When Was America “Great”?

These two just below do not strike me as merely campaigning Republicans. In their apocalyptic and threatening carryings on if they do not get their way, they are far more representative of what we seem to have now in the U.S.: a version of a Sturmabteilung. They are either too thick to understand that is the role they are playing, or they actually desire to play that role, and neither is good for U.S. governance:

The casual “civil war” talk you hear (from others as well out there just like them) is also typical of many a young man throughout history. They fantasize about conflict as a test of manly strength – until they find themselves hurled into the midst of actual war, that is. They imagine they will triumph gloriously, when in reality it is far more likely they will be among those whose mangled remains are never found:

[May 12, 1864, near Spotsylvania, Virginia. From The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3, by Shelby Foote (1974).]

In historical terms, in the full video the first guy states that the actual U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) “seemed to fix it the first time.” What he is unfortunately not asked in what we see (and I would have asked this of any student who offered such an unclear observation) is what was seemingly “fixed” exactly back then? Because that type should never be allowed to ramble on unchallenged.

They actually should simply be questioned directly: “So when was America ‘great’ and then ceased to be?”… given the basis for their “Dear Leader’s” presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020 that it was once, but was great no longer. I had done so with many Republican friends (I was once a Republican) who turned “Make America Great Again,” or fascist (I never use that word lightly) MAGA. As a consequence, I ended up with no Republican friends… if they turned MAGA.

For example, yes, yes, yes, we all know about this, and in its way it was “great”:

[Left to right: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, 1776. From History Hit, on Instagram.]

However, measured by the scale of the entire alphabet, the “great” there also encompasses the American historical experience from “A” all the way maybe to, uh, “C.” In case you think in my pointing that out that I have some “woke” grudge against the men depicted in that painting, I have written three novels set largely in their time period that stem from having spent several DECADES “inside their minds” insofar as I could manage trying learn about them. I actually do think that among their numerous shortcomings, they were indeed also brilliant in many ways…

[Jean Antoine Houdon, “Thomas Jefferson” (1789). On my office bookshelf. Photo by me, November 2, 2022.]

…And in doing what they did, they also helped lay the groundwork for the increasing broadening of American life that continues to this day.

The problem is too many behave as if they have some personal stake in defending them from criticism. I have read reviews of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home (which I have visited) by some (evidently white) tourists angered by how much discussion there is by guides about Black slavery there. But why should there not be? Enslaved Blacks largely built that magnificent house and supported his life and lifestyle.

One of the constant challenges we have as historians is to get across that as Americans we now living are not responsible for the mistakes and the viciousness that occurred in (distant) history, but that we are most certainly responsible for what happens in our present day. Let us be entirely thoughtful here, too. Was America “great” in so badly mistreating the first inhabitants of our country?:

[From History Hit, on Instagram.]

What about slavery? Was that “great”?:

[From History Hit, on Instagram.]

How about when all women could not vote simply because they were women? Was that “great,” too?:

[From History Hit, on Instagram.]

How about the hunger, want, and hopelessness for so many during the Great Depression of 1929-1940? Was this when America was “great?”:

[From History Hit, on Instagram.]

Members of this crowd assailing this Black student in this infamous photo may well still be alive. This was 1957; we are not talking about men in wigs and breeches and “1776” here – this was NOT long ago. How “great” was this?:

[From History Hit, on Instagram.]

Sadly, one could go on and on and on. America has never been all one thing. There have been great moments and some great people, yet we should also candidly acknowledge the decidedly NOT great and resolve always to aim to be better.

[The top of Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) Monticello, Virginia mansion house, seen from “Mulberry Row,” a path along which slave cabins had in his time stood. Photo by me, 2011.]

Unless of course you happen to consider the narrowest version of America to be when it was “great.” Insofar as I can discern, “1776” appears to be the single year in U.S. history most idolized by MAGAs. That is especially demonstrated by attempts we see to misappropriate the era’s “13 star” flag for their “movement.”

[Photo by Adam Heunis on Pexels.com.]

In that much-admired by them 1776, a third of the U.S. population was enslaved; Native Americans were essentially “foreigners” with no rights; white women had a legal standing only slightly superior to those of a minor white boy; and even most white men over age twenty-one could NOT vote because they did not own enough property to qualify to vote. Clearly, MAGA Republicans such as those two in the Sky video either do not want to think about those facts and others, do not care about them, or may even not really know about them. That is understandable because having to make space for those facts badly undercuts a “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoonish simpleton version of “1776” to which they and others like them have attached themselves.

So they resent it and lash out about it being “woke” or “attempting to destroy the country” when it is pointed out that the U.S. they worship has in fact never existed. It is a fantasy. That “place” had been constructed since its independence in 1776 by those with by far the most power (primarily white men) deeming only their cherry-picked narrow version of the national story as being relevant.

However, that narrow construct is being increasingly properly revised and expanded in the 21st century as never before by those who insist on the mainstreaming of the much “broader” – warts and all – story of U.S. nationhood; but those two dudes in that video, and millions like them, do not want to read or hear such. They may not intellectually understand it, but they do evidently intuit correctly that their “monopoly” on what they hold to be U.S. history is receding in some ways due to the power they (and especially many generations of their ancestors) had once wielded almost exclusively now needing to be shared with those who before about 1960 had had very little power or say. Therefore, the likes of the guides at Monticello in 2022 talking at length about slavery, and thus making it clear that U.S. history is about a lot more than slave-owning white men in wigs and breeches producing near-poetic documents extolling liberty, greatly erodes the MAGA fantasy and by extension their sense of (misplaced) self… and that is making them angrier and angrier.

On that note, have a good day, wherever you are.