The Nation That Never Was Review: A New American Origin Story, From the Ashes of the Old | Books

AAs with the climate, in politics there is a lack of time. America’s withdrawal from democracy cannot persist. Although Native Americans, Blacks, women, and many more of us have been excluded from the American Covenant of Equality and Opportunity, many are still nostalgic for once upon a time. Some even see so imperfect a quest for “a more perfect unionas admirable enough to judge him beyond reproach. After all, the argument goes, the American experience has always been the most included and valued. So, how are you. Not everyone thinks so.

Kermit Roosevelt III illuminates tumultuous today by examining the controversial start. With The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, he thoughtfully explains our growing confusion about the meaning and significance of creation.

How can so many people, thinking back to the founders’ intentions, be so misled now? How have we misinterpreted what America has always been? Citing an evolution as profound as an “eye for an eye” metamorphosing into “God is love”, Roosevelt’s investigation today belies all originalist arguments. One might even be tempted to regard the contradictory obstacle of United States slavery as the Christian “blessing” of original sin, the absence of which, say theologians, prevents salvation.

Roosevelt is a Penn law professor and a great-great-grandson of the 26th “trust-busting” president, Theodore Roosevelt. He takes care to give credit where credit is due. He notes that his book was foreshadowed by Nikole Hannah-Jones mighty essay 2019, The founding ideals of our democracy were wrong when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true.

Created for The New York Times’ groundbreaking 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones’ article recounts, “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie…though it has been violently deprived of the freedom and justice promised to all black Americans…have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not just for ourselves – black rights struggles have paved the way for all other rights struggles, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.

Roosevelt endorses this sentiment by stating that the Declaration of Independence was not intended as a document dedicated to impartiality. On the contrary. As he says, it protected the rights and interests of “insiders” against the efforts and ambitions of “outsiders,” a push and pull, he says, that remains in effect.

The gist of the Declaration, Roosevelt argues, is that when supposedly free people are oppressed, it behooves them to rebel. Ironically, it was not until the Civil War arrived, with rebellious Southern states invoking the so-called tyranny of efforts to end their oppression of others, that America was redeemed.

The result was not just a second revolution. He presented us with a second constitution, which significantly undid the first pro-slavery constitution.

And yet, despite this document’s indifference to individual rights, Roosevelt writes: “We tell ourselves a story that binds us to a past political regime – the founding America, the America of the declaration of independence and the of the founders – to which we are not the heirs… We are rather the heirs of the people who destroyed this regime”, who “defeated it by force of arms”.

Abraham Lincoln appreciated that. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did the same. Yet each has strategically chosen to give credence to the broader appeal of the founding myth. The Gettysburg Speech and the I Have a Dream Speech both do this. Both, their authors have understood, find that embracing an origin story based on the ideal of universal inclusion is more acceptable than our tainted reality.

Moreover, the second constitution, contingent and evolutionary, requires both “the blood of patriots and tyrants” that Thomas Jefferson proscribes to support freedom and the “eternal vigilance” that he also advocates. Keeping neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, far-right Christians and others away takes the courage of activists like Black Lives Matter combined with the sacrifice of a Bobby, Martin, Malcolm or John. There is no less serious path.

Fulfilling our promise, Roosevelt insists, requires completing the Reconstruction reform and the civil rights era. The relics supporting “insider” privilege – the Electoral College, the encumbrances of voting rights, paid campaign financing – must all be banished.


Ja Nation That Never Was makes one too aware of how insiders protect their advantage. They still urge patience in what they see as a benevolent, colorblind system. Professing that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” even King grew tired of waiting.

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, center left, arms raised, marches along Constitution Avenue with other civil rights protesters. Photography: AP

Me too. Concerned about the modest size of a newly protected historic district, residents of Harlem were reassured by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission that they need not worry.

“This is our opening salvo. We will be back to do more…”

Their return only took 44 years.

Roosevelt is at his poignant and tragicomic best when he calls for long-lasting efforts to rationalize and justify white supremacist biases in public policy and law. Did Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts really believe in his 2013 ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act? He said racially motivated voter suppression was a problem of the past, that “the nation is no longer divided” into states with a recent history of voter suppression and those without.

Plessy v Ferguson, the overthrow of Roe v Wade, denying the right to vote to so many locals. American history is not a saga of abnormal outrage. Every incident of persistent misogyny, homophobia, or racism highlights the problem Roosevelt seeks to address.

No matter how familiar Laozi’s truism, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, some people today are like those in every other volume I have reviewed here. Whether in Wilmington’s Lie, Learning From the Germans, The Other Madisons or The Groundbreaking, the common obstacle to change and healing is the reluctance to even admit that anything bad ever happened – let alone that an injustice is not corrected.

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