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The Founding and Re-Founding of America

March 07, 2023

Prof. Kermit Roosevelt discusses his book, The Nation That Never Was, with Robin Lindley at George Washington University’s History News Network.

Kermit Roosevelt, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, recently discussed his background as well as his pathbreaking book, The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, with Robin Lindley at George Washington University’s History News Network.

Roosevelt’s book is an eye-opening reinterpretation of the American story that argues that our fundamental values, particularly equality, are not part of the vision of the Founders. Instead, they were stated in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and were the hope of Reconstruction, when it was possible to envision the emergence of the nation committed to liberty and equality.

“Professor Roosevelt’s innovative study has been praised by legal scholars, historians and political commentators alike as a historical corrective with a more nuanced and accurate view of our past, as well as a possible blueprint for a more just future,” writes Lindley at History News Network. “His thought-provoking book is based on extensive research, rigorous analysis of historic documents, and a passionate commitment to social justice.”

The following is an excerpt from the Q&A:

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Roosevelt on your engaging new book The Nation that Never Was, a revelatory exploration of the beginnings of our republic and how the vision of equality of all Americans arose in our history. Before getting to the book, I wanted to ask about your background. How did being a member of the distinguished Roosevelt family influence your interest in history and law? It seems you were almost be predestined for a career in law or politics.

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, to be honest. On the one hand, I think TR and FDR were great presidents, and they’re inspirational figures, and it’s nice to feel connected to them. And certainly, I never looked at politics and thought “Someone like me couldn’t do that.” On the other hand, I did look at politics and think “I could never do that as well as they did,” and I got into law, and constitutional law, in a slightly roundabout way.

My first love was creative writing, really, and I wanted to be a writer. But that’s a risky and speculative career, so I was pursuing it on the side, while also following a more conventional track. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and I decided I wanted to teach, so then my choice was between law school and philosophy graduate school as a way into academia. I chose law, and then actually I was thinking I’d become a tax professor, because people had told me there was always demand for tax professors. I ended up in constitutional law mostly because of my Supreme Court clerkship… . 

Roosevelt works in a diverse range of fields, focusing on constitutional law and conflict of laws and has published scholarly books and articles in both fields. Roosevelt is also the author of two novels, and, in 2014, he was selected by the American Law Institute as the Reporter for the Third Restatement of Conflict of Laws.

Read the full Q&A at History News Network.