A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
These Truths is an epic, breathtaking history of our nation. It’s a history of our aspirations and our failures, of our hopes and our fears, and of our camaraderie in the face of danger and our division in the face of despair.
Jill Lepore frames the United States as an experiment that is ongoing. Can a people, united by a shared history, govern themselves with justice and liberty for all? Or does our rhetoric fall short of reality, and will our interpretation of history lead us down the wrong path?
The results are still pending, but we can at least learn from our past to build a stronger, more just nation.
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force…This was the question of that autumn. And, in a way, it has been the question of every season since, the question of every rising and setting of the sun, on rainy days and snowy days, on clear days and cloudy days, at the clap of every thunderstorm.
Lepore’s writing is spectacular. Of course, she plucks the strings of American exceptionalism that runs through our veins, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The United States, whether some believe it or not, is a deeply philosophical place. For those who disagree, have a read through Albert R. Spencer’s book, American Pragmatism.
We believe in radical liberty and freedom unlike any other country in the world. We may not always live up to our own view of ourselves, maybe not even remotely so, but we do believe it. That matters a lot.
With this in mind, Lepore tells the story of America as a place of ideas – of clashing ideologies, of revolutions, and of identity. She focuses most on the ideas that influence our world today: freedom of speech, civil rights, justice, healthcare, gun rights, the dual-party system, and countless other topics.
What Lepore constantly comes back to, however, is who are we as a nation? What do we stand for? What divides and unifies us?
All histories are subjective. We attempt to boil down the lives of millions and millions of people into a couple hundred pages. They all have an intention, and I believe Lepore’s is a message of unification.
With this history, I’ve told a story; I’ve tried to tell it fairly. I have written a beginning and I have written an ending and I have tried to cross a divide, but I haven’t attempted to tell the whole story. No one could.
To achieve this, she tries to free herself from any ideology of today. She tries to break herself free from the two-party system that sows division among common folk.
Throughout our history, there has always been the idea of two sides. That’s not new. But neither of these sides have some morale superiority. They have shifted and changed over the years, each bringing with them their own moral and ethical baggage into new eras. Our job is not to criticize their faults, but to understand how we can make our future better.
My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves. I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.
This may be Lepore’s aspiration, but a historian is always from a certain time and place. They have their own ideologies, their own views of right and wrong, and maybe most importantly, what of history is worth our attention. But to understand ourselves, we have to start somewhere.
All of it, together, the accidental and the intentional, this archive of the past – remains, relics, a repository of knowledge, the evidence of what came before, this inheritance – is called the historical record, and it is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair.
I have kept this review short in the hope that you will immediately go to pick up a copy of These Truths. I read mine through my local library, and if yours’ doesn’t have a copy, request one!
I will dive into each chapter of the book and update the links below with full analyses:
- Part One: The Idea (1492-1799)
- Part Two: The People (1800-1865)
- Part Three: The State (1866-1945)
- Part Four: The Machine (1946-2016)
After 30 hours of reading, I came to the following conclusion: These Truths is an absolutely incredible book worth every minute of reading. I’m sure there are historians that will pick apart its details, politicians who will argue with its premise, or people who will disagree with Lepore’s analysis, but the simple fact is that These Truths is an outstanding book.
I now have a wider perspective on the ideological struggle we find ourselves in today; Democrats and Republicans bound in a “Washington gridlock.” Lepore makes it clear that there are way fewer times in our nation’s history that parties across the isle have worked together than the nostalgia of an imagined past seems to make us believe.
As somebody who has leaned towards the Democratic Party throughout my life, I now have a much greater appreciation of the Republican Party and the progress it has made for America. From Abraham Lincoln to leading civil rights movements, the history of the Grand Old Party is much deeper than the current moment seems to show.
I have a greater appreciation of the struggle Black Americans have endured, and what that means for our nation as both an ethical and democratic place. “Liberty for all” has never been “for all,” but for those immigrants coming from a very specific region of the world, or those that had a considerable amount of money in their pockets.
Lastly, I have a greater appreciation for America in its entirety. It has dark moments, very, very dark moments, but it also has hope and freedom and a sense of progress that we are fortunate to have lived under. Although we have our faults, we also have promise. I think this Avett Brothers song, Bleeding White, sums up this paradoxical idea of patriotism perfectly.