Few Americans today remember Reuben Kemper, a failed businessman and outlaw who forged our national identity. William C. Davis, author of The Rogue Republic, would like to remedy that. But in a way, Davis does more than that: he reminds us of why America used to be a place ordinary people could hope to make more of themselves. When did we lose that?
Thomas Jefferson thought the Louisiana Purchase included West Florida, comprising parts of today’s Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. So did the primarily English-speaking Americans who settled and farmed the land. St. Augustine’s Spanish governor disagreed. Several Presidents failed to resolve the problem. So Reuben Kemper, like any red-blooded American boy, organized a revolution. More remarkably, he won. Eventually.
Naysayers might claim that the Republic of West Florida set standards of American expansionism, proxy wars, and imperialism. But it also proclaimed that, in America, ordinary people can build a nation. People could make names and meaning without kowtowing to authorities. More important, a small nation with a sparse population makes room for heroes and rewards outsized personalities.
Yet we apparently outgrew men like Kemper. Women and men of his ilk existed for a long time. Men like Teddy Roosevelt stood for such resilience long after the country changed. In his biography of TR’s post-presidential years, Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris details how one of America’s greatest personalities kept fighting after his country thought it no longer needed him.
Roosevelt stood for chest-thumping autonomy and fortitude. When he left the Oval Office, under national pressure to bid for a third term, he left for a year-long African safari, because he still felt he had character to prove. But the country he left behind fell into the hands of small leaders like Taft and Knox. The frontier closed, and the country laid new foundations that would pay of in the ignominy of World War I.
When Roosevelt got back to Oyster Bay, he found his old home couldn’t hold him anymore, and as the 1912 election proved, America preferred academics like Woodrow Wilson to Roosevelt’s highly public bravado. So he turned outward, mapping new Amazon tributaries, in lands where small populations and incomplete maps gave titanic souls room to prove. Sadly, this proved his ultimate undoing.
Maybe we’ve grown too big. Maybe we’ve outgrown any place for strong, determined individuals. Maybe a small country produces heroes, while a big nation produces meaningless midgets. Therefore, maybe the time has come to turn America’s focus to the local and small again. Bill Kaufmann looks at several small but growing movements in that direction in his keen, acerbic Bye Bye, Miss American Empire.
High school history claims that the Civil War closed the book on American secessionism. Kaufmann disagrees. Several factions today still push to split the nation; others still believe in the federal system, but want to move power to the local level. Some seem naive, like the utopian Hawaiian independence movement. Others seem likely—even desirable—like the State of Jefferson, which wants to hang a new West Coast star on the flag.
Remarkably, these movements emphasizing home and community produce meaning in people’s lives. While America’s massive federal system creates vacuous TSA patdown jobs, regional movements build bridges and strengthen bonds. Perhaps, in shifting focus from the macro- to the micro-scale, we can reclaim the meaning we enjoyed in our nation’s early days.
Were we better off in Reuben Kemper’s day, when people made their own names and knew they mattered? Consider, Kemper was hailed as a hero, but kept fighting after his republic no longer existed. We have more ease today, we can get more done, but our lives have descended into aimless routine. People like TR who still try to make meaning find themselves stymied, beating fists against a sky that’s now appallingly low.
A small nation produces big citizens. A huge nation produces midgets. We set our sights low today because we have nothing else left. TR knew this, and tried to fight it. He built himself up, at great cost, and while his efforts ultimately killed him, the life he lived, while short, held meaning most of us lack.
Maybe we should throw away the map, in more ways than one. Small nations, or a big nation that trusts communities and local people, could produce depth and meaning like we seldom see anymore. Two hundred years ago, we lacked ease and luxury, but we had heart. Our nation has changed; now it’s time to change it back.