The following paragraphs were originally part of an effort to explain the complexities and multiple viewpoints of the Aeneid. I thought they might find a place in Aeneas (University of Michigan Press 2021), but as often happens, the book took a different direction. I offer them here as a thought for the Fourth of July.
~Lee T. Pearcy
July 4, 2022
What if you tried to write a story—a poem, a novel—that would explain to us, to Americans in the 21st century, who we are and how we came to be. Which story would you tell?
You might tell a story of triumph: how small groups of Europeans braved the Atlantic crossing to find religious and civil liberty; how thirteen British colonies patched together a fragile coalition and separated from mother England; how we tested that coalition in a great civil war and emerged from it as a unified nation, rapidly expanding across a continent; how we fought and survived and prospered in the terrible world wars of the twentieth century. The names of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Lee, of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt would figure large in your story. It would explain some of the things we value: liberty, the rule of law, tolerance.
That story has been told.
Or you might tell a story of decline: how a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” lost sight of its founding ideals and their grounding in Judeo-Christian ideals; how an agrarian republic became an industrial power, and how the forces of capital triumphed in our Civil War and replaced chattel slavery with wage slavery; how growing prosperity brought with it a culture of self-indulgence and celebrity; how scientific advance and economic prosperity enabled moral and spiritual decline; how we became a fading imperial state with a broken educational system, a debased underclass, and a middle class deprived of hope. This story would explain the daily headlines. Once past Lincoln, there would be few heroes.
That story has been told.
Or you might tell a third story, a story of genocide, oppression, and struggle: how Europeans at first displaced, betrayed, and then slaughtered the indigenous population of North America; how a small cadre of English bourgeois and third-tier aristocrats so objected to the relatively light economic contribution asked by the mother country that they separated from it and constructed a federal republic in their own interests; how that republic was from its beginning, and before its beginning, stained by inequality and racism; how we fought a war of imperial conquest under the pretext of liberating Texas from Mexico and a civil war to promote the interests of northeastern industrialists; how our history has been shaped by the forces of empire, racism, and greed; and on the other hand, how from Shay’s Rebellion through the Abolitionists to the civil rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, some have been in continual struggle against them. The names of Lincoln, John Brown, Nat Turner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King would figure large in your story.
That story also has been told.
Those are the American stories of triumph, decline, and struggle. There may be other American stories to tell. What has not been told, and perhaps cannot be told, is a harder story: how these are all the same story, and how all of them are true: how our love of liberty and our history of inequality are, as Burke suggested, inextricably intertwined, and each necessary to the other and impossible without the other; how racism and intolerance are so much part of our American self that we must continually invent new forms of them, and ways to oppose them; how rising standards of living and the development of a diverse, multicultural society made income inequality and a declining middle class inevitable.
In the Aeneid, Vergil tries to tell that kind of hard story about Rome. Rome’s triumph is inevitable, as Jupiter confirms early in the poem. But that triumph can only happen at the cost of immense struggle, labor. The forces opposing it—furor, both divine and human—are also those that make it possible.
 Burke, On Conciliation: Southerners valued liberty “with a higher and more stubborn spirit” than other Americans. “Such will be all masters of slaves, who are not slaves themselves. … In such a people, the haughtiness of domination combines with the spirit of freedom, fortifies it, and renders it invincible.”
 As argued for France by Christophe Guilluy: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/elections/2017/05/french-fracture