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