Hopes for the American Experiment

tags: democracy, American Creed, 2020 Election

Annette Gordon-Reed is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard. She is the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History.

As a historian of the early American republic, I’ve been asked a lot recently whether the country has ever seen a period like the one we have experienced since 2016. The question is often posed by people with furrowed brows, their apprehension and concern about our future written on their faces. There’s a sense that some fundamental and very disheartening truths about the United States—its people, its system of government—have been revealed over the past four years, truths that we’ve been trying to ignore for some time. When answering queries about our current predicament, I play the role of the dutiful chronicler of the country’s past, reminding my questioners that the United States has experienced tough times before, times of great turmoil that crippled politics and set Americans at one another’s throats. The bruising political battles of the 1790s that saw the birth of political parties, the years leading up to the Civil War and then the war’s immediate aftermath—these were moments when the American Experiment could have failed completely. But it didn’t.

Such references to past conflicts are meant to reassure, but this isn’t always successful—even for me. For most of my career as a historian I’ve spoken and written about the story of early America in as clear-eyed a manner as possible, eschewing both heroic presentations of the people credited with creating the American republic and the concept of American exceptionalism itself. But at the same time, I confess, there was always a small voice inside me presenting a counternarrative. It is that counternarrative that is imperiled by what has been going on in the country of late, and it is the basis of my sense of alarm.


Historians are, of course, supposed to reject out of hand this type of Whiggish narrative of American history, one driven by faith in the idea of inevitable progress toward a better, more enlightened destination. The American experiment does not have to “work.” Empires and nations rise and fall. But while I am a historian, I am also an American. In thinking about the country, I experience a classic split between my head and my heart. Intellectually, I know there is no reason at all to believe in any particular direction of the American future. As we have seen, and been reminded daily to an absolutely exhausting degree, anything can happen. At the same time, in my heart, I have hoped. I’ve wanted to believe that the country that started with dispossession of native peoples, slavery, and a dedication to white supremacy could live up to the more idealistic aspirations of its founding—the statements about equality and the pursuit of happiness, and the desire to create a representative democracy in which the people were sovereign.

That vision of the future has been challenged of late. But, as in years past, the many people who share this vision have mobilized in support of it. I suppose that is the most that can be hoped for, because that kind of struggle is the only way better futures can be made.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books

comments powered by Disqus