I have never left a bookstore empty-handed. That may seem an idle boast, but it’s true. And so, on a recent visit to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Museum and Library in Hyde Park, New York, I left the gift shop bookstore with a copy in hand of Kermit Roosevelt III’s The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story.
A great-great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt (himself a distant cousin of FDR), the author is a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In contrast to the now tiresome and ubiquitous academic complaint that the United States is founded on principles of white racism embedded in the Constitution, Professor Roosevelt promises something “quite different”: a forward-looking and optimistic understanding of the nation’s true founding principles, which were born out of the Civil War, which the author sees as the nation’s second—and true—revolution.
Professor Roosevelt devotes the first seven chapters of this compact volume (224 pages plus a bibliographic essay and end notes) to reviewing the so-called “standard model” of United States Constitutional history and the last six chapters to an attempt to rewrite it. According to the standard model, however incomplete the Constitution’s fulfilment of the Declaration of Independence’s opening observation that all men are created equal may be, the Constitution remains the font from which, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, government of the people, by the people, and for the people emerged upon the North American continent.
Yes, the standard model holds, it took the Civil War, the 13th through 19th Amendments, and subsequent Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s to abolish chattel slavery and to extend the franchise to former slaves, their descendants, and women, but look at what the United States has become today: a society with equal rights, if not equal accomplishments, for all, regardless of sex, creed, color, race, or national origin.
Professor Roosevelt purports to reject this view, which—given his position in the academy—is hardly a revelation. Neither is what he proposes to replace the “standard model” of the Constitution.
“The better story,” in Professor Roosevelt’s view (the actual title of his penultimate chapter) is that the Founders and the nation they founded were irredeemably flawed, and that we should look instead to the 14th Amendment and the heroes of the post-Gettysburg Reconstruction era, replacing Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin with Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and John Bingham. “Franklin is a loss,” writes Professor Roosevelt (p. 208), “but otherwise we’re getting an upgrade.”
Professor Roosevelt continues that “[t]he Civil War is a better war than the Revolutionary War,” seemingly without recognizing that without the latter, the former could not have occurred. He belittles the nation’s founding principles as “boilerplate Enlightenment beliefs about the rights of insiders” (p. 209). And even while praising the Civil War and the resulting 14th Amendment for their roles in ending slavery, he derides the view of those who see the war as nation’s “Redemption” as an expression of “white supremacist terrorism” (p. 212). And rather than seeking evolutionary change through the amendment process, he urges Americans to “own” our revolutionary heritage and throw off the chains of the Founders’ Constitution in some unspecified fashion.
Apart from this flawed and disturbing overview of the Constitution’s provisions and history, Professor Roosevelt’s book is filled with annoying cliches and banal platitudes. “That’s the promise that makes us American,” he writes. “That’s the promise we have to keep.” “We Americans are not perfect, either. Some of us are bad. . . . We go forward, and we go back” (p. 205).
“Making a more just nation is not just about returning to our origins or making America (anything) again,” Professor Roosevelt concludes on page 224. “It is about making America."
"That is all."
"That is everything.”
How trite. How clichéd. And how unsatisfying. If this is what passes for scholarship in the nation’s elite law schools, then the country is in more trouble than we thought.
I’ve still never left a bookstore empty-handed. But this time I left disappointed.
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