These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (W. W. Norton)
By William S. McFeely
After half a century teaching American history, I wouldn’t have guessed I needed a new text book. I did. Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s These Truths is both new and excellent. My students at our senior residence, as ancient as I am, are having a rich time looking afresh at the republic’s past with this book.
This is not diplomatic, military, economic, or cultural history, but good old political history -- because at the moment politics matter. Lepore’s familiar history needs a new telling, but she has something even more old fashioned to achieve: “this book means to double as an old-fashioned civics book.”
The history proceeds traditionally, the Table of Contents not so. Lepore, as if to begin a debate, entitled her Introduction “The Question Stated.” It is in itself a learned essay on history. Then she attends to her narrative, beginning traditionally with Christopher Columbus. She allows her story of the European voyager’s arrival at the Indies to prepare us for the conflicts that will be constant in our history.
Barely a decade later slavery cast its doleful stain on our American story. Lepore leaves no doubt as to the centrality of slavery in our history.
After close to two hundred years of America’s story she arrives at the Declaration of Independence. There she finds the truths of her title. They are not explicitly stated. They are still to be sought.
These Truths is the kind of history I like. Populated history. When Lepore tackles the Constitution, we see not lofty fellows in waistcoats and wigs, but sweat drenched men at work in a hot Philadelphia summer. Their work, the Constitution, promised rule “not by accident and force but by reason and choice.” But the pursuit of happiness had its limits. When a draft of the Constitution was printed in a newspaper so that New Yorkers could study it, the publisher also featured this sales advertisement: “A LIKELY young NEGRO WENCH” and her child.” “They,” Lepore makes clear, “were not ruled by reason and choice. They were ruled by force and violence.” The clash between upholders of that Constitution and that woman and child is our story.
Lepore is a master of the kind history I like, populated history. In graceful prose, she gives us thumbnail sketches of a wonderful variety of rogues and other wise that made our history. Readers whose American history seems to be endless volumes about Civil War battles will be disappointed. The war gets only fifteen pages, one of which is an Alexander Gardner photograph of the corpse of a Confederate soldier killed at Gettysburg. Leading to the war, there is excellent attention to Frederick Douglass, the voice of freedom, as Lincoln searches for his. Lepore traces the growth of Abraham Lincoln’s political mind through his debates with Stephen Douglas and his Cooper Union address, and his route to the Emancipation Proclamation.
In a nice touch, Lepore, aware of the African American gains tragically taken away after the war, weaves the Reconstruction story into that of struggling farmers and wage laborers later in the nineteenth century. She is telling on the conversion by the Supreme Court of the 14th Amendment from its job, guaranteeing the rights of black citizens, into one protecting corporations. The Court still needs watching. Lepore knows how our present-day Court weakens guarantees of African American voting rights.
Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt, not a political actor (he thought) but a frustrated scholar, and a friend (an historian, by the way) were recently decrying the state of contemporary politics. Greenblatt speaks: “’What can I do? I asked.” His friend answered: “You can write something. And so I did.” The result was Tyrant, published last year, which told us about Shakespeare’s tyrants, suggesting an unnamed contemporary possibility.
Lepore, similarly alarmed, has also taken to words. They must be searched for truths. As we carry the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we will be fortified to resist those who mock our democracy. The task is not to go back to an olden trust in flawed promises, but to resume the endless quest to make these truths true now and beyond.
In her Epilogue: “The Question Addressed,” Lepore returns to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s eighteenth-century divide. If the truths are undeniable under either religion or science, she picks the later. Lepore even hints at playing astronomer, but These Truths demonstrates that she is just a down-to-earth historian.
Lepore shows an almost Puritan trust in the word, not in the word of God, but in what we can read, and know. You wonder if she trusts too much in what she and her fellow teachers can achieve using her text. But she is persuasive. The task is an essential one. We must look clearly at the whole of our past to protect our present and beyond. Poetically, the school teacher Lepore gives out the assignment. The “new generation” must “forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals. And steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.”
William S. McFeely won the Pulitzer Prize for Grant, his biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He retired as the Abraham Baldwin Professor of the Humanities at the University of Georgia.