Stirring, Terrifying, Inspiring, Troubling—Yeah, That’s America

Photo by Alex Mejia on Unsplash

The first thing I note about Jill Lepore’s new one-volume history of the United States is how out of style it is. In an age of disintegrating consensus and competing truths, who would dare to attempt a comprehensive narrative of our national story? Fortunately, Jill Lepore would and the result is a book you’ll surely quibble with, but probably appreciate as well, if for nothing else than its audacity.

Not that Lepore is a showy writer with an imperious tone. The Bancroft Award-winning historian and Harvard professor keeps an even keel through the tumultuous ride of American history but is not afraid to point out the inconvenient realities and persistent hypocrisies of that story. These Truths: A History of the United States is not a fawning paean to American exceptionalism, but it’s not a muckraking takedown either. As she summarizes her views in contrast to Newt Gingrich’s:

Gingrich’s account of America’s past was a fantasy, useful to his politics, but useless as history—heedless of difference and violence and the struggle for justice. It also undermined and belittled the American experiment, making it less bold, less daring, less interesting, less violent, a daffy, reassuring bedtime story instead of a stirring, terrifying, inspiring, troubling, earth-shaking epic.

As Lepore tells the story, the US was always going to be a risky proposition. She begins the introduction with Alexander Hamilton’s questioning of the durability of Enlightenment political ideas:

Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government—any constitution—by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?

By the time you reach the bulky later stages of the book when modern political machinations take hold, you may conclude that the darker fears of the founders have overtaken their construction. In the final words of the book Lepore casts the same questions on the next generation. “It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.”

Lepore begins in 1492, a rather old-fashioned starting point for narratives of North America. Her reasoning is that this is when continents were tied together, initiating something new. The choice of Columbus’s voyage to begin does not, however, tip the scales entirely in favor of a Eurocentric telling of this tale. Lepore attends to the stories of native peoples as well as to the long arc of Africans who came or were brought to the land. She doesn’t look away from the devastation in those stories, reminding us that “between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried twelve million Africans there by force; and as many as fifty million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease.”

One of the virtues of Lepore’s book is that it recognizes something that should be inescapable about American history: it’s impossible to overlook the role of race and oppression based on race at every stage of that history. Impossible except that Americans, particularly white Americans, have become expert at developing counter-narratives that downplay race and minimize the lingering effects of slavery, displacement of native peoples, Jim Crow, and segregation, to name just a few of the traumatic bedrocks that formed the nation.

Lepore doesn’t write with a heavy hand, perhaps because she doesn’t have time to tarry in this rapid 500+-year exposition. But she does highlight some other through-lines in American history that I haven’t seen emphasized in other histories. One is the influence of technology, which she rightly explores as a disrupting force. Radio, television, and the internet are more than communication media; they fundamentally alter the political realities of their times. Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech in 1952 exemplifies the changes that are afoot, as it divided even Republicans between those who saw the speech as a hokey, emotional attempt at political redemption and others who saw it as a brilliant use of TV.

Another through-line is the role of data and systems to divide and polarize the populace. Lepore tracks the rise of political operatives relying on the emerging fields of social science to move people into ideological camps. “[I]f voters didn’t profess ideologies, if they had no idea of the meaning of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ they could nevertheless be sorted into ideological piles, based on their identities—race, ethnicity, hometown, religion, age, and income.” Soon, with prodding, people did claim ideological labels more fiercely, destroying the mid-20th-century phenomenon of diverse parties that could hold together liberals and conservatives.

Lepore tracks the apex of liberalism to the early years of the Johnson administration in 1964-66. Conservatism’s rise continues to the end of the book, which concludes with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Lepore explains that the reversal came partly because of conservative activism and the charismatic candidacy of Ronald Reagan and partly because of a liberal retreat from rural and working class voters. She quotes two Democratic strategists, Richard M. Scammon and Ben J. Wattenberg, who wrote as early as 1970:

Under the banner of New Politics there is talk of forming a new coalition of the left, composed of the young, the black, the poor, the well-educated, the socially alienated, minority groups, and intellectuals—while relegating Middle America and especially white union labor to the ranks of ‘racists.’

Early in the 21st century it seems that Scammon and Wattenberg’s prophecy has come to fruition.

Jill Lepore

There is much more here—the role of women, populism, military adventures and misadventures, and religious life from the Social Gospel to fundamentalism. Lepore also gives voice to figures who deserve more attention. William Jennings Bryan looms large, as does Frederick Douglass, but so, too, do Walter Lippmann, pioneering political consultants Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, Malcolm X, and Phyllis Schlafly.

Reading These Truths makes a reader wonder and worry about these elusive truths: what they were, what they are, and whether they will endure. The uncertainty of the answer to those questions is unsettling, but you can be grateful for the clear-eyed guide who has led you into them. The audacious Jill Lepore has given us a book we need.

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