History isn’t what you make of it

Over the past decade or so, a notable trend among American historians, particularly those prioritizing social justice in their research, has been to frame the unsavory facets of United States history as the defining features of the society. One useful way to think of this is as a version of the American exceptionalism the same people often criticize, only in photo negative. For example, it imagines, or might lead a reader to imagine, that America was uniquely guilty of or capable of wars of conquest or systematic racial subjugation in ways that the historical record taken in its fullness cannot support. 

Born in Blood: Violence and the Making of America; By Scott Gac; Cambridge University Press; 330 pp., $29.95

Two kinds of work tend to come out of this process: ones that help us reexamine the ways we should think about the past by providing nuance to American “progress” and others that distort our understanding of the past by oversimplifying darker aspects of history, often taking events out of their proper national and world context.

In Scott Gac’s latest book, Born in Blood: Violence and the Making of America, the author insists he is not writing a book about negative American exceptionalism, saying, “the violence that bolsters antagonistic differences in liberal society (as well as the violence used to resist the structures of liberal life) is not unique, or, to borrow terminology from an earlier generation of scholars, ‘exceptional’ in the American experience. It is a global phenomenon often linked to economic structures that fall into two categories: ‘global White supremacy’ and racial capitalism.’” Nevertheless, he quickly contradicts this claim, dwelling on “aspects of American violence that are more unique.”

Born In Blood is centered on the notion that America’s liberal tradition has been propped up by violence. The book, the author explains, “is about government force (state violence) and acts of violence by individuals and communities in the United States. It tracks violence as a national tradition, one created by an assortment of persons from the Revolution and Civil War to the Gilded Age.” All examples of violence “tracked” in the book then become part of the liberal tradition, regardless of the motivations behind it or responses to them. 

While anyone might grant that the American Revolutionary War was, in fact, violent, it is difficult to see if Gac’s argument is correct because “liberalism” hardly receives a clear definition throughout the book. He talks about it more like an effervescent vibe — something we understand exists but can’t be fully grasped. Sometimes “liberalism” stands in for American democracy and its institutions. At other times, it’s just government authority indistinguishable from undemocratic and illiberal counterparts across time and place. In much the same way, Gac asserts that “capitalism is a system of economic and political authority that is integral to the hierarchies of American liberal life” but simply and incompletely defines capitalism as “at its most basic level the speculation of money in hope of profit.” 

Gac’s premise rests on the notion that violence is “learned” not just at an individual level but also at the level of the culture and institutions of a nation itself. This is an interesting though underdeveloped idea. His early chapters contend that the violent military discipline implemented during the Revolution’s army building planted the seeds for the unjust violence that followed. According to the author, the fact that 20 of the first 24 men to be president “served in the military or militia” points to the ubiquity of “physical punishment as a means to uphold [American liberalism’s] hierarchies.”

Those who may not view the president as America’s abusive father may find that argument a bit of a stretch. Presidential scholars will be particularly surprised to see someone like Lincoln included here since he personally detested violence to the point of hating hunting and dueling and infamously indulged the less-than-disciplined behaviors of his sons while residing in the White House.

(Illustration by Tatiana Lozano / Washington Examiner; Getty Images)

As Gac moves into a discussion of racial violence and white supremacy, he pulls several events out of context to make his argument about the liberal tradition of violence. He jumps from the Haitian Revolution and Gabriel Prosser to Denmark Vesey back to William Byrd then forward to John Brown a century later. The historian’s imperative to explain change over time gets replaced with static tradition. 

There are also times when Gac appears to have missed entire portions of the historiography on the topic of slavery. He writes, for instance, that “In the twentieth century, scholars refuted the racist intimation that there was an inherent flaw in Black Americans, who Byrd framed as too docile, too weak, and too dim to fight enslavement. Yet, the same scholars failed to better explain the first part of Byrd’s equation, the factors behind the imposition of slavery in the nation.” Historians would not be blamed for wondering what he thinks the field has been doing for the last six decades.

Nothing makes Gac’s tendency to make bold declarative statements more unconvincing than his history of American federalism, which is tendentious at best. After arguing that localism drove the spread of slavery, the author argues, “no organization was better suited for the role [of protecting slavery] than the national government.” An examination of the proslavery movement and politics of the 1840s would have relieved the author of such cut-and-dry notions. The chapter that follows undermines his claim, as well, even if he argues slaveholders didn’t come to realize the danger to slavery posed by the federal government until 1862 — nearly two years into the Confederacy. 

Throughout the book, Born in Blood struggles to move beyond oversimplification, provocative statements, and superficial analysis. The violence “tracked” in Born in Blood too often gets portrayed as happening in a vacuum. There is little explanation about American responses to each outbreak of violence. There’s rarely an instance when liberals push back, even when that’s exactly what happened. 

The best example of this comes in Gac’s discussion of the last fugitive slave captured in Massachusetts, Anthony Burns. After detailing the case as evidence that the federal government used its monopoly on violence on behalf of slavery, a good example, the author moves on to the next topic. The reader never learns what happened next: appealing to liberal traditions, abolitionists passed stronger personal liberty laws and prevented it from happening again. 

Born in Blood’s final chapters about racial violence during Reconstruction and labor violence during the Gilded Age often veer out of historical analysis and into dime-store Marxism. He makes a nonsense claim that the topic of American lynching often remains “a forbidden subject” and spends a significant time arguing that government authorities protecting the property of business owners, even those who exploited workers, proves liberalism’s inherent violence. 

Readers can appreciate Scott Gac’s belief that studying the past can make things better in the future, and he acknowledges that this goal is the main purpose of his book. But, because it’s so heavy-handed, Born in Blood resembles more of a time capsule of academic scholarship produced during the summer of 2020, when scholarship simply declared, often without contextualization, that America’s past centers mostly on “slavery, colonization, and Whiteness, and hostile difference” without anyone appealing to the better angels of our nature. The fact that history contains a tradition of liberty — supported by abolitionists, suffragettes, the labor movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, among others — is moved to the background. Which makes for not just a bad book with an unpersuasive argument, but also for one that serves as a bad advertisement for the ideology driving its author.

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Carl Paulus is a historian from Michigan and author of The Slaveholding Crisis: The Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War.

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