Joseph J. Ellis: When American Narratives Collide

Roundup: Historians' Take

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and, most recently, John and Abigail Adams.

...[A] brief tour of American history ... reveals that modern-day conservatives have "the spirit of '76" on their side, as well as the power of Jefferson's original formulation of the American creed. Liberals, on the other hand, have the arc of American history on their side, which until the presidency of Ronald Reagan seemed to have the final word in the debate. After all, who could imagine a successful political movement requiring the revocation of two centuries of American history? Barry Goldwater, who campaigned for president in 1968 [sic] on just such a radical agenda, received only 38% of the vote.

...[T]he dream has proved remarkably resilient because it depicts any conspicuous expression of government power as an alien force and sanctifies the sovereign individual, standing tall against oppression. Even though that story line has been anachronistic for more than a century, it has levitated out of space and time to become a fixture in American mythology, never to be underestimated as a political weapon, especially when wielded by the party out of power.

As Thomas Frank showed in "What's the Matter With Kansas?," lots of Americans vote their convictions rather than their interests. And the most potent conviction in American history has authentic historical origins in the summer of '76. FDR found a way to offer an alternative narrative for the 20th century....

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