Who’s Going to Make the Case for America? (I Mean, Along with Jill Lepore)

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Photo by Victor Lozano on Unsplash

Late in her brief but thought-provoking new book, historian Jill Lepore gets down to why she would write something titled This America: The Case for the Nation:

“In American history, liberals have failed, time and again, to defeat illiberalism except by making appeals to national aims and ends…Writing national history creates plenty of problems. But not writing national history creates more problems, and those problems are worse.” (131-2)

This America comes hard on the heels of Lepore’s magnificent 2018 one-volume history of the United States, These Truths, which I reviewed earlier this year. That book was an audacious attempt to do something old-fashioned: tell the tale of a nation that, these days, has trouble agreeing on what its essential truths are or even if it has any. If These Truths showed why the effort is important, This America tells—making the implicit explicit.

There is a contemporary spur to Lepore’s inquiry. She, like many thoughtful people in the wake of the 2016 election, is trying to account for the rise of a form of nationalism that was presumed dead after the horrors of the 20th century and the rise of 21st century globalism. The American founders of the post-war world mostly believed that the days of building walls and establishing nations on rigid ethnic identities were passing.

But here we are.

Lepore, as the good Harvard historian she is, doesn’t believe the illiberal nationalism of our day appeared with Donald Trump. Like American forms of liberalism, she sees nationalism as “an artifact of modernity” that rose in the mid-19th century as the new United States coalesced from a state into a nation. She makes much of that distinction, since one of the things that makes the US distinctive is its origin, first as a political arrangement (a state) and then as a people with a shared sense of history (a nation). “[I]t’s useful to think of the United States not as a nation-state but instead as something stranger, a state-nation, a thing as rare as hens’ teeth.” (33)

The American Civil War, then, can be seen as a struggle between competing forms of nationalism—a civic nationalism based on universal ideals (imperfectly achieved) and an illiberal nationalism that was built on the exclusion of minorities from the national project. The conclusion of that war was not the end of the struggle and the illiberal nationalism persisted in fights over civil rights, immigration, populism, and isolationism.

As the quote above suggests, Lepore reserves some of her strongest critique for liberal historians of the late 20th century for their abandonment of national histories. She acknowledges that historians were hesitant to tackle the national story because it does contain so many contradictions and failures to live up to ideals. “American historians within the academy looked to those Indian wars, and to the history of slavery and segregation, and called for an end to the study of the nation, in part, out of fear of complicity.” (119) They also didn’t want to give any more air to forms of nationalism that had curdled into something rotten.

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Jill Lepore

Women and people of color who were entering the field of historical research in record numbers in the 1960s and later were also hesitant to take up the national story because of the “vexed” relationship they felt to the nation. By the 1990s, Lepore says, the field had exploded in a thousand interesting and important directions, but it was fragmented in such a way that a coherent national story was almost impossible to tell.

Despite the difficulties, Lepore feels that the story needs to be told. She draws on Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, to show that every effective reform movement must appeal to the national ideals in order to move toward their realization. You can’t abandon America as a nation in order to save it. And as history has shown, other, uglier narratives will fill the void when no positive alternative is offered.

Lepore’s conclusion, in which she offers a hint of what a new Americanism might look like, is just that—a hint. You wish for more. But you also have a sense that Lepore might be one of those who will flesh it out in books to come. I’ll be watching, grateful for the journey she, and we, are on.

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