US History as Myth-Busting

Teaching America’ is a collaborative blog series by the Historians of Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and U.S Studies Online that aims to offer readers an insight into the ongoing conversations around teaching U.S. history in higher education. Featuring posts from leading historians the series offers advice on new and established approaches to teaching intellectual, radical and religious history, gender and sexuality in higher education, and race and transnational history, plus much more. Find out what you can expect from the series in the series introduction.

In the third post of the series Dr Andrew Hartman (Illinois State University), author of the forthcoming monograph A War for the Soul Of America: A History of the Culture Wars, discusses the ways in which graduate students can be encouraged to engage with ‘America as an idea’ in intellectual history modules.


Recently I taught a graduate seminar on the topic “American Ideas in Conflict.” It is my sense that even specialized graduate courses work best when students are compelled to grapple with big questions. Such a pedagogical conviction informed my decision to organize this particular course around the following essential questions:

What does it mean to be American? What is the idea of America?

Do questions about US History get any bigger than that?

I assigned my students several recent books that not only introduced them to the latest in intellectual history but that also sought to answer these questions. Texts that wrestle with such large questions tend by their nature to be more ambitious and thus lend themselves to engaging discussions about historical inquiry, contemporary cultural politics, even the meaning of life!

As a byproduct I also discovered that many of the books I assigned served to bust some of the most implacable myths of American history. In fact the course quickly became less about American ideas and more about unmasking the very notion that there are American ideas.

Primer texts on myth-busting

andrew hartman booksDavid Sehat’s new book, The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have All the Answers, is perhaps the most explicit about intervening to explode a myth, and is thus highly polemical (and entertaining, I might add). The Jefferson Rule destroys the idea that the American nation’s founders had a unified political vision of the world and in the process demonstrates that the founders cannot speak to contemporary issues in the way many Americans would like them to. In one historical case study after another Sehat shows that the founders quit speaking to American political problems almost immediately following the nation’s founding, and especially after the Civil War abolished slavery and in the process destroyed much of the political world inhabited by the founders.

Mike O’Connor’s book, A Commercial Republic: America’s Enduring Debate over Democratic Capitalism, worked nicely in tandem with Sehat’s because O’Connor also uses history to tear down false idols that too many of Americans worship. O’Connor wrecks the common sense libertarian myth that some prelapsarian time existed prior to the New Deal—a time when the American state allowed economic activity to go unfettered. Rather he convincingly shows in a series of cases studies ranging from Hamilton to the Tea Party that the US government has always been in the business of choosing winners and losers.

Edward Blum’s and Paul Harvey’s bracing book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, is also in the business of myth busting, although its cultural approach is subtle about this agenda compared to Sehat and O’Connor. Blum and Harvey most obviously show that “White Jesus” is a figment of the American imagination, and that as a social construction such imagery has been put to use in a number of contradictory ways. White Jesus has reinforced white supremacy, but has also been appropriated by exploited racial minorities in dissonant and sometimes transgressive ways. Perhaps more interesting is the ways in which readers of The Color of Christ are forced to reckon with how Christianity itself–religion itself–is something created and recreated time and again in myriad and paradoxical ways. There is nothing timeless or specifically “American” about the Christian experience.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s masterful book, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, also subtle, is invested in clearing out a few assumptions long held by many Americans, if not American historians. Ratner-Rosenhagen cleverly demonstrates that ideas have no home–-no foundations. Like the founders and Jesus, Nietzsche is so malleable that his ideas are almost always what we make of them and how we put them to use. In short American Nietzsche is an antifoundational analysis of the quintessential antifoundationalist Nietzsche. Although subtle and non-polemical, this book might be the most radical challenge of the bunch to the notion that there are such things as American ideas!

Last we come to Ray Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945. The book starts out as a genealogical investigation of “civil religion” that by its very logic might undermine the mythical notion of civil religion or at least unsparingly critique those who preach the civil religion. But by the end Haberski concludes with an irony in the Niebuhrian sense. Haberski does not like the unthinking affirmational civil religion of those who believe the American nation bathes in God’s glow and thus can do nothing wrong. But he does conclude with the idea that we need myths and symbols, even to critique, and that without them we cannot exist as nations or communities, good or bad. So by bringing us full circle Haberski offers an implicit critique of those historians who see their work in the myth-busting vein.

All of which leads to nagging questions that I often ask myself when teaching US History: When I tear down the myths of America that have long shaped how my students think about their country and their world, do I need to replace it with new a new foundation? Or can I send them out into the world adrift and allow them to rebuild for themselves a new sense of what it means to be an American?

If nothing else such big questions highlight the gravity of teaching US History!

About Andrew Hartman

An associate professor at Illinois State University, Andrew Hartman is the author of Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2008, and A War for the Soul Of America: A History of the Culture Wars, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2015. Hartman was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, and is currently a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). He is one of the original bloggers for the award-winning US Intellectual History Blog, and is the founding president of the Society for US Intellectual History.
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