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Historians Tackle 14th Amendment Section 3 and Fail (3 of 3): Jill Lepore, David Blight, Drew Gilpin Faust, and John Fabian Witt

This blog addresses the third of the three historian briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to disqualify Donald Trump from running for President of the United States under Amendment 14 Section 3.


Before turning to the brief itself, Jill Lepore, one of the historians, wrote an article “What Happened When the U.S. Failed to Prosecute an Insurrectionist Ex-President (New Yorker, December 4, 2023, online). The subject is Jefferson Davis, the ex-President of the Confederate States of America. Almost the entire article is about the failed effort to try Davis either for treason or under Section 3.

Amidst that recapitulation she raises some questions about today.

Can Donald Trump get a fair trial? Is trying Trump the best thing for the nation? Is the possibility of an acquittal worth the risk?… But the failure to try him is an affront not only to democracy but to decency…

Several times she expresses her awareness that no what verdict is rendered about half the country would not accept it. In these small digressions scattered throughout the article she has touched upon the core truth of the effort to disqualify Trump – the country is too divided for the issue to be resolved legally. Ultimately one should note it is a political problem and fortunately, not yet, a military one.


The reason for the filing of the brief is due to its gravity and “the necessity of grounding any decision in a proper historical understanding of Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment” (Page 2). To do so requires “establishing the original intent, meaning, and public under understanding of the Disqualification Clause” (Page 2). Here they are using one of the jargon terms favored by the Trump judges on the Supreme Court.

They state the concern in the aftermath of the Civil War was:

That office-holders who had violated their oaths to the Constitution would reassume positions of authority, destabilize state and federal governments, and suppress freedom of speech. The Republican framers of the Amendment believed that anything short of the disqualification of insurrectionists risked surrendering the government to anti-Constitutionalists rebels (Page 2).

Considering the fact that an election-denier is the Speaker of House, this concern should be applied to a wide swath of people and not just to Donald Trump.

According to these historians, the framers “hoped not only to prevent a resurgence of secessionism but also to protect future generations against insurrectionism” (Page 3). Given the actions of Texas on its border with support of 25 governors and the state of Utah ratifying a nullification act, it would seem that banishing one and only one individual from the ballot seems like avoiding the issue. The intention was not that the amendment only would apply to Jefferson Davis and no one else. It was intended to apply to all Confederates including those who had run for the House and Senate.

Much of the remainder of the brief recounts the history leading up to the ratification leading up to the disqualification section. Sometimes they show that the circumstances involving the MAGAs and the Confederates are quite different without saying so. For example:

Northerners undertook to purge Confederate sympathizers from positions of authority both inside and outside of government and, in mass meetings called upon Congress to do the same (Page 6).

No such purge has occurred today. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred. Real Republicans who know the election was not stolen are the ones who have been purged from Congress or chosen to retire. The historians refer to Frederick Douglass who charged that many Confederate sympathizers remained within the federal government (Pages 6-7). In fact that is the exact situation now where the insurrectionists remain in Congress today and do so quite openly.

With this background in mind, the historians move on to the drafting and ratification of Section Three (Pages 15-26).

Lo and behold! Congress discovered continuing hostility in the southern states (Page 15). This realization strengthened the determination of the winning side to prevent representatives from the losing side being elected to office.

Sounds like MAGA.

In testimony before Congress J.W. Alvord of the Freedman’s Bureau was asked about the rebel feeling towards the government of the United States. His reply was:

There is evidently no regret for the rebellion, but rather a defence of it (Page 16).

Sounds like MAGA.

He was then asked about what the Confederates sought to achieve by their readmittance to Congress. He replied:

They seem to suppose that by re-admission they can get political power and obtain again the supremacy which they once had, with the exception of slavery.

Sounds like MAGA.

A tax examiner said:

No. I think they have a stronger aversion and dislike of the Union than when they seceded (Page 17).

Sounds like MAGA.

The initial ratification attempt failed. The Southern states as one might expect, opposed it. This action:

…reflected the emerging ideology of the Lost Cause, a tenet of which was the argument by ex-Confederates that they never had engaged in “rebellion,” should never be considered “rebels,” and had merely exercised legitimate rights of “sovereignty” with secession and war [it was legitimate political discourse] (Page 25).

Sounds like MAGA.

Matters came to a head in March 1867 when over a Presidential veto, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act. That Act stipulated that no state could be re-admitted without first ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment (Pages 25-26). In other words, it was the military power of the victorious Union which made the Disqualification section the law of the land.

In the final section, the historians turn to the persistence of Section Three. The story returns to Jefferson Davis and the inability to try him for treason. They call Davis a “cautionary tale” on the danger facing the nation if the leader of an insurrection could run for President (Page 30). They note by 1872, the number of petitioners requesting amnesty under Section 3 at between 15,000 to 16,000 people (Page 31). They also note that ex-Confederates would be elected governor and to other offices across the South (Page 32).


These historians have made a very strong case for the applicability of the 14th Amendment Section 3 … only not the one they think they made. They constantly refer to Jefferson Davis and his potential run for President. The implication is that the amendment was designed with someone like Donald Trump in mind.

But they acknowledge the widespread antipathy towards the Union by the defeated Confederates.

They acknowledge that it required the Military Reconstruction Act to implement disqualification in practice.

They acknowledge that thousands of people sought re-instatement from Congress.

As much as they focus on one individual, Jefferson Davis, they actually are making a case why all Confederates were disqualified. The current parallel is that all the MAGA who are election-deniers should be disqualified as well. But they can’t call for such a blanket consolidation because they know the war is not yet over and MAGAs could yet triumph. It is hard to see how this brief would persuade the Supreme Court to remove Donald trump from the ballot.



The Myth of the Empty Land: Creating a National Narrative

American Progress by John Gast (1872) (

As I write these words during the second impeachment hearings for the insurrection on January 6, 2021, never has the need for a national narrative seem more urgent and less likely. Instead of unity, the talk is of civil wars both within the Republican Party and between it and the Democratic Party. Who would have thought after the 2016 election that Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic Party Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would be joint targets of a domestic terrorist attack at the Capital instigated by the President of the United States?

Myths and the national narrative cannot be separated. Certainly one can make the effort as an historian to determine what actually happened. But the next question is what do people think happened? What becomes part of the cultural heritage if not for all Americans than at least a significant portion of them? My self-imposed task stated in an earlier blog (Ending the Uncivil War: Creating a Shared National Narrative for the 21st Century, January 28, 2020) was to explore the challenge of creating a national narrative by examining the national myths, a book by Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) as the defining effort in the 21st century to do, the reviews of it by the American Historical Association, and the dueling views of the New York Times 1619 and the Donald Trump 1776. In this blog I begin with the first myth, the myth of the empty land.

That myth may be said to have its origin in the values brought here by the colonists as expressed in a book of importance to them.

And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Here are a non-scientific sample of some expressions of that perception that easily could be expanded by scholars in American history.

In 1621, Robert Bushman addressed the issue in “Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing Out of England into the Parts of America” as the title clearly suggests. In reference to the lands of the Indians and the people, Bushman wrote:

Their land is spacious and void, and there are few, and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and the wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, &c. As the ancient patriarchs, therefore, removed from straiter places into more roomy, where the land lay idle and waste, and none used it, though there dwelt inhabitants by them, as Gen. xiii,6, 11, 12, and xxxiv, 21, and xli, 20, so it is lawful now to take a land which none useth and make use of it (quoted in Roy Harvey Pearce, “The ‘Ruines of Mankind’: The Indian and the Puritan Mind,” Journal of the History of Ideas 13:200-217, page 202).

In 1703, Solomon Stoddard added these words to the perception of the Indians by the Puritans:

If the Indians were as other people are and did manage their war fairly after the manner of other nations, it might be looked upon as inhuman to pursue them in such a manner [with dogs]. But … they do acts of hostility without proclaiming war. They don’t appear openly in the field to bid us battle, [and] they use those cruelly that fall into their hands. They act like wolves and are to be dealt withal as wolves (reprinted in John Demos Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History).

When the Indians did not convert to Christianity the English were astonished. In 1721, almost 100 years after the Pilgrims arrived, Puritan Cotton Mather wrote:

Tho’ they saw a People Arrive among them, who were Clothed in Habits of much more Comfort and Splendour, than what there was to be seen in the Rough Skins with which they hardly covered themselves; and who had Houses full of Good Things, vastly out-shining their squalid and dark Wigwams; And they saw this People Replenishing their Fields with Trees and with Grains, and useful Animals, which until now they had been wholly Strangers to; yet they did not seem touch’d in the least with any Ambition to come to such Desirable Circumstances, or with any Curiousity to enquire after the Religion that was attended with them (Indiana Christiana, Boston, 1721, 28-29, quoted in James Axtell “The White Indians of Colonial America,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 32 1975:55-88, pages 55-56; see also Solomon Stoddard, Question, “Whether God is not Angry with the Country for doing so little towards the Conversion of the Indians?” (Boston, 1723)).

In 1722, Solomon Stoddard repeated Winthrop’s claim of nearly a century earlier:

it was vacuum domicilium; and so might be possessed by vertue of God’s grant to Mankind, Gen. I, 28…. The Indians made no use of it, but for Hunting. By God’s first Grant Men were to subdue the earth. When Abraham came into the Land of Canaan, he made use of vacant Land as he pleased: so did Isaac and Jacob (quoted in Chester E. Eisinger “The Puritans’ Justification for Taking the Land,” Essex Institute Historical Collection, 1948:131-143, page 140).

Such sentiments are not confined to New England and the Puritans. Moving westward to the land of what became the place of Music Man, Field of Dreams, and Circuit Chautauquas, the most American thing in America according to Teddy Roosevelt, there already were people there.

In his “Historical Sketch of Upper Iowa Methodism” at the annual Upper Iowa Conference in 1894, R.W. Keeler waxed poetic:

The prairie that had for centuries constituted the home of the buffalo and the deer and the hunting grounds of the red men that roamed over them, had become immense fields of corn and wheat, and the abode of civilization.

The second sentence of the Conference history reads as follows:

For centuries these beautiful prairies had lain in virgin loveliness untouched by the hand of civilized man.

One sees here the image of America as a garden awaiting man to be placed there by the Lord as had been done in the biblical account…as soon as the one impediment was removed:

Thousands of people were waiting impatiently for the removal of the red man from such a fair land.
Once that obstacle had been cleared, the “valley resounded to the woodman’s axe.”

By 1906, the Upper Iowa Conference could exclaim:

The vast unsettled prairies have become covered with immense fields of grain and are the abode of civilization.

In the History of Iowa from the earliest times to the founding of the twentieth century by Benjamin Gue (1903), these attitudes are expanded upon but often with some unexpected twists.

More than four hundred years have passed since Europeans began the invasion of America, and the savages whose ancestors exterminated the Mound Builders are rapidly meeting a similar fate. “When the Twentieth Century shall have passed away, the American Indians will have almost, if not quite, disappeared from the face of the earth. They seem to be incapable of civilization and consequently their complete extinction is probably near at hand. Whatever of the history of the Indian nations and tribes of Iowa can be found must be of interest to the civilized millions who now occupy the State (63).

Gue is beginning his history of Iowa with Columbus ten years after the quadricentennial had been celebrated in an exposition in nearby Chicago. Notice how he differentiates the Mound Builders, people who left a physical expression of their culture, with the current savages who had exterminated them in the time before the arrival of the white people. Now in the 21st century we have the opportunity to gauge the accuracy of his prophecy.

The wresting of Iowa from its Indian inhabitants was attended with little of the cruelty of war which followed the advent of the Spanish, English and Portuguese invaders in other portions of America (63).

Here Gue seeks to differentiate the actions of the Americans from those of the European nations. Then he turns to the people themselves. Although he uses the word “savages” but when he describes them, they don’t necessarily seem to be savages. In fact, one detects a form of admiration for these people had endured.

Three hundred years of sturdy but unavailing resistance to the advance of the European races had exhausted the original fierce and unyielding courage of the Indians and impressed them with the gloomy conviction that resistance was unavailing. Nation after nation of their ancestors had been vanquished in the unequal contest. Slowly but surely they had been dispossessed of their homes and hunting grounds (63).

Gue does not disparage the Indians because resistance was futile. Despite the unequal contest, they resisted with fierce unyielding courage as a people fighting for their very lands and way of life.

The most powerful Indian tribes of America had disappeared in the warfare. Their lands had long been peopled by the white men who had forced the savages warriors, hospitable, devoted and loyal friends. They were as ready to risk life in defense of their benefactors and allies as they were to tomahawk, scalp and burn their enemies and prisoners. Their torture of captives was no more merciless than that exhibited by the so-called civilized people and governments of England, France, Spain and Italy in crushing out religious freedom during the same centuries. The Indians used the tomahawk, scalping knife and fire no more fiendishly than did the white bigots the rack, the thumbscrew and the blazing fagot.

The Indians resisted the invaders of their country with a stern and relentless ferocity born of ages of barbarism; torturing and exterminating their white enemies, the despoilers of their homes. Their conquerors, many of whom had fled from persecution and oppression in the civilized countries of Europe, turned upon the natives, robbing them of their lands, killing men, women and children. It was an age of disregard of human rights and human life, in which Christians vied with barbarians in the infliction of merciless cruelties (63-64).

Gue has touched upon a critical issue for which there still is no answer. How can two peoples share a land? It isn’t only our national narrative that needs to answer that question, it is our nation as well. Can Woke and Trumpican inhabit a single country in peace?

Gue continues as he does in the entire book writing about Indian history as one would write about European history. He is just as capable of recognizing the different Indian peoples as he is the different European peoples.

When Iowa was first explored by the whites the Dakota Indians were found in possession of Minnesota and northern Iowa. This family consisted of the following tribes: Iowas, Omahas, Winnebagoes, Osages, Sissetons, Missouris and Otoes. The Algonquin family, consisting of the Illinois, Sauks, Foxes, Chippewas, Attouays and Pottawattamies, occupied northern Missouri and southern Iowa.


The Indians seen by Marquette and Joliet in the valley of the Des Moines Kiver were of the Illini or Illinois tribe. Illinois seems to have been the name of a confederacy embracing the five sub-tribes— Peorias, CahoMas, Kaskaskias, Michigamies and Tamaroas. These being of the Algonquin race were hereditary enemies of the war like Iroquois, or Six Nations, whose seat of government was in the Mohawk V alley of New York. During the generations through which their wars had extended the Illinois had been gradually driven into the region between Lake Michigan and the Wabash River and extending thence west across the Mississippi River. More than two hundred years ago, when visited by Marquette, they had become greatly reduced in numbers and strength from wars with the Iroquois on the east and the Chickasaws on the south. When Iowa was next visited by white men the once powerful Illinois Indians had been nearly exterminated by the Sacs and Foxes (64-65).

Speaking (or writing) as a New Yorker, I can say one normally would not expect to see Algonquin and Iroquois history as part of Iowa history. It shows how geographically intertwined the people and lands of the country are.

Gue wrote about an individual who is part of the current culture wars not that he knew it. He wrote about how Indian names continued on as part of Iowa, which is not surprising given the name of the state.

The memory of these chiefs has been perpetuated in our State by three counties and two cities, which bear their names, while a county in northern Iowa bears the name of the famous old war chief, Black Hawk (88).

Chief Black Hawk has been in the news lately because of a sports team named after him.

The Chicago Blackhawks won’t change nickname because it honors the life of an actual Native American (By Allen Kim, CNN, July 8, 2020)

The Chicago Blackhawks contend its nickname actually honors a real life Native American, and the team has no plans to make any changes to its name and logo. “The Chicago Blackhawks’ name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois’ Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public,” the team said in a statement.

“We celebrate Black Hawk’s legacy by offering ongoing reverent examples of Native American culture, traditions and contributions, providing a platform for genuine dialogue with local and national Native American groups. As the team’s popularity grew over the past decade, so did that platform and our work with these important organizations.”

Personally, I think this argument is too nuanced for our take-no-prisoner judgemental two-dimensional world.

I conclude with Gue on a painter’s perspective.

George Catlin, who became a famous Indian painter and historian, spent several months in Iowa during his tours among the Indians. He made a trip up the Des Moines Valley about this time and thus describes it:

“The whole country that we passed over was like a garden, wanting only cultivation, being mostly prairie….found hundreds of graves of the red men on the island. Sleep on in peace, ye brave fellows, until the white man comes and with sacrilegious plow share turns up your bones from their quiet and beautiful resting place! I returned to Camp Des Moines, musing over the loveliness and solitude of this beautiful prairie land of the West. Who can contemplate without amazement this mighty river eternally rolling its surging, boiling waters ever onward through the great prairie land for more than four thousand miles! I have contemplated the never ending transit of steamers plowing along its mighty current in the future, carrying the commerce of a mighty civilization which shall spring up like magic along its banks and tributaries.

” The steady march of our growing population to this vast garden spot will surely come in surging columns and spread farms, houses, orchards, towns and cities over all these remote wild prairies. Half a century hence the sun is sure to shine upon countless villages, silvered spires and domes, denoting the march of intellect, and wealth’s refinements, in this beautiful and far off solitude of the West, and we may perhaps hear the tinkling of the bells from our graves” (166).

The views presented in this blog of those of white males. What the different Indian nations often mentioned in these quotations thought of these events deserves to be part of the story as well. How do you go about doing that? It is a challenge that needs to be met if we are to live together in peace as part of a single country. In the next blog, I will examine how Jill Lepore handles such questions according to some Indian historians.

Ending the Uncivil War: Creating a Shared National Narrative for the 21st Century

We are a storytelling species. That means history is important. The enrollments as history major majors may be in decline. The earning prospects for history majors may seem bleak. But the importance of history remains.

In one of his last acts as President, the outgoing President released his 1776 Commission report.

In one of his first acts as President, the incoming President disbanded that commission.


History is important. People know where they were when they learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. People know where they were when they learned that President John Kennedy had been assassinated. People know where they were when the learned the World Trade Towers had collapsed. Not only did people know where they were, they had similar reactions. These national events became part of the shared history for the generation that experienced them and the subsequent generations that remembered them.

The situation is drastically different with civil war events. These events from America’s three civil wars produced divided responses. People knew where they were when they found out about Lexington and Concord but they did not share the same response. People knew where they were when they found out about Fort Sumter but they did not share the same response. People know where they were when they found out the events of January 6, but they do not share the same response or even the same set of facts:

Was it an attempted insurrection instigated by the worst President in the history of the United States, or

Was it an attempt by antifa to undermine the greatest President in the history of the United States?


Historians debate who is the greatest and who is the worst President in American history. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an instance where a single individual simultaneously was considered to be both the best and the worst presidents by approximately half the population for each. Perhaps the non-Presidential figure with a similar split in the American population is Robert E. Lee.

As a storytelling species, it is critical that we have shared stories to tell. Think of how much of family gatherings is dedicated to the telling of family stories that you have heard before as well as new ones. Think of how hard it is to have family gatherings today without and without Covid. In the current issue of Time, Charlotte Alter writes:

A democracy is only as strong as the faith of its participants. At the very least, that faith must be rooted in some sense of shared reality, a willingness to agree on to disagree according to the laws laid out in the Constitution.

She is correct but there is no shared reality now. The differences are not simply people having different favorites for the Superbowl or whether baseball or football or basketball is the national sport. There is no agreement now on even what the score is of a given game, whether the players are legitimate, or if a game is real, meaning not digitally created.

The last serious well-known effort to create a national narrative for the 21st century today was by Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018).  By coincidence, today I received my hard copy of The American Historical Review (125/5 December 2020). Her book is the subject of the roundtable for this issue with four scholars commenting on it. Once I have read it, I will report on their comments on the success and/or failure of her book (previously I wrote about a roundtable on “Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode.”

By coincidence, on the same day that I received the journal, I watched an online lecture presented by the American Philosophical Society on the book Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution by Michael D. Hattem. The main theme of the talk was the absence of an historical memory in the new nation. By that I mean, the former British colonists had a long historical memory through their being British, a memory that extended to the French and Indian War. The British colonists were proud to support their side against the French and the Indians allied against them. They were proud to express their loyalty to King George III. And then they weren’t.

Now the new country was faced with the task of creating a shared national history for a country that was younger than their children. Hatten spoke about the transformation that occurred as people cut themselves off from their shared British history to create a new shared American history.

Christopher Columbus was part of that effort to create a shared history. The people in the colonies from Pilgrims to Puritans to Dutch to Quakers to Cavaliers plus others had not come to America at one time and for the same reasons. By the time Georgia became a colony, Virginia had “celebrated” its centennial. In this sense, all American citizens had Columbus in common. If he hadn’t done what he did, none of them would have been here. As a result, he was part of creating a shared national history that went back before 1776 and wasn’t British. Americans could observe a Columbus tricentennial in 1792, name the capital after him, and use Columbia as a non-British national symbol (and college name).

Another shared history-based form of identity was as God’s New Israel. It wasn’t mentioned in the talk and I don’t know if it is in Hattem’s book or not. A connection with an event three millennia ago certainly was one way to develop a non-British history. This identification was not a new one post-1776 but it was an example of how the United States crafted an identity for itself.

Finally, homage should be paid to the one individual above all others who provided Americans with a shared identity. Without George Washington holding the country together, no one knows if there even would have been a united country to hold together. Perhaps there would have been two.


At present, there are three major incompatible views about the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the creating of a shared national narrative. The three are:

1. Woke view: The New York Times 1619 – The documents are racist and the country is illegitimate based on white supremacy and social stratification. 1619 has been the subject of previous blogs but its story needs to be updated based on ongoing reactions to it.

2. Patriotic view: Hamilton, the Musical – A flawed but great start and an ongoing story as evidenced by the cast of the show. It also has been the subject of previous blogs.

3. Trumpican: 1776 Commission – They are divinely inspired documents especially through the Second Amendment.

Before turning to these three incompatible national narratives, I will start the challenge to craft a national narrative with the four, maybe five national myths that are regarded as historical by tens of millions of people. These myths are:

1. the myth of the empty land
2. the myth of stolen from Africa
3. the myth of no slavery in the North
4. the myth of the Lost Cause.

Now we have a new myth attempting to join these four longstanding ones:

5. the myth of the stolen election.

Whether or not this most recent myth has the power to be sustained cannot yet be determined. It is still being formed and is connected to the insurrection attempt instigated by the loser. The well-known saying that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” now has been proven true. That saying may become part of the myth and detached from its January 23, 2016, date. In the myth it will be easy to conflate these two January events.

Obviously, I have my work cut out for me if I am to go through this process. We do need a shared national narrative for the 21st century. For me, at least, at this point in time, the steps outlined here are a way towards creating one even though it won’t even matter if I succeed.

The American Revolution 250th and Joe Biden: An Historic Opportunity

Graphic by America 250.

Joe Biden campaigned as the unity President, the President of all Americans. The words sound good and are in marked contrast to his predecessor who thrived on divisiveness. Nonetheless, while it is easy to talk the talk of national unity, it is hard to walk the walk of it. The challenge is especially strong given the narrow election victory. For the past four years we have heard how if only a few voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had switched votes (or stayed home), the election results would have been reversed.  We can anticipate hearing a similar claim about the votes in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania from the losing side over the next four years. We remain a people divided or perhaps a country divided into two peoples. What is our story? Do we have one?


Dr. Cynthia Koch spoke at the FDR Foundation’s Telling Our Story conference on November 10, 2015, with this lecture title. She began with:

Defining the identity of the new United States, what we might call the “master narrative,” was one of the many tasks facing our founding fathers and mothers in the 1790s. The new nation lacked all the usual markers for nationhood: no established religion, no dominant ethnicity, no monarchy or aristocracy. No folklore and—most important—no shared history.

It’s easy to overlook how important having a shared history is to having a shared community.

Koch surveyed the storytelling that defined the shared national narrative for centuries noting that it tended to be a white-people based one that ignored certain less savory aspects of the shining city on hill vision. The story worked for centuries and then it didn’t.

In my history blogs, I have consistently stated we are a storytelling species. Koch cites two very effective presidential storytellers from the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Of Roosevelt, she wrote:

He used them to tell stories that would unite people and provide comfort, courage, reassurance, and inspiration to Americans facing fear, hardship, uncertainty, and war.

We need Joe Biden as President to do the same for America today in the wake of our wartime President not even trying to during this pandemic. Historians of the future will contrast “nothing to fear but fear itself” with “rounding the curve.

Koch also cited Reagan using “John Winthrop’s ‘shining city on a hill’ to inspire a return to greatness for an America battered by the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggles, Watergate, inflation, gasoline shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.15 Reagan ‘repeatedly [told] his audiences that if they choose to participate in the story’ of American exceptionalism, it will return, and they will become part of America’s greatness.”

She referred to Reagan’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980:

Three hundred and sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a mighty ocean to build a future for themselves in a new world. When they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they formed what they called a “compact”; an agreement among themselves to build a community and abide by its laws. . . .

 Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them—for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?

The quadricentennial of this event in 1620 was delayed due to the coronavirus that did not disappear like a miracle in 2020. When it is observed in 2021, President Joe Biden will have the opportunity to create a 21st century version of Reagan’s vision to inspire us.

Koch asked in the time since Reagan: Do we still have a recognizable national narrative sufficient to support a cohesive national identity? She noted that “It could be said that no, we no longer need a national narrative, that the old verities are hopelessly corrupted, proven false by the revealed truth of a hypocritical history.” She answered that we did have one but only noted that it needed to acknowledge America’s failings. She neglected to specify that it should include America’s successes as well. Perhaps she simply took for granted that it would.


This was the title for an article published June 30, 2016, by Harvey J. Kaye, Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He wrote that already in 2016, the time had come (if it was not past due!) for a new American narrative.

We [meaning historians and intellectuals] have long aspired to craft a grand new narrative, one that articulates the tragic, ironic, and yet progressive, indeed radical story of the making of American democracy. {Bold added]

He cited labor historian Herbert Gutman writing in The Nation in 1981, challenging the history profession to fashion a narrative that would connect more effectively with our fellow citizens. He noted the failure to achieve that goal referencing Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob who wrote in 2004 in Telling the Truth about History: “[We] now confront the task of creating a new narrative framework.” In his own article in 2016, Kaye, acknowledged that the challenge still had not been met…and that was four years ago. He felt that however divided Americans were, they still wanted to redeem the nation’s promise.

Kaye concluded optimistically with a call to cultivate a narrative that affirms the best in us. He did not say “better angels of our nature” although he might just as well have.

Indeed, a narrative that, without making promises of victory, shows that truly has made America great and American history exceptional is that when we have confronted crises, mortal crises…we did not, contrary to conservative urgings and historical expectations give up or suspend our finest ideals but made American freer, more equal, and more democratic. We must cultivate a narrative that will help us remember not only that we did all of that in the past, but also that we might do just that once again. [Bold added].


In an interview on PBS from December 29, 2017, op-ed columnist David Brooks said:

The second thing I would do is try to discover something we actually do have in common, which is a national story. I was raised — my grandfather had a big immigrant mentality. He was an exodus story.

Our people, like all Americans of all different types, left oppression, crossed the wilderness, came to the Promised Land. And that was the national story that a lot of different people could buy into it.

And for people under 40, that’s just not their story. They just don’t buy it. They don’t think there’s a promised land. Too much oppression. Too many historical sins. So we have to come up with a new historical story. And that’s a challenge for us right now. [Bold added]

Earlier that year in his own column, he had suggested a basis for a national narrative by drawing on a traditional one in a column entitled “The Unifying American Story” (March 21, 2017):

For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem….

The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists.…Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.

At that time, Brooks had no idea that in a two and half years, his own newspaper would champion a reframing of American history that completely negated the Exodus narrative that he had touted.

Just a month earlier, fellow op-ed columnist Russ Douthat had raised the issue in his column entitled “Who Are We?” (February 4, 2017). He didn’t seem very optimistic that a new national narrative could be created.

But so far we haven’t found a way to correct the story while honoring its full sweep — including all the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance….

 Maybe no unifying story is really possible. Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged.

 But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.

Meanwhile, his own newspaper promotes a highly divisive view of America with the express purpose of exploiting the division in America just as our incumbent President does.


Historian Jill Lepore authored These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) in part to write such a narrative. In the article A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story (February 5, 2019), in Foreign Affairs, Lepore began by telling an anecdote about Stanford historian Carl Degler’s surprising talk at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1986. He chastised his colleagues for a dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation, he said:

“If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

Lepore referred to historian Thomas Bender’s observation that “Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future.” Speaking of the Exodus narrative as Brooks had, Moses in the wilderness was probably the first person in history to realize Bender’s insight when he created the people Israel with a holiday in history that is still celebrated to this very day. Lepore concluded that not writing a national history creates more problems and worse problems than writing one.


The 250th anniversary of July 4, 1776, will not occur in the upcoming term but what President Biden does will shape what happens. Just because everything is on hold now as it is for the Pilgrim quadricentennial doesn’t mean anniversaries aren’t already occurring (Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770). Biden will have choices to make about how to proceed. It may not seem like the most pressing issue for him to address right now, but I would say given the divisions further exposed in the election, now is the time for him to seize the moment and put his stamp on his vision of America. May I recommend the following:

1. Appoint Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama to co-chair the existing commission for the American Revolution 250th.

2. Also appoint them to cochair and revise the existing 1776 Commission to a broader call to develop a new national narrative for the 21st century.

Our shared story is one that

1. celebrates that the world is a better place because of the existence of the United States of America

2. confronts the ugly actions which have occurred in American history

3. calls for continuing the journey to fulfill the vision and ideals expressed at our creation.

Biden has only one opportunity to make a first impression as the unity President of the United States who can talk the talk and walk the walk. Let it be an historic one.