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These Truths: A History of the United States


These Truths: A History of the United States

The task of writing a single volume history of the United States aimed at the general reader is a daunting one for even the most ambitious historian. But if there's anyone who's ideally suited to that job, it's Harvard University professor and prolific contributor to The New Yorker Jill Lepore. And in THESE TRUTHS: A History of the United States, Lepore delivers. In 800 highly readable pages, she presents a stimulating refresher course for those whose encounter with American history ended in a high school civics class, while offering anyone looking for a serious introduction to the subject an ideal starting point.

Anyone familiar with Lepore's previous books on subjects as diverse as Wonder Woman or Benjamin Franklin's younger sister Jane and her New Yorker pieces knows that she possesses a skill lacking among many academics: the ability to tell a good story and maintain narrative momentum. Despite the occasional overreach for an extended metaphor, Lepore's style is largely unvarnished, subsuming itself to a story that's rarely lacking in inherent drama.

The "truths" of Lepore's title are the ones articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the "stunning rhetorical feat, an act of political courage" that is the Declaration of Independence: political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. THESE TRUTHS is the dramatic story of how close the country has come to living up to those ideals, and how far, and how often, it has strayed from them.

"In 800 highly readable pages, [Lepore] presents a stimulating refresher course for those whose encounter with American history ended in a high school civics class, while offering anyone looking for a serious introduction to the subject an ideal starting point."

In that respect, one of the recurring subjects of Lepore's history is the story of slavery, one that bleeds into our long and painful legacy of racial inequality, what she calls "America's Achilles heel." Bracketed by the Founding Fathers' shameful decision to treat slaves as less than full human beings and the Black Lives Matter movement, Lepore cites evidence from just about every period of American history to remind us that race relations in this country remains an open wound.

Lepore offers a disclaimer that hers chiefly is a "political history," but that term is sufficiently broad to encompass a wide range of subject matter. Whether she's writing about technology, religion, culture or a host of other topics, she seems comfortable with virtually any subject, offering more than a taste of the richness of the country's past.

In particular, Lepore devotes considerable attention to the often overlooked role of women in American history. She focuses, for example, on the story of Californian Leone Baxter, who, with her husband Clem Whitaker, is responsible (mostly for worse in Lepore's telling) for the shape of the modern political campaign and who helped launch the career of Richard Nixon, while giving us the pejorative term "socialized medicine." Another subject is Phyllis Schlafly, the right wing activist who helped give birth to the anti-abortion movement and whom Lepore credits as "one of the most influential women in the history of American politics." And if the names Mary E. Lease and Ida B. Wells mean nothing to you, you'll find out in these pages why you should know something about them.

Unlike, say, a work like Howard Zinn's highly popular A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, Lepore's book is not a work of tendentious political advocacy. "The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist;" she writes, "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." Relying heavily on primary sources (detailed in nearly 90 pages of notes) and striving for a work she says is "meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book," Lepore nonetheless avoids the boosterism that marred those books when members of the baby boomer generation learned their American history at the height of the Cold War.

For a book that spans more than 500 years, it feels as if Lepore devotes a disproportionate number of pages to the last 60, a period that has been the lived experience of a substantial segment of the American population. But one of the correctives supplied by a book like this one is the tempering knowledge that, for all its unique aspects --- the internet and the 24/7 cable news channels among them --- our time, "consumed by the politics of scandal, celebrity, pettiness, and vengeance," is not the first, or perhaps even the worst, era of intense partisanship in American history.

One only need read her description of the bitter election battle of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to appreciate that, for all its divisiveness, the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore 200 years later, seemed, in many respects, almost gentlemanly by comparison. And for a country that survived a Civil War in which some 750,000 of its citizens died, to compare that to the level of political conflict in our time is the worst kind of hyperbole.

But as these stories too often are transformed into political footballs to be kicked around by competing pundits, one point about which there can be little argument is that too many Americans know too little about the history of their country. Whether it's the failure of our educational system or simply a belief that such knowledge is irrelevant or useless in an age of smartphones and space exploration, the disdain for it contributes to a host of malign, corrosive effects. There's no quick fix for those ills, but Lepore's book can serve simultaneously as a preventive and something of a remedy. “You shouldn’t stop worrying," she said in a recent interview. "But here’s a way to be a more informed worrier.”

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 17, 2018

These Truths: A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 960 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393357422
  • ISBN-13: 9780393357424