arguments Given that Reagan’s 1980 victory was “the end of the New Deal era,” he did not hesitate to pass judgment on his professional allies. “Even a bunch of historians were swayed by the moment,” he writes.

Here, proximity to an earlier historical era renders observers susceptible to momentary passions, not possessors of superior insight. If so, perhaps an essay collection of American myths published so soon after the Trump presidency runs the risk of being swept away in its own moment. (Incidentally, that 1989 book, edited by historians Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstel and titled “The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980,” credited one contributor with “Myth America” shares.)

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