These Truths: A His­tory of the United States by Jill Le­pore Frances Wil­son

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FRANCES WIL­SON These Truths: A His­tory of the United States By Jill Le­pore W W Nor­ton £30

Amer­ica be­gan, as ev­ery school­boy knows, in 1492, when Colum­bus stum­bled on a shore teem­ing with happy naked peo­ple.

But the story of Amer­ica re­ally be­gan, Jill Le­pore ar­gues, on Tues­day 30th Oc­to­ber 1787, when a news­pa­per called the New-york Packet car­ried a 4,400-word doc­u­ment that at­tempted, as she puts it in her pris­tine prose, ‘to chart the mo­tions of the branches of govern­ment and the sep­a­ra­tion of their pow­ers as if these were mat­ters of physics’.

This doc­u­ment, drafted in se­crecy by four knee-breeched del­e­gates in tri­corn hats and pow­dered wigs, was called the Con­sti­tu­tion of the United States of Amer­ica. Its aim was to sug­gest that Amer­i­cans could rule them­selves by the ap­pli­ca­tion of rea­son and choice.

The set of ideas on which the USA was founded are dis­tilled by Le­pore, a Har­vard his­to­rian and New Yorker staff writer, down to what Thomas Jef­fer­son called ‘these truths’: equal­ity, rights and the sovereignty of the peo­ple.

Seen by Jef­fer­son as ‘self-ev­i­dent’, the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of ‘these truths’ con­tin­ues to di­vide the na­tion. How do you in­ter­pret a democ­racy in which the ma­jor­ity of its cit­i­zens had no vote; a shin­ing ship of lib­erty that was rowed by slaves? ‘There were not one but two Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tions at the end of the 18th cen­tury,’ Le­pore writes. ‘The strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain and the strug­gle to end slav­ery.’

While Bri­tish monar­chy was re­placed by the rule of Amer­i­can Mam­mon, the sec­ond strug­gle has yet to be won. Be­cause it is built on con­tra­dic­tions, says Le­pore, Amer­ica ‘will fight, for­ever, the mean­ing of its his­tory’ and the ques­tion at the heart of her book is this: can a na­tion de­scended from slaves and slave own­ers, those who are proud to be im­mi­grants and those who are proud to be anti-im­mi­gra­tion, ever live to­gether as equals and rule with­out cor­rup­tion or, in a loaded term, ‘fury’?

Le­pore’s chal­lenge has been to turn the world’s most grip­ping

po­lit­i­cal drama, with more he­roes and vil­lains, plot twists and cliffhang­ers than a Net­flix box set, into a one-hour doc­u­men­tary ex­plor­ing the ‘ori­gins, course and con­se­quences of the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment’.

Be­cause a new, sin­gle-vol­ume his­tory has been long over­due, it seemed, she says with thrilling au­dac­ity, ‘worth a try’. But These Truths is as much a moral man­ual as a work of his­tory: Le­pore guides us through the in­fer­nos of the Rev­o­lu­tion, the civil rights move­ment and 9/11 with the judge­ment and wis­dom of Dante’s Vir­gil.

Us­ing Jef­fer­son’s ‘truths’ as her yard­stick, Le­pore traces the ap­pli­ca­tion and devel­op­ment of his chal­lenge, from Fred­er­ick Dou­glass to Face­book. The in­ter­net, she re­minds us, her­alded by Sil­i­con Val­ley as a coun­ter­cul­tural

Utopia (‘as if ev­ery in­ter­net ca­ble were a string of love beads’), is the an­tithe­sis of what the Con­sti­tu­tion stood for.

In the Nineties, Wired posted its own cy­ber-con­sti­tu­tion sug­gest­ing that ‘life in cy­berspace seems to be shap­ing up ex­actly like Thomas Jef­fer­son would have wanted: founded on the pri­macy of in­di­vid­ual lib­erty and a com­mit­ment to plu­ral­ism, di­ver­sity and com­mu­nity’.

But by 2018, Le­pore con­cludes, the elec­torate who voted in Trump were no longer in a po­si­tion to de­bate Jef­fer­son’s truths be­cause they were ‘cast adrift’ on the ocean of an in­ter­net which was ‘lawless, un­reg­u­lated, and un­ac­count­able.’

From the Twin Tow­ers to Trump, Le­pore moves with the aim of an ar­row through the past two decades. The progress through ear­lier chap­ters is equally swift: the Civil War is gone with the wind, and the First World War is waved at in pass­ing.

Where Le­pore pauses is to tell sto­ries of ‘ev­ery­day rev­o­lu­tion’, in the lives of char­ac­ters such as Ben­jamin Lay, the 4ft-tall Quaker hunch­back who protested against slav­ery by re­fus­ing to eat, drink or wear any­thing made by forced labour. Sur­viv­ing on turnips and honey from his own bees, he lived in a cave he carved out of a hill, where he also stored his li­brary of 200 books. Here Ben­jamin Franklin, who sold Lay’s polemics in his book­shop, used to visit him.

There is also Maria Ste­wart, a for­mer ser­vant and the first free black woman to make a pub­lic anti-slav­ery speech: ‘Oh, Amer­ica, Amer­ica, foul and in­deli­ble is thy stain!’

On the other side of the di­vide we meet Mary E Lease, ‘the peo­ple party’s Ama­zon’, who, af­ter the Civil War, pi­o­neered a ‘fe­male po­lit­i­cal style’ that would ‘drive the mod­ern con­ser­va­tive move­ment’. Then there’s Phyl­lis Sch­lafly, the ‘Wicked Witch of the Mid­west’, who cam­paigned against women’s rights and saw her dream ful­filled when, aged 92, she en­dorsed Don­ald Trump in 2016.

A dec­la­ra­tion of how bold and dar­ing and dif­fi­cult the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment con­tin­ues to be, These Truths is a colos­sus of a book which looks down on Trump’s Amer­ica with the author­ity of Mount Rush­more.

Dame (Alice) Ellen Terry (‘Choos­ing’) by Ge­orge Fred­eric Watts (c 1864). From The Pre-raphaelite Lan­guage of Flow­ers by De­bra N Man­coff, Pres­tel £12.99

‘Im­pres­sive, Nor­ris, but the grant money is for can­cer re­search ’

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