A gutsy, lyrical look at history
Author doesn’t shy from nation’s unfulfilled ideals
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.