“A Theory of America”: Mythmaking with Richard Slotkin

"I was always working on a theory of America."

Over a stunning career, which has lasted more than half a century, the historian Richard Slotkin has devoted himself to documenting the stories we tell ourselves about nation, violence, inclusion, and exclusion. From his trilogy on the place of guns in American culture—starting with Regeneration Through Violence in 1973—Slotkin has defined the study of American mythmaking. Over these same 50 years, he has witnessed the massive transformations of the late 20th century and the uneasy opening of the 21st. In his new epic, A Great Disorder, Slotkin uses foundational myths like the founding, the lost cause, the frontier, and the good war, to explore how such stories shape the limits and possibilities of our current-day political imaginaries.


Kathleen Belew (KB): Let’s start by queuing up the four big myths you talk about and why you felt it was important to bring them together in one story now, having addressed some of these themes in your earlier work.

 

Richard Slotkin (RS): Over the longer term, I’ve been thinking about the theory of national myth and the way in which national myths are a crucial part of the culture that holds nation states together.

National myths are developed through long-term usage in every medium of cultural expression: histories, school textbooks, newspapers, advertisements, sermons, political speeches, popular fiction, movies. They are the form in which we remember our history. But they are also, and most critically, the means through which we turn history into an instrument of political power. In any major crisis, one of our cultural reflexes is to scan our memory archives, our lexicon of myths, for analogies that will help us interpret the crisis, and precedents on which to model a successful or even “heroic” response.

Four mythologies have been central to the development of American nationality. The myth of the frontier is our oldest myth, tracing the origin of our society to the settler states of the colonial period and its phenomenal growth to the exploitation of abundant natural resources. The myth of the founding deals with the establishment of national independence and constitutional government. The myth of the Civil War arose from the existential crisis that overtook the nation in the 1860s, over slavery and Southern secession. This myth has three significant variants: the liberation myth, centered on Lincoln and emancipation; the reconciliation myth, which emphasizes the postwar coming together of whites from North and South; and the lost cause myth, which sanctifies the Confederate cause and the postwar struggle to restore white supremacy. Finally, the myth of the good war emerged in the 1940s, as the nation for the first time embraced its racial and ethnic diversity, to unite its people in a struggle for the Free World.

My past work had focused on the myth of the frontier, which was really the earliest and the most basic myth. It deals with national character and race. It deals with economic development. But then I had neglected other myths that have equal or similar power in shaping the way in which we think about our nationality specifically, that is, who counts as an American and what it is that the political structure of America is supposed to do. It seemed to me that the Civil War was certainly one of the things that was most critical to talk about. So, I wrote about the Civil War as well.

What really crystallized the idea for the book, though, was the demonstrations in Charlottesville. I realized that the Civil War was very much alive and that the banners that people were carrying on both sides were really like the headlines from myths. Behind each banner was a version of what the United States was supposed to be. If you looked at the antidemonstrators, the ones who were opposing Unite the Right, they had standard American flags, flags expressing Black Power, rainbow flags—the flags of liberalism and leftism in a sense.

On the other side, you had flags with the Confederate stars and bars, the Gadsden flag—the yellow flag with the rattlesnake that says Don’t Tread on Me, which has come to represent a gun rights flag—and right-wing paramilitary flags. It seemed to me that what we were getting there was a war of symbols, and that behind the symbols were stories, and that each of the stories amounted to a different version of what the United States was about. That’s why the book had to bring all four together.

To be clear, nobody really sits down and composes each myth, though Hollywood has at times come close to doing so.

Rather, they emerge from the rationalization of a historical crisis. They almost always have an ambivalence, a contradiction built in.

For example, there’s a white side and a Native side to the frontier story. There’s a Union side and a Confederate side, and a Black side and a white side to the Civil War story. Those ambiguities or contradictions remain embedded in the story.

Or take the lost cause. I could see somebody, a populist but not necessarily right-wing person, thinking of the Confederacy through the lens of, “That’s what you do. You rebel against the established order, when the established order gets too oppressive.” The myth makes itself available for that thing. And that’s why myths retain their power—they can serve a number of different purposes and play both sides of a contradiction.

 

KB: As someone who has written about this over several chapters in what we would call the culture wars, do you see this as more of a continuity across the years you’ve been writing? Or is today really different in some tactile way?

 

RS: Both of those things are true. Certainly, these wars are continuous. If you follow any one of the stories—the story of the founding, the story of the frontier, the story of the lost cause and then the liberation myth of the Civil War, the good war myth—they run pretty much throughout the period with greater and lesser periods of activity of intense usage.

But starting in 2000, the Civil War became really a live term explicitly, where people were saying, “We’re in a civil war.” You saw that analogy being made not only on the right in the American Conservative, but also in Sean Wilentz’s writings about how our contemporary moment resembles the 1850s. So the Civil War was very alive in mainstream culture even before Charlottesville.

With Charlottesville, what happened is what was implicit suddenly became the front and center drama. We’re now actually fighting about the legacy of Robert E. Lee. We’re actually arguing with the president about the legacy of Robert E. Lee. It turned out that in order to defend Robert E. Lee, Trump could reach back and compare him to George Washington. Washington was a slave holder too. Now, all of a sudden, the founding of the nation is involved.

What the modern gun rights movement has done is to make the Second Amendment the center of their myth of the founding, in which the right to bear arms—and not the legal protections of the Bill of Rights—is “the palladium of our liberties” because it enables citizens to resist a tyrannical government. The original “palladium doctrine” was put forward by Supreme Court Justice Story in 1833; but it held that the potential for resistance was to be held by “well regulated” state militias. But the modern movement has asserted this as an individual right and used it to justify the threat or use of armed force to resist the government. NRA spokesman Fred Romero says it directly: “The Second Amendment is there as a balance of power. It is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government.” And that power can be used to check the ordinary operations of government. As the antitax activist Grover Norquist said, “Once [the government] get our guns, they don’t have to argue with you about taxes anymore.”1 The logic of this Second Amendment myth leads straight to the attack on Congress on January 6, 2021.

The past becomes infused into modern life and politics.

 

KB: Do you think that originalism in that context is more a legal theory or a retelling of a cultural myth? Does originalism have the uptake or purchase that it has because it has that story power? Or is it just a legal doctrine?

 

RS: It’s the story’s power that gives its appeal beyond the narrow circle of legal specialists. I would argue that the legal specialists thought themselves into the mystique of the founding. They have fetishized the founding as a way of undoing the world of precedent that has been developed since the founding or since major amendments were passed.

So it is definitely a fetish, and you can see it most clearly in Clarence Thomas’s opinion in Bruen where he says that you can’t interpret the Second Amendment in any way other than the way in which it would’ve been interpreted in 1791. In a sense, it is patently absurd.

First of all, even as a historian, you can’t figure out authoritatively how the amendment would have been interpreted back then. You can’t truly be authoritative about what the common state of opinion was about that. Second, and more importantly, we’re not in the same world.


KB: One of the unresolved tensions in teaching US history that comes up over and over for me is the conflicting mythos argument articulated by Jefferson and Hamilton, that asks: Is violence by the mob justified because it seeks to restrain the tyrannical state or is state violence justified because it seeks to restrain the revolutionary anarchist mob? In so many ways, and especially while studying lynching or vigilante groups, it seems to me that we collectively never resolved this question at all.

I’m wondering how much you think there are tensions like that, tensions that exist in one of these stories or crossover between several of these stories?

 

RS: You can examine the question if you contrast the two halves of the founding myth, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence is about the right of revolution. It’s a moral statement that people always have the right of revolution. The Constitution, on the other hand, doesn’t acknowledge a right of revolution. That’s really the core, because that’s the fundamental question about government. At some point, government may become tyrannical, and a revolution may be needed to overthrow it. In a practical sense, the point of contradiction that seems to me most meaningful is the Civil War version. I talk about this when I talk about Lincoln and Lincoln’s response to Southern secession.

The Southern states used their militia to resist what they say was a tyrannical government. In response, Lincoln says, okay, you have the right of revolution. Any people, any civil community has the right of revolution. But there are two questions, morally: Why are you rebelling? Are you rebelling to establish freedom or slavery? And Lincoln thinks the answer to that is clear, which is the latter. The South disagrees. But Lincoln’s other question is, okay, you have the right of revolution. Does the government have the right to suppress you? And if so, on what moral basis? Clearly, Lincoln argues, the government has a legal basis to suppress the South’s rebellion. The Constitution says you can suppress an insurrection. The moral basis of this right, Lincoln argues, is free elections—if you have a free election, that’s the essence of the Republican state. If you overthrow a free election, if you substitute bullets for ballots, that’s the end of the republic. It’s the end of Republicanism. And therefore, to defend the principle of free government, it’s necessary to repress the Southern Revolution. That’s the way the reasoning actually works out. That’s the story that justifies saying no to this revolution.

 

KB: Because it is a revolution that is fundamentally antifreedom.

 

RS: Yes. It’s proslavery and antifree elections. Lincoln doesn’t deny the right of revolution. But he says not now, not for these reasons.

 

KB: What do you think when you see something like the argument that the Insurrection Act doesn’t apply to the president or the office of the president, or when you see someone like Nikki Haley saying that the cause of the Civil War is complex and perhaps not about slavery? To you, are these rehearsals of the same script? Is that just the same mechanics?

 

RS: You’ve got a situation where Trump did what he did, and the mob did what it did. The question is how do you interpret it? Republicans reach into their lexicon of myths and come up with something for the Trump side—pointing to 1776 or the lost cause, to argue that they were overthrowing the government to defend white supremacy or gun rights or something else.

The other side, in turn, then revives the thinking that Lincoln expressed during the Civil War. Using these criteria, they ask, on what basis does the government resist an attempt to overthrow, and what are we saving when we work against the mob? It’s interesting that, in litigating January 6, dialogue about the Confederacy and what the Confederacy means became even more central than it did regarding discussions about doing away with the military bases named for Confederate generals.

In terms of whether the president can be responsible for an insurrection, it’s a unique situation. But it seems to me the answer is yes. That if a president orders up or stimulates a mob action or a coup against the government, then he’s guilty of insurrection. But there’s nothing in the myth that tests that specific notion.

It’s vital that we understand what is wrong with our society, and to do that we need to understand what is wrong with our national myths.

 

KB: In your book, you refer to a red and a blue America. Blue America is interested in that more expansive vision of who’s included and also in plurality, cities, and cosmopolitanism. Red America is thinking more along ethnonationalist terms, more along religious terms, and is more likely to be living in exurban rural areas.

So what are your thoughts on whether this simple geographic map corresponds with how the Civil War story works now? The example that comes up a lot is why would someone in say, eastern Washington, who doesn’t have a heritage reason to be flying the Confederate flag, display it?

I agree with you that a lot of that is economic, the way that those in ex-urban places often bristle at what seem to be better-funded cities. But I also wonder if there’s a component of the stories themselves that touch down differently and spatially across the United States. How did we get from North-South in that story to this other model where geography seems to matter a lot less than your political identity and whether you live in a city?

 

RS: The South is still the South, and the Confederate imagery has very powerful connections there to local history that it doesn’t have elsewhere. But the Confederate flag now represents resistance to the American establishment. And in that sense, it’s available well beyond the South to people who identify against the establishment. If the establishment is urban, it’s against that. Clearly, it has a racial component to it. And it involves resistance to the modern economy, banking, industrialization, and a broader assault on regular farmers. Because the Confederate flag has been labeled as representing a history of resistance to the establishment, resistance to the city, resistance to the bankers and the industrialists, it appears as a good symbol to many.

 

KB: Absolutely, and you’re getting at the implicit and explicit ways that outright white supremacy and antisemitism get woven into these stories about the establishment over time, sometimes in mainstream ways and sometimes in subterranean ways.

I was going to ask you about if you could walk us through the election of Barack Obama, which is a big change point for you in the book. Why does that moment stand out to you so strongly? I ask this partly because I now have students who don’t remember 9/11, and both Barack Obama’s election and the 2008 crisis are distant. What does that recent history show us about the present moment we now inhabit?

 

RS: When Obama was elected there were two things that happened to the American story. One is that the story that had been told since Reagan’s election of the America as the new frontier—a white man’s country based on laissez-faire economics and a powerful military (though not conventionally imperialistic in this period)—comes to a crashing end in 2008, with the moral failure of the war in Iraq and the economic crisis.

Obama’s election also revived a second story that the Reagan era had crushed: the civil rights story that America established in the sixties, the liberal America that was open on race and gender issues and more interested in social welfare. But all of the culture of the Reagan era didn’t go away. This reactionary culture snapped back and reacted to Obama’s program because, to them, it represented welfare. This backlash also clearly reacted to Obama’s Blackness.

It was that combination of reaction—the long-standing reaction against the sixties welfare politics and the new reaction against Obama’s race—that really marked that radical right turn in 2010, with the Tea Party. It was at this point that the rhetoric that legitimized political violence against the government suddenly became mainstream.

It had, of course, been there for decades. But all of a sudden, it became respectable. It became an applause line at Republican rallies. It became fashionable to carry your gun into a school board meeting or to a town meeting about the Affordable Care Act.

You can talk about the politics of the particular moment, but if you look at it in this long term, as I’m trying to do, you see two long-term stories, you can think of them as two trains running on parallel tracks that collide.

 

KB: One of the things you do beautifully in the book is showing the development of each of these stories through particular instruments. For example, you examine the Western and the platoon movie as illustrative genres. Can you tell us a little bit about the emergence of the platoon movie, which may be less familiar to some of our readers—where does that category come from and how does it work?

 

RS: It really comes from the Second World War, out of a deliberate program supported by the government. But Hollywood also sought to represent a particular vision of America at war, which is the vision of a multi-ethnic multiracial platoon fighting a common enemy, typically Japan. One of the interesting features in these films is that they typically feature a multiracial group of Americans who unite to defeat an enemy race. There is a series of films set in Bataan, for example, where you have a Jew, an Irishman, a Polish guy, two Filipinos, and a Black man fighting the Japanese alongside the WASP, the white farm boy, and the white college boy, and so on. This is extraordinary because the United States Army in World War II was segregated, radically segregated, and discrimination against Black people in the military was rampant and horrible, and antisemitism was rife as well.

So Hollywood created an image of an America that doesn’t exist, and they repeated it again and again and again. Early in the war, you could claim that the unit is integrated because regular organizations have broken down due to the fact that the US was losing. Once we start winning, however, the army wanted to return to the norm of resegregation. So what you do is you produce a film, Guadalcanal Diary, that has the Marines landing on Guadalcanal talking to a Black sea sailor on the ship, or a film where about white soldiers in Italy where the movie’s ballad is sung by a Black man (A Walk in the Sun).

What these films do is produce this idealized version of the America that fought against racism, against Nazi racism. And because it’s visual, it makes it seem that this is what America really is. And it’s an idealized version, but it’s an ideal to work toward. In 1948, the Democratic Party platform included a civil rights plank, and Truman integrated the military. That’s why what I call the platoon movie myth, or the good war myth, becomes critical to the development of racial liberalism.

Obama makes a speech where he says, it’s the military where everybody participates, color doesn’t count. It’s a powerful new version of what America should be. And it persists into the 21st century.

And then Vietnam, it’s such a problematic war, even a “bad war.” So when Oliver Stone tries to make a movie about Vietnam, about combat in Vietnam, he calls it Platoon. He wants us to see the Vietnam veterans as sympathetically as we remember the World War II platoon.

If you think about the association of the good war with liberalism, and you look at what’s happening now with efforts to get the defense appropriation for Ukraine, the Ukraine scenario is a another good war scenario. You have to stop Hitler—or in this case, Putin—before he goes too far. The extreme right is rejecting the application of the good war story to our current situation. Liberals, on the other hand, invoke the good war frame, contending that all us guys must work together against the bad guy. The Right says, no, this is not a good war, what we really need to do is to defend our borders against alien, brown, and Black immigrants that are amassing at the southern border. And that pushes us into a different notion of war, back to the idea of savage war or race war that comes out of the old frontier myth.

 

KB: So there are ways to subvert or use the myths. To clarify for those who haven’t read the book, it’s not that you’re saying this good war myth is why the civil rights movement happened, exactly. What you’re arguing is that the good war myth offered a set of cultural preconditions that allowed particular kinds of rhetoric and politics and identifications that then created the space in which civil rights organizing happens. Is that about right?

It’s that the myths are our collective understanding of a particular historical event that has been narrated and internalized as some uniting truth.

 

RS: That’s right. And that narrative then has to be propagated over generations to become part of a tradition.


KB: Are all four of these stories you discuss taken up both on the right and the left, but with different applications? Or is it that some of these stories are leftist stories and some are right-wing stories?

 

RS: The lost cause is clearly a right-wing story. But the others are available for either side to be used on different occasions. The right certainly used the good war story to back Iraq, but so did many liberals.

In the book, I go into the history of where these myths come from. The lost cause is specifically about the reestablishment of white supremacy in the South, and about establishing the license to revolutionize the political order and to kill nonwhite people in order to get that mission accomplished. The frontier myth similarly promotes a whites versus the Native framework. But there’s also a version of the myth that takes the Native perspective and says, no, when we wiped out the wilderness, we lost something of real value.

 

KB: What do you think the relationship is between history, education, and the myths? In other words, when people learn a more complex and nuanced version of American history, what does that do to mythmaking and the usage of the myths? Or is it that the myths are free floating in our culture and cannot be impacted with historical retelling?

 

RS: Critical retelling does work, does change the myth. In Marshall Sahlins’s theory of myth, he says that every time you use a myth, every time you deploy it, you open it to change. You rub it up against experience, and you expose it to change. The example of the good war that I gave, we have overused the good war myth to fight some bad wars, and now people have trouble believing the good war myth anymore.

But there’s two kinds of critical process at work that are not the same thing at all. And one is this experiential thing where, you use the myth so much that all of a sudden people say, what, I don’t believe that anymore. It may come back, but in this phase of things, people refuse to believe it. The other retelling work refers to what educators do when they criticize earlier versions of stories. Where they take a traditional story, a myth, and you use it in the classroom in a way that exposes something about it. And so you alter people’s relation to that story, but you don’t abolish the story.

 

KB: And that they become aware of the story possibly as a vector of power.

 

RS: Yes. And become aware of it as a story.

But for most people and for students after they graduate and are into other things, the critical process doesn’t necessarily continue with the same intensity. You tend to fall back into the traditional patterns, but I believe that recognition of error in the system does operate over time.

For example, the myth of the frontier is not the same as it was when Theodore Roosevelt made it the theory of America in 1900. It’s just not the same.

 

KB: Given that you first started writing about these topics in 1973, in the arc of what you’ve written, do you see yourself as having extended the same argument and simply added more complexity over those years? Or is there something fundamentally different? What has the process been like, going over those years and all of your books, coming up to this moment?

 

RS: I was always working on a theory of America. It is important to me to get it right, and I felt it was a public service to the country.

What the myth of the frontier gave me was a handle on what I thought were some of the most critical things about the country. It illustrated the American theory of economics, which is to rip off the natural resources and exploit human labor to have phenomenal rates of growth, which requires you to racialize the difference between settler and land. In glorifying the Indian wars, in other words, you’re also glorifying a certain model of the economy.

From that, I take also American ideas about race which was, for me, the problem I had to solve. I was born in 1942, I was raised on good war movies. Why the country that defeated Hitler would have Jim Crow segregation didn’t make sense to me. Developing my ideas through to the Vietnam War forced me to connect what I had done to the colonial period. Why, as Michael Herr said, did the Trail of Tears end in Vietnam? How can that be true? I had to figure out what had happened.

It’s vital that we understand what is wrong with our society, and to do that we need to understand what is wrong with our national myths. But there is no modern nation-state whose history is not rife with social injustice, with oppression based on race, class, and sex, with the violence of unjust wars. If there is anything admirable about America, it is not its supposed exception to these patterns of nation-state history, but the persistence with which its people have struggled to amend injustice, relieve oppression, limit the exercise of state violence, and realize an extraordinarily broad and inclusive concept of nationality. It is for that willingness to struggle, as much as for our achievements, that America has been the goal of immigrants from every country and culture on earth.

A myth can be made of such struggles, tracing a path from Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” and Reconstruction’s “Second Founding” to the New Deal’s grand but imperfect project of economic and social reform, the triumphs of the good war, Great Society and the civil rights movement. Such a myth would provide the left and center-left with something it has lacked since the 1970s: a narrative that roots its ideology and political program in history. I’ve tried to provide a version of that story in this book. icon

  1. Nina J. Easton, Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendacy (Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 88.
Featured photograph of Richard Slotkin © Bill Burkhardt