These Truths: Jill Lepore’s Astonishing History of the U.S.

Surely among the most daunting projects that any academician could undertake would be a history of the United States. Still more preposterously difficult would be a history of the United States in a single volume, if only due to the extreme selectivity and concision required. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson’s dictum about a dog walking on his hind legs, it’s less surprising that it’s done well than that it is done at all. The range of subjects and events is vast and monumental — the many wars both foreign and domestic, the world-changing social movements, the natural and self-inflicted disasters, the soaring technological achievements —and many of the individual protagonists have themselves been the subject of detailed biographies. David McCullough, for one, has made a cottage publishing industry out of this subject matter; he’s at ten books and counting.

Now comes Jill Lepore, professor of history at Harvard and more generally known as a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, with an 800-page tour-de-force entitled These Truths, a sweeping, often startling history of America that is both a barely-restrained indictment, and a cry of warning.

The indictment issues from our nation’s deep roots in the institution of slavery and our failure to this day to fully confront and resolve its consequences; the warning is that the Founders may have been right in believing that popular democracy in a nation as large as ours was an inherently dangerous proposition, one doomed to chaos without the constraining influence of an elitist meritocracy. It is not too much to say that we are living in the midst of the kind of civic crisis that they feared, and tried to save us from. A republic survives only “if you can keep it,” as Benjamin Franklin reportedly quipped as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Lepore breaks her brief down into four elements: the Idea, the People, the State, and the Machine. At first it’s hard to guess where she’s going with this framework; “The State” and “The Machine” sound like chapters from a Marxist tract. But any organizing principle imposed on so sprawling a history as ours must be arbitrary, as is what will and will not be included in the narrative. All history is in this sense fiction — a story constructed out of necessarily selective memory. These Truths is, perhaps inevitably, an example of the trend in the study and writing of history in the last half-century to centralize in the American story the twin legacies of brute colonization of the continent by the ruthless displacement of indigenous peoples, and of slavery and the deeply ingrained racism that sustained it. This doesn’t diminish the value or truth of the resulting narrative, but it does give one pause to question what has been left out of it.

“The Idea,” in Lepore’s telling, is the notion that a people, for the first time in history, could invent their own form of government from scratch. This is what a group of aristocratic lawyers and businessmen who straggled into Philadelphia in 1787 set out to do. “Franklin was the oldest of the seventy-five men who had been elected to represent twelve states at the convention,” she tells us. “Half of the delegates were lawyers. Nineteen owned slaves. Only fifty-five showed up, and, since they came and went, there were only about thirty men on hand on any given day.” On such patchwork underpinnings are nations sometimes built. The delegates swore not to divulge the proceedings of the convention for fifty years, a pact that, astonishingly today, they all kept.

One imagines those rooms, hot and still in late May and full of rumpled, sweating men. Most of them held to the Aristotelian view that, as Lepore puts it, “a corrupt monarchy is a tyranny, a corrupt aristocracy an oligarchy, and a corrupt polity a democracy. The way to avoid corruption is to properly mix the three forms so that corruption in any one would be restrained, or checked, by the others.”

Lepore observes that, in framing the Constitution, “[s]lavery became the crucial divide…because slaves factored into two calculations: in the wealth they represented as property and in the population they represented as people. The two could not be separated.” One result of this conundrum was the notorious “three-fifths compromise” originally concocted by James Madison, in which each slave counted, for purposes of a State’s representation in Congress, as three-fifths of a person. Lepore notes that “[t]he most remarkable consequence of this remarkable arrangement was to grant slave states far greater representation in Congress than free states….If not for the three-fifths rule, the representatives of free states would have outnumbered representatives of slave states by 57 to 33.”

The issue of slavery was recognized as critical not only to the question of proportional representation in Congress, but to the moral integrity of the Constitution itself. Benjamin Franklin tried to insert a statement of principle condemning the slave trade and slavery itself, but was dissuaded by his colleagues in the interest of their fragile compromise (the Constitution as adopted was cleansed of any mention of slavery). But there were some who could not be dissuaded. Maryland’s delegate, Luther Martin, denounced the slave trade as “inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution and dishonorable to the American character.” Lepore writes that “[h]e withdrew from the convention, refused to sign the Constitution, and opposed its ratification, warning that ‘national crimes can only be, and frequently are, punished in this world by national punishments’.”

But perhaps the most blistering condemnation of the newborn nation’s hypocrisy regarding slavery and the three-fifths compromise was enunciated by a member of the Pennsylvania delegation, Gouverneur Morris, author of the preamble to the Constitution: “The inhabitant of Georgia or South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views, with laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.” The first third of These Truths, covering the period from the revolution through the Civil War, is strewn with such gems, half-forgotten stories from public school education or facts never heard of at all, suddenly illuminated, as if by lightning, by the stark particularity of a voice out of the past.

My wife and I recently visited Charleston, South Carolina, and in the center of the city stands a very tall monument to John C. Calhoun, vice president to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and staunch defender of the institution of slavery in the South. Lepore reminds us that it was Calhoun who developed the “nullification” theory of the Constitution, advanced by southern politicians in the years leading up to the Civil War, which held that individual states had the right to reject laws enacted by the federal government that they found objectionable, and to secede from the Union if such a law were not ratified by Constitutional amendment. This prompted then President Andrew Jackson to retort, “The Constitution of the United States forms a government, not a league.” These Constitutional skirmishes foreshadowed the bloodiest war in American history. Lepore writes that “[t]he nullification crisis hardened the battle lines between the sectionalists and the nationalists, while Calhoun became the leader of the proslavery movement, declaring that slavery is ‘indispensable to republican government’.” That a statue of Calhoun atop an 80-foot high pedestal still dominates the Charleston skyline is perhaps one of the most remarkable facts about the city.

In the Trump era, we are tempted to believe that we have descended to unprecedentedly low levels of incivility and destructive partisanship, but These Truths is an 800-page reminder that such animosity has been more the rule than the exception in American politics. In one of many examples, Lepore reports that “the years between 1830 and 1860 saw more than one hundred incidents of violence between congressmen, from melees in the aisles to mass brawls on the floor, from fistfights to duels to street fights. ‘It is the game of these men…’ [Charles] Dickens wrote, ‘to make the strife of politics so fierce and brutal, and so destructive of all self-respect in worthy men, that sensitive and delicate-minded persons shall be kept aloof, and they, and such as they, be left to battle out their selfish views unchecked.’ Dickens knew a rogue when he heard one, and a circus when he saw one.”

The age of mass communication would of course only make things worse. Lepore’s metaphor of “The Machine” that heads the final section of the book refers not only to the influences of industrialization, and to the literal machine of the computer and its baleful progeny, the Internet, but to newly sophisticated methods employed by businesses and political factions to shape public opinion. She recounts how, in 1934, author Upton Sinclair’s bid to become governor of California under the banner of a populist platform called “End Poverty in California” was torpedoed by the efforts of the first of a new breed, the political consulting firm. Campaigns, Inc., headed by a pair of former journalists, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, developed “rules” for winning elections that read as though they were written yesterday for (or by) Donald Trump: “Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good. Never explain anything. Say the same thing over and over. Pretend that you are The Voice of the People. Attack, attack, attack.” Whitaker was of the view that “A wall goes up when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American work or think.”

For the most part, Lepore maintains the evenhanded, apolitical stance of the dispassionate historian. These Truths is a lengthy litany of facts, not an ideological tract, though the selection of the facts cannot help but be governed by what in her case is a post-modern, classically liberal world view.

As one slogs onward through the twentieth century, the stories become more familiar, the choices of emphasis more easily questionable, and the recycling of what must have been New Yorker articles more obvious. There is a fascinating account of how the once-common understanding of the Second Amendment underwent wholesale revision in the latter half of the twentieth century, and how the Republican Party evolved from a proponent of gun rights into the political arm of the NRA. But why so many pages about Phyllis Schlafly and less than a paragraph about Prohibition? How can a history of the United States bang on about the modestly influential writings of George Gilder yet fail to mention the flu pandemic of 1918 that claimed almost 200,000 American lives? Popular culture – motion pictures, television, rock ‘n’ roll—which influenced politics and government to a remarkable degree in the decades since the First World War, gets short shrift. The story of the astonishing election of 2016 is told in retrospect, in an account of a post-mortem gathering of political operatives at Harvard’s Kennedy School that reads very much like the New Yorker article it once was. To her credit, Lepore fesses up in her acknowledgements: “Readers…may recognize the ghosts of old magazine essays haunting these pages…with endnotes clattering after them like chains.”

She has a knack for that sort of pithy simile –“[t]he Republic was spreading like ferns on the floor of a forest” – and for the most part her writing style is fluid, kept firmly in the service of her monumental narrative. Only at the very end does metaphor run completely amok, as Lepore strains to describe the formidable task that remains to us if we are to salvage the republic that Franklin warned was ours only if we could keep it:

“The ship of state lurched and reeled. Liberals, blown down by the slightest breeze, had neglected to trim the ship’s sails, leaving the canvas to flap and tear in a rising wind, the rigging failing. Huddled belowdecks, they had failed to plot a course, having lost sight of the horizon and their grasp on any compass. On deck, conservatives had pulled up the ship’s planking to make bonfires of rage: they had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship’s very mast.”

At this, a thoughtful editor might have said “enough,” but evidently there was none at hand.

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea. If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky. With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true. They would need to drive home nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill. Knowing that heat and sparks and hammers and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fires of their ideals. And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.”

By any measure, this is wretchedly bad writing, an almost ludicrous coda to what is otherwise an inspired and inspiring work. I quote it at length to suggest that even historians as accomplished and disciplined as Lepore should stick to their subject matter, and leave the florid prose to novelists.

But the vast bulk of this wonderful book is far, far better than its final page. Let’s hope that our own story as a people doesn’t follow that pattern. Before launching her ponderous metaphor of the ship of state, Lepore puts the crucial question more plainly:

[A] nation cannot choose its past; it can only choose its future. And in the twenty-first century, it was no longer clear that choice, in the sense that Alexander Hamilton meant, had much to do with the decisions made by an electorate that had been cast adrift on the ocean of the Internet. Can a people govern themselves by reflection and choice, Hamilton had wanted to know, or are they fated to be ruled, forever, by accident and force…?”

What are the uses of history? First among them must be the opportunity it presents to correct our course into the future. These Truths should be read by every voting citizen, preferably before November, 2020.

3 thoughts on “These Truths: Jill Lepore’s Astonishing History of the U.S.

  1. I believe Howard Zinn had the temerity to do a US history a while back which was a new version of the roots of the US.
    Sadly, your portrayal of the last watery paragraphs have made me less likely to read the book, but maybe I’ll look into it when the California rains stop:)
    Always a pleasure to read what you write.

  2. Keith – I am working my way through “These Truths” at the present time. I find your observations to be right on target. I would add, however, that Lepore’s insistence on using the lens of slavery to focus her historiagraphy of the first 100 years of the United States was genuis — it is viewing our history through a very different perspective than the one I received in high school and college (and I was a history major!). It made me think very differently about the early pre-Constitution years, the process of the Consitution itself, and the politics right up to and after the Civil War. It is very relevent today — as most of my acquaintances really have no idea that the Electoral College which elected Donald Trump (and Bill Clinton) instead of the popular vote majority is based on appeasing the slave states.

    As far as the florid prose is concerned….yup!

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