Posts Tagged ‘american slavery

The Delusional Style in American Life

» July 4th, 2015

What follows are some thoughts I’m guessing most Americans will not be celebrating as they fire up the grill to celebrate the 4th of July. The whole thing is a trigger warning to your holiday happiness. –jm

If you’re occasionally confounded by the persistence of American optimism in the midst of ongoing socioeconomic despair, it helps to revisit the driving themes of American history during the nation’s infancy: slavery, republican ideology, Manifest Destiny. As a historian, this is what I do to make sense of the many contradictions at the core of American life.

It’s also, as a professor, what I teach.

Working together, these facets of the American experience fueled national development and generated relative prosperity for white men willing to pull up stakes and Go West. They also made possible the wildly quixotic idea of an America “for the people,” a bold conceit that whiggish historians insist—events such as Ferguson, Missouri notwithstanding—we’re getting closer and closer and closer to achieving. Proof that Americans—and Americans alone—have swallowed the pill of historical optimism comes from a recent Pew study showing Americans to have the most positive outlook on life. Even as other wealthy nations grow increasingly depressed in the face of global events, Americans, well, we just keep on shining.

What accounts for our sunny disposition? In a word: delusion. There’s really no other way to explain it. It’s at our core. What the dominant narrative of American history routinely fails to note is that each of the defining phenomena (slavery, republicanism, and Manifest Destiny) emerged from self-serving and carefully-crafted delusions—delusions sowed in the colonial period and delusions that bloomed like a field of dandelions after the American Revolution to perpetuate the fiction that the pursuit of happiness was integral to a concept that today seems more rhetorically relevant than ever: “American exceptionalism.”

Systematic self-deception began with Native Americans and private property. English settlers such as John Winthrop fully understood that the Native American conception of property—based on what Jefferson would later call “usufruct rights”—ran counter to the English conception of property (based on “fee-simple” ownership).  Rather than acknowledge this difference, English settlers (with the exception of, say, Roger Williams) exploited it. They acted as if Native Americans lacked requisite long-term interest in the land they farmed and hunted and, based on this assessment, acquired that land through twisted and cynical legal fiat. Eventually, as the stereotype of native savagery became established in the white American mind, the foundation solidified for Andrew Jackson’s extermination project (1811-1836), a historically underplayed event that cleared space for an especially crazed delusion of Manifest Destiny and the concomitant notion that God personally chose white Americans to settle the west.

Expansion required slavery and slavery was an even more insidious form of the delusional thinking rotting the core of America’s founding. Diaries of slave owners (Virginia’s Landon Carter’s is a remarkable example) repeatedly confirmed the obvious reality of slave personhood. Slaves and masters interacted routinely as human beings mutually engaged in the project of plantation development and export trade (not to mention abuse, trade, and sex). But these very same white men were the ones who crafted constitutional compromises (three-fifths being the most notable) that explicitly belied the social history of white-black relationships as they played out on the ground. American “freedom” was, as the historian Edmund Morgan has argued, impossible without American slavery. This country—which was twenty-five-percent slave-based at its inception—has yet to confront the deceptive habit of mind that shackled these two realities—freedom and slavery—so tightly that we’re still trying to pry off the irons today.

Finally, there was the ideological appeal of republicanism. This imported way of thinking, coming from the motherland in the 1720s, resonated throughout the colonies as both a bulwark against corruption and an affirmation of natural English rights, representative government, and independence. Few espoused the virtues of independence—and translated them into revolutionary action—more triumphantly than the tobacco growers of Virginia. Tobacco was deeply intertwined with the republican project being forged by the founders.

But economic reality turned both ideology and tobacco into smoke. History books rarely note that those who most passionately espoused the virtues of independence were truly enervated men who were enslaved by debt to English lenders. When Americans were most in thrall to the idea of liberty, they were also at their most vulnerable and dependent. What enabled them to ignore the contradiction was nothing short of delusion—a self-serving one, given than independence would temporarily release them from economic bondage, authorize them to sell slaves down river, and fund the deep southern transition to cotton, empowering a contradiction so deep that it would take a war to resolve it.

American life today is infused with this legacy of deception. It has become an unthinking habit obscured in layers of upbeat historical narration. The Occupy Movement is one example of a momentary blip of consciousness, a fierce little awakening, that spurred us to wonder: Why do so many Americans choose groundless optimism over justifiable rebellion against an elite that gives new meaning to the term “super-rich” every day? Why do people still believe they can hit rock bottom, work three jobs, and thrive when, in fact, they sink deeper into debt? Why do we fail to see the oppression of immigrants as a modern-day version of slavery?

The answers to these questions (and others) lie in our history of delusion, a history that thrives on the perpetuation of a fiction, a fiction so intoxicating that we structure our lives all too successfully to avoid confronting. Our optimism is, in this sense, our addiction.

Happy 4th.