Review: We the Fallen People

We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An argument that we have witnessed a great reversal in American history from an assumption of fallen human nature to the inherent goodness of people, which the author believes could jeopardize its future.

“America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often misunderstood, if it has been read.

While there is a good amount of material about Tocqueville here, the real concern of this book is about a Great Reversal that occurred in American history concerning American goodness. He begins with the Founders and the writing of the Constitution. The young nation just wasn’t working. Dependence upon the good will of the states to contribute to the upkeep of a national government just wasn’t happening and the national government had no way to compel it. They were depending on virtuous behavior and it was not forthcoming.

In writing the Constitution, the framers started from a different premise, “taking human nature as they found it.” In biblical terms, they assumed a fallen people. On one hand, they created a federal government with a strong executive office to implement the laws passed by Congress. Congress had two houses, one that represented local interests, and one representing broader concerns to balance each other. They could override the executive’s veto. At the same time a third branch, the judiciary, could check laws that overreached the power of the Constitution. It both guarded against excessive influence of popular power, and any concentration of power within the government. They wouldn’t trust anyone too far. They assumed human fallibility and fallenness.

McKenzie proposes that a Great Reversal occurred with the election of Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as the people’s president. He represented himself singularly as the people’s representative. He described his victory as “a triumph of the virtue of the people.” The great reversal in all of this was a growing belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and those they elect, an assumption that has continued to the present day. Accruing great power to himself, he encouraged the abrogation of treaties with the Cherokee people and their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In a lesser discussed move, he worked to end the second Bank of the United States. Tracy sees in this Jackson’s use of populism, the People versus the Monster, although the Bank had engaged in no wrongdoing. It is this extension of the power of democratic majorities, a “we versus them,” where “they” are not worthy, that is deeply disturbing. Democracy provides no protection from abuse of power when unchecked by the structures and the underlying premises behind those structures conceived by the founders.

It was this that was Tocqueville’s concern, writing during this period. Tocqueville witnessed the rise of partisan politics in which Congress failed to check Jackson’s moves, nor did the judiciary. While he recognized the great energy and productivity of the country, and the breadth of freedom its white male citizens enjoyed–greater than in Europe–he also recognized how democracies could be turned to ill, depending on how majorities wielded their power. He recognized how people could exchange liberty and justice for safety.

At the same time, Tocqueville finds that it is not virtue but self-interest that can be a safeguard–the temporary denial of benefit for long term profit that produces a kind of discipline, and counters individualism with collaboration on shared self-interests like good roads. Tocqueville also believed religious piety of importance, not because of his religious views, but as an early sociologist and political thinker. Belief in an afterlife in which one gives account can serve as a partial, not total, restraint on egregious evil. Tocqueville saw the separation of church and state as a good thing, recognizing the loss of spiritual force churches experienced when intertwined with political power.

All of this challenges the rhetoric of American goodness and greatness. McKenzie believes there can be great danger in being blind to human depravity, whereas the recognition of this gives reason for the countervailing powers of government and punctures the pretensions of political leaders. In his concluding chapter, he not only applies this to our current political scene, but if anything, even more forcefully speaks to his concerns for the ways the church has allied itself with political power.

This also explains to me the efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history, expunging our sorry dealings with native peoples, our involvement with slavery from our earliest settlements, and the structures that continued to oppress blacks, other minorities, and women even after Emancipation. None of these things ought surprise those of us who believe in human fallenness, who also believe in the biblical remedies of repentance, just restitution, and reconciliation. But those who must hold onto the myth of our inherent goodness cannot admit these things–the only solution is suppression–a strategy that has been a heavy burden on our nation

This is a vitally important book for our time. It not only takes a deep dive into the Great Reversal of the Jackson presidency but also uses Tocqueville to challenge the stories we tell about ourselves. It calls us to be clear-eyed about the future of our democracy, and questions the naïve notion of our inherent goodness. Perhaps a severe mercy of the pandemic is that it has challenged such illusions. But do we still hide behind them by attributing wickedness to “them”? Or will we learn from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts delegate in a ratification convention in 1788, to whom McKenzie introduces us. He declared, “I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature” and gave for the basis of his doubt “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.” Will we suspect our own hearts and put our trust not in rulers but in the God who searches hearts?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History

The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History
The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started this book on Thanksgiving Day, appropriately enough. McKenzie does several things that make this an outstanding book, in my view.

First he helps us understand the work good historians do in teasing documentable fact and a credible narrative of events out of the accretions of tradition that surround so many famous “historical events”. He explores what sources there are on which to base our understanding of “the first Thanksgiving” and the Plymouth settlement more broadly–predominantly William Bradford’s and Edward Winslow’s narrative of these events–it is a 115 word account in the latters narrative the forms the basis of our attribution of the First Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims.

Second, he then re-tells the history of the Pilgrims based on what we actually know. And from this we learn that the “First Thanksgiving” was probably a harvest festival that probably occurred late September, early October of 1621 and was not repeated. It was not a specifically religious day of Thanksgiving, which the Pilgrims occasionally proclaimed for various reasons on subsequent occasions. In fact the Pilgrims were actually anti-holiday. The only set day they observed was Sunday. Finally, their relationship with the neighboring Indian tribe was ambivalent. It may be that the Wampanoags were not invited but rather simply showed up as they were wont to do. At least on this occasion they brought venison from a five slain deer to contribute.

Third, McKenzie traces the development of Thanksgiving traditions and practices. Only in 1841 was Winslow’s narrative re-published which began to focus Thanksgiving practice on the Pilgrims. Also, he shows how this was primarily a New England tradition until post-civil war years. Thanksgiving celebrations were often coupled with abolitionist events. It wasn’t until 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt connected Thanksgiving explicitly to the Pilgrims that the association stuck. He also recounts some of the fanciful accounts of the first Thanksgiving that have contributed to both art and contemporary practice.

Finally, McKenzie explores what we can learn from the Pilgrims and how their narrative challenges us. He cautions against efforts to read God’s providence back into history. And he argues that it is not our role to make moral judgments on other generations but to engage in moral reflection on what we learn for our own. He thinks we can learn from the spiritually resourced fortitude with which they faced trials. He thinks that their very ordinariness, with all their faults can encourage us as to what is possible for “ordinary folk.” He also thinks that rather than link them to a holiday that is an occasion for over-eating in preparation for over-consumption of material goods, that the occasional nature of the celebration should encourage us to set aside times for such celebrations when it is appropriate and to genuinely thank the God from whom such good things come. Finally, he encourages us to reflect on their name, Pilgrims, and to consider what it means for followers of Christ to likewise be pilgrims who look toward a better home.

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Let’s Lose the Term “Revisionist”!

In another instance of my books talking to each other, two authors from very different perspectives argued that the rhetoric of “revisionism” is unhelpful to serious discourse, though quite convenient for polarizing polemic! Robert Tracy McKenzie, a Christian historian argues that we should lose this term in discussions of history (in his case, in his book The First Thanksgiving). Ellen Schrecker, whose core beliefs can only be inferred but probably differ from McKenzie, makes the observation that the accusation of “revisionism” became the popular argument of the conservative right against the perceived “political correctness” of the academy in her book The Lost Soul of Higher Education.

Why is this so? Both contend that revision is a constant and healthy process in the academic world. In no field do we know the exhaustive truth about anything. Both of these writers are historians, and history is an effort to write an account of the past to which we have no access apart from primary source materials and artifacts, which gives us far from an exhaustive view of that past. Revision happens when new source material comes to light, or new perspectives allow one to give an account of past events more congruent with the totality of the data. It is the latter type of revisions which come in for the greatest criticism because many of these involve looking at history from perspectives other than that of white men. The roles of women and non-white peoples are often given a truer account when historians do scholarship from perspectives that include concerns for these peoples. Often, such history shows our “heroes” as people with feet of clay–consider for example Thomas Jefferson, and the studies that reveal him as a slaveholder, and likely a father of children by at least one of his slaves.

Rather than tarring certain areas of scholarship with the “revisionist” label, the scholarly thing to do (but one that can’t fit into a media or blog soundbite) is to assess the quality of the scholarship in question. Does it indeed represent the best account given all the extant sources or data? Does it deal even-handedly with competing theories or explanations and provide a convincing account of why this explanation is superior? Are all the assertions made reasonably supported by the data or sources, or are there unsupported claims? Are all the sources or data accessible to or reproducible by other researchers? These are the kinds of questions a genuine concern for truth in our scholarship requires.

In most discourse, I would argue that the “revisionist” tag is the cheap-shot substitute for a serious response to scholarly work (or work that purports to be intellectually serious). Most of the time, it is a pretentious way of saying I don’t like what someone is saying, or resent that the person has questioned the verities of my life. If we genuinely think a piece of work is bad thinking or bad scholarship, the answer is not to label it revisionist, but rather to produce better thinking and better scholarship that shows bad scholarship for what it is and advances the search for truth.

The “-ist” in revisionist  in fact makes an inference about the person producing a given piece of work, as much as about the work itself. As such, I would contend that this is a form of ad hominem argument that moves our disagreements from the realm of disagreements about what is true to personal attacks upon the character of the person advancing that argument.

What are other words you’ve come across that shut down serious efforts to pursue truth, that function as verbal “smackdowns” that deepen divides rather than produce understanding?