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THE NATION THAT NEVER WAS by Kermit Roosevelt III Kirkus Star


Reconstructing America's Story

by Kermit Roosevelt III

Pub Date: April 22nd, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-226-81761-3
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

A searching history of the legal and ideological basis of American identity.

Americans love to tell comforting stories about our foundational documents, writes Roosevelt, a Penn law professor and great-great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, purportedly enshrines the notion that all men are created equal; of course, that’s not true. Although Thomas Jefferson included a clause condemning slavery—though owning enslaved people himself—the Declaration means all White men are created equal. “Segregation and denying Blacks the vote are perfectly consistent with the Declaration of Independence,” writes the author. The nub of the Declaration, he adds, is that when supposedly free people are oppressed, it is incumbent upon them to rebel. With the arrival of the Civil War, the South was able to invoke that notion as a cause for separation. The result was not just a second revolution, but also a second Constitution, one that in important ways undid the slavery-supporting first Constitution. “We tell ourselves a story that links us to a past political regime—Founding America, the America of the Declaration of Independence and the Founders’ Constitution—to which we are not the heirs,” writes Roosevelt, provocatively. “We are more properly the heirs of the people who destroyed that regime” and who moreover “defeated it by force of arms.” But this second Constitution is contingent and incomplete, allowing for neo-Confederate revivals (Reagan, Trump) thanks to relics such as the Electoral College, “a legacy of slavery, which seems increasingly likely to stop a majority of Americans from electing the candidate of their choice.” Roosevelt proposes that we do away with that institution and attempt a national enterprise to atone for our original sin through targeted investment in Black and other marginalized communities, which “offers the possibility of a real transformation.” His argument is sometimes repetitive but compelling and well worth consideration.

A novel way of reading our founding documents and revising them as both law- and nation-building myths.