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Kermit Roosevelt, University of Pennsylvania

Reconstructing America’s Story

Kermit Roosevelt.There’s a story we tell ourselves about American identity and ideals: that we are, in Lincoln’s words, a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We stated these ideals in the Declaration of Independence, fought for them in the Revolution, and made them law in the Constitution. But over the past few decades, this story has been increasingly challenged by historians and activists who insist on confronting unpleasant truths. If the Founders believed in these ideals, how could they have acted so inconsistently with them? If we tell our origin story honestly, does it still show us an America worthy of our faith?

In this talk, Kermit Roosevelt will propose a solution to what seems to be an irreconcilable conflict between historical accuracy and patriotic inspiration. We can indeed understand America as founded on a statement of ideals, birthed by a war for them, and now governed by those ideals as part of our highest law. But we have to make some changes to the narrative, too. Our standard story misleads us. It does not just gloss over some of the negative aspects of the founding; instead, it gets some important elements of history more or less backwards. Reconstructing America’s story gives us a national self-understanding that is both more accurate and more inspiring than the one we have now.

Kermit Roosevelt is the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, where he teaches constitutional law, conflict of laws, and creative writing. He is the Reporter for the American Law Institute’s Third Restatement of Conflict of Laws. Before joining the Penn faculty, he attended Harvard College and Yale Law School, then clerked for D.C. Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams and Supreme Court Justice David Souter and practiced appellate litigation with Mayer Brown & Platt in Chicago. In addition to law review articles and scholarly books, he is the author of two novels, Allegiance and In the Shadow of the Law. His most recent book, The Nation that Never Was, reinterprets American history in an effort to tell a story of America that is both accurate and inspiring.