The success of the “American experiment” – hundreds of millions of people living mostly in harmony and material comfort, in a participatory government with accountable representatives and a free press, having survived riots, world wars, and a disastrously bloody Civil War – is a natural temptation to either triumphalism or excoriation. The fact that such an experiment has worked so well only a handful of times in human history can lead to a certain smugness even in writers who should know better, and the fact that the same experiment has so dramatically failed so many of its people can make for bitterness in some of its chroniclers. High school and college textbook histories of the United States are often hotbeds of revisionist hindsight, and one-volume general-audience histories are very tricky and hence comparatively rare.
Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore takes up this challenge in her big new book These Truths: A History of the United States, and there’s a key to her approach right there in the title, with a nod to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The terms are vague, and they were already contradictory when Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote about the unalienable right to liberty. Throughout the 800 pages of her book, Lepore never looks away from these contradictions. "These Truths" asks far more open-ended questions than any previous such volume has dared to do. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Lepore writes about the nation at the turn of the 20th century. “A century and a half after the nation’s birth, every word of its founding statement had been questioned. Who are we? What is true? What counts as evidence?”
This is a history of the United States that begins two centuries before the United States existed: the opening pages are devoted to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1513. Its account of the Revolutionary period features names like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams, but also ardent anti-slavery advocates like Benjamin Lay and Doctor Benjamin Rush. And this pattern holds for every other besetting sin in American history; advocates for slaves, for women and minorities are ushered up from their customary place in the footnotes and given prominence in the spotlight of a nation continually reinventing itself.
Lepore writes about that ongoing struggle with an eloquence and concision that’s belied by her book’s large size. She charts the seismic changes in American life, as urbanization took hold and changed the face of the working world (in 1880, she notes, less than five percent of the country’s workforce was clerical, whereas by 1920 there were millions of clerks in America, and half of them were women); through court cases and street marches and presidential campaigns, she follows the often torturously slow progress made toward the self-evident truth of equality. And she makes it all intensely dramatic reading as no author has done since Hugh Brogan’s "Longman History of the United States of America" back in 1985. It’s an unsettling, thoroughly amazing performance.
There are plenty of dark valleys in the story. “By [the time of the Kennedy and King assassinations],” she writes, “the dreams of American liberals had been felled in a hail of bullets and a trail of napalm bombs that rained down on the world from the streets of Newark and Detroit to the rice paddies of South Vietnam.” And she’s unblinkingly aware of the fact that a huge majority of Americans believe the current national moment is one of the worst of those dark valleys. “Each of the truths on which the nation was founded and for which so many people had fought was questioned,” she writes of the present era. “The idea of truth itself was challenged.”
But by that point in the book, it’s virtually impossible not to feel something of both Lepore’s quiet, almost defiant optimism and something of the historian’s long view of time’s slow currents. "These Truths" deftly includes its readers in the history they’re reading, reminding them of the perspective that’s the only sure guarantee against either triumphalism or excoriation. “Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path,” she writes, “away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours.”
"These Truths" walks that uneasy path with uncanny skill, challenging its readers’ complacency and offering a curiously reassuring picture of an unfinished - and maybe unfinishable – fight in which there have been, let’s remember, many victories. In 2018 the book comes as a bracing jolt of perspective.
[Editor's note: This review originally misattributed the quote from the Declaration of Independence.]