A gutsy, lyri­cal look at his­tory

Au­thor doesn’t shy from na­tion’s un­ful­filled ideals

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Books - By Jack E. Davis Spe­cial to the Tri­bune Jack E. Davis is the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor of “Gulf: The Mak­ing of an Amer­i­can Sea.”

I started read­ing “These Truths” on a flight from Bos­ton to An­chor­age, Alaska, fol­low­ing in its pages Amer­ica’s his­tor­i­cal jour­ney across the con­ti­nent as I passed over the same at 30,000 feet and 550 mph. The flight was long, the con­ti­nent big and the book vast. I read half go­ing out and half com­ing back.

Tack­ling the 800 pages in this vig­or­ous his­tory of the United States might have re­quired more travel time had the au­thor been any­one other than Jill Le­pore. She scours the ar­chives for fresh in­sights on top­ics other his­to­ri­ans thought were tapped. Her writ­ing is gutsy and lyri­cal, as with this de­scrip­tion of Demo­cratic Party prospects for the 1848 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion: “The con­tenders were de­cid­edly lack­lus­ter, the cramped and short­sighted men of a cramped and short­sighted age.”

A staff writer for The New Yorker, she is known for smart, ab­sorb­ing sto­ries. The book is a seam­less web of them, in the way that Le­pore sees his­tory.

Rang­ing from Euro­pean set­tle­ment to Trumpian tweets, “These Truths” is a per­cep­tive and nec­es­sary con­tri­bu­tion to un­der­stand­ing the Amer­i­can con­di­tion of late. His­tory in Le­pore’s nim­ble hands is

more than the telling of tales. It is probed and an­a­lyzed and dis­lodged from the past, pre­sented as a force that res­onates in the present. As Le­pore shows, the par­ti­san re­crim­i­na­tions, righ­teous law­less­ness, false facts, fake news, bo­gus pop­ulism and boor­ish ex­ec­u­tive lead­er­ship that we see as a re­flec­tion of our time is an out­growth of the past. His­tory doesn’t re­peat it­self; it per­sists.

This arc of the un­flat­ter­ing rises from long-sim­mer­ing con­flicts over the in­tent and mean­ing of the na­tion’s found­ing prin­ci­ples, what Thomas Jef­fer­son called “these truths”: pop­u­lar sovereignty, po­lit­i­cal equal­ity and nat­u­ral rights. Con­ven­tion in writ­ing Amer­i­can his­tory once called for con­struct­ing a grand nar­ra­tive memo­ri­al­iz­ing the pre­sumed suc­cess of these prin­ci­ples, like a stone­ma­son

turn­ing a mon­u­ment out of gran­ite. Le­pore chis­els deep to un­der­stand their place in the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, fram­ing her nar­ra­tive not as an homage but in­quiry: “Does Amer­i­can his­tory prove these truths, or does it be­lie them?” In other words, to what ex­tent have gov­ern­ment and so­ci­ety ac­cepted them as the prov­ince of all or some of the peo­ple — whites and non­whites; men and women; na­tive-born and im­mi­grant? The an­swer is that or­ga­nized ef­forts have painstak­ingly chipped away at the stony in­tran­si­gence that has im­paired the vi­a­bil­ity of these truths since their con­cep­tion.

At the heart of all such con­flicts, she ar­gues, is the lin­ger­ing dis­pute over the ori­gin of truth. To some Amer­i­cans, truth de­rived from God, to oth­ers from na­ture or the hu­man mind. In 1925, the fa­mous bat­tle royale be­tween Clarence Dar­row and Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan that the Scopes Mon­key Trial be­came was

no less a con­test over teach­ing evo­lu­tion in schools than one over the supremacy of faith or rea­son. Sim­i­lar con­tests, some of them blood­let­ting, man­i­fested them­selves in slav­ery, seg­re­ga­tion, In­dian re­moval, im­mi­gra­tion, chau­vin­ism, war, bank­ing, la­bor, af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and do­mes­tic se­cu­rity. This di­vide un­der­lies the fears and re­sent­ments that es­ca­late among those claim­ing ti­tle to the Amer­i­can prom­ise when­ever the tra­di­tion­ally ex­cluded chal­lenge claim and prom­ise alike.

To pro­tect their claim, ti­tle­hold­ers bloated his­tory with myths, dis­tor­tions and lies, abridg­ing the po­ten­tial of the found­ing truths. Read­ers en­counter the usual sus­pects — white su­prem­a­cists, eu­geni­cists, chau­vin­ists, iso­la­tion­ists, war hawks, evan­ge­lists, film­mak­ers, politi­cians — and less-fa­mil­iar oth­ers.

“These Truths” is not a screed of a left­ist scholar. Bold, dar­ing, stir­ring, in­spir­ing, even epic are words Le­pore pins on the Amer­i­can

past. She presents an hon­est his­tory, one that searches for ev­i­dence and an­swers, for the mis­placed keys that will “un­lock the prison of the present.” She takes her cue from the Found­ing Fathers, who un­locked their own. They were avid stu­dents of his­tory who brought forth from the past the in­tel­lec­tual and philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tion for the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and Con­sti­tu­tion, and the vi­sion for a great na­tion. They them­selves failed to live up to the prin­ci­ples they penned, yet their ink pre­served them for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Some his­to­ri­ans shy from pre­sent­ing the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence as the story of progress. Le­pore seems not so bash­ful. For nearly every low point in the na­tion’s un­du­lat­ing past there fol­lowed an up­swing, of­ten in­volv­ing a hero, al­though fre­quently some­one other than the tra­di­tional starspan­gled sav­ior. She equates progress not with greater mil­i­tary and eco­nomic

might, not with shin­ing cities or sleek high-tech so­ci­ety. It has come with the na­tion inch­ing closer to val­i­dat­ing what the Founders had wrought, the im­pe­tus orig­i­nat­ing with the en­shack­led, dis­pos­sessed, clos­eted, si­lenced and stepped-on. The well-sung Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. are here, along with the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, fleshed out as a bril­liant his­to­rian who used his­tory hon­estly, and Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, a savvy agent of change.

“These Truths” is not an un­set­tling read. It cap­tures the full­ness of the past, where hope rises out of de­spair, re­newal out of destruc­tion and for­ward mo­men­tum out of set­backs. Le­pore points vividly to the true source of Amer­i­can ex­cep­tion­al­ism, peo­ple who step from the pages and reaf­firm your love of coun­try.


Like Ben­jamin West’s can­vas of Bri­tish and Amer­i­can peace com­mis­sion­ers, the U.S.’ as­pi­ra­tion to its ideals is in­com­plete.

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