United States History: Each Against All

If my exploding Twitter feed is any indication, plenty of people have had a chance to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s brilliant, powerful, and persuasive essay “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. If you haven’t, you should. I am convinced that it will ultimately be seen as one of the most important contributions to the national dialogue about race and power since DuBois. It’s that good, and a humble blog post such as this one cannot do it justice.

Among the many other things Coates got me thinking about, though, is a motif I’ve been kicking around in my head for quite a while now–a motif that rejects the progress-oriented, “emancipationist” paradigm in which US history is (sometimes) explicitly or (most often) implicitly conceived, articulated, and taught.* It’s a Hobbesian motif, and one that goes against what I like to think is my generally optimistic nature. In his 1651 treatise Leviathan, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded a view of human nature that was sour, pessimistic, and harsh. Leviathan was conceived and drafted in the years of anarchy, violence, and political upheaval during the English Civil War, and Hobbes was a thoroughgoing royalist (he was an advisor to the Prince of Wales–soon to become King Charles II after the Restoration–and lived among loyalist expatriates in the 1650s). It’s hard to overstate the effects of his country’s political and cultural disintegration upon Hobbes’s already dour outlook.  We all know his characterization of “how things really were”: the lives of most people were “nasty, brutish, and short.” It was human nature for one to seek to maximize their power at the expense of all others in the community; the only check on the wanton impulses of man in this brutish state of nature was a powerful governmental force: The Leviathan. For Hobbes, this meant an absolute monarch. Absent this check on the inherent violent and anarchic tendencies of man in a state of nature, society would devolve into what Hobbes so pithily described as ” a war of each against all.”


With its tragic litany of profoundly violent and unjust treatment of African Americans, Coates’s article is the latest affirmation for me that despite the Founders’ embrace of a Lockeian ideal, the national story has been less John Locke’s ideal Commonwealth and more Thomas Hobbes’s War of Each Against All. The one constant in US history is a numbing level of violence, both individual and collective, visited upon those outside the hegemonic definition of “American” or-more simply-“Us.” For all the rhetoric about “big government,” there is a constant thread that runs throughout the US’s national tapestry–little to no government protection of minority rights, property, or lives. There was no “big government” in the post-Gold Rush California, to cite one example, when that region’s native peoples (as well as many of the Californios) were systematically exterminated in the free-for-all that accompanied white Americans’ migration to the coastal utopia. There was no “big government” at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 when a Methodist minister (!) and militia Colonel named J.M. Chivington led a force of troops into a peaceful Indian encampment near Fort Lyon and massacred over 400 men, women, and children. Stories of the white troops’ depredations on Indian corpses turn the stomach; female genitals were excised from their bodies and stretched over the saddle horns of the cavalrymens’ mounts. Chivington himself apparently took several “souvenirs” which he proudly displayed to visitors to his home. And these are just two examples from the period I’m currently researching and writing on–Coates and others can provide more and more ad infinitum.

But the common theme is that, left to their own devices, and many times even when the government was involved, white Americans have tended to do awful things to and around non-white peoples. Not in any sort of isolated or sporadic manner, but in such a systematic and regular way that one could make the case (and I think I’m doing just that) that Thomas Hobbes was right.

So what do I do with this notion? It’s definitely at odds with what my students bring to my class–they carry a vague sense of “well, yeah, things used to be crappy, but we’ve gotten a whole lot better.” And maybe they themselves don’t see race and how it permeates us in the same way that I, and others my age or older, do. But it’s getting harder and harder for me to see US history through anything but a Hobbesian prism these days. I’m reminded of George Carlin’s observation about our national inheritance of violence; after all, “We’ve got the only national anthem that mentions fuckin’ rockets and bombs in the fuckin thing!”

* For a trenchant critique of the "emancipationist" strain in 
American conceptions of their history, see Gary Gerstle, "Liberty,
Coercion, and the Making of Americans," Journal of American History 84 
(1997): 524-558.

[Image: frontispiece for Leviathan,Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes.jpg]

2 Replies to “United States History: Each Against All”

  1. “So what do I do with this notion? It’s definitely at odds with what my students bring to my class–they carry a vague sense of “well, yeah, things used to be crappy, but we’ve gotten a whole lot better.”

    It’s always seemed to me that our students have a curiously bi-polar reaction to the question of progress (moral or technological). If you ask them about it, you’ll hear the sentiment you mentioned, but you will also get a lot of lost golden age crap. You know, “things have gone gladly down hill.” With either view they’re being homeys for their own historical moment. Both assume that the present moment is unique.

    1. I think that’s true to an extent–of course, there’s the trenchant summary of History given by the great philosophers Beavis and Butt-Head: “The more things change, the more things suck.”

      But if I had a nickel for every essay on some topic like segregation or slavery (for example) that concluded with a variation on “thankfully things have gotten better and we live in a country where all of us are equal and happy,” I’d be able to buy a small Caribbean island.

      But I like your larger point–they do see their moment as unique. Which it is, since all moments are, technically–be they see it as unrooted in any sort of past or deeper context, no matter what their view of progress.

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