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‘The Nation that Never Was’

March 15, 2023

In The Nation that Never Was, Prof. Kermit Roosevelt provides an alternate understanding of American identity.

In The Nation that Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, Kermit Roosevelt, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice, argues that our country’s fundamental values, particularly equality, are not part of the Founders’ vision.

Instead, they were stated in President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and were the hope of Reconstruction, a time envisioning a nation committed to liberty and equality.


My name is Kermit Roosevelt. I’m the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and my research focuses on constitutional law. The book is called The Nation That Never Was, and it’s an attempt to reorient American identity around Reconstruction rather than the Founding.

So, the conventional story that we all learn in high school is American values come from 1776 and Founding America is the America that we should identify with. And what I’m saying is that’s actually not true. Our values come a lot more from the Civil War and Reconstruction in 1868, the 14th Amendment, and we should understand that identity as based in large part on a rejection of the Founding.

I think the way I would put it is that America is a better nation than you think, because it’s not the nation that you think. And I think we’re having problems nowadays because we’ve been trying to tell a story where Thomas Jefferson is an exemplar of American virtue. But actually, Thomas Jefferson enslaved his own children. He’s pretty creepy.

So, we need a different set of heroes. And it turns out historically, if you look at where our values come from, it’s really more Reconstruction than the Founding. So, I’m offering us a different set of heroes, a better story, a better nation.

So, if you look around the country, there have always been struggles about how to tell the American story. But right now, I think, is one of the moments when that struggle is at its most intense. And you can look at the Florida laws, you can look at the anti-critical race theory bills around the country. America, right now, we’re trying to decide what our national story is going to be, and that’s the conversation that this book is trying to intervene in.

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