These Truths: A History of the United States

Image of These Truths: A History of the United States
Release Date: 
September 18, 2018
W. W. Norton & Company
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In the decade before the Civil War two writers penned words that capture the erratic pulse of our American Experiment. In 1855 a swaggering Brooklyn poet self-published Leaves of Grass, a revolutionary collection of free verse. In a single line Walt Whitman waved away the metrical conventions and arch storytelling of English poetry: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” Four years later, a leader of the nascent women’s rights movement reached out to another in disillusionment and quiet fury. The Seneca Falls convention, birthed in a rush of hope in 1848, had failed to gain equality for women.

As Harvard historian and New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore observes in These Truths, her wise and witty joyride through American history, “The citizenship of women was of such a limited scope that in 1859, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote bitterly to Susan B. Anthony: ‘When I pass the gates of the celestials and good Peter asks me where I want to sit, I will say, “Anywhere so that I am neither a negro nor a woman. Confer on me, great angel, the glory of White manhood, so that henceforth I may feel unlimited freedom.”’”

As Lepore suggests, contradiction and irony form the cells of our body politic. In Whitman and Stanton’s time a majority of its citizens could not vote, with millions held in bondage, fated to unspeakable suffering. And yet the white manhood Stanton mocked was marching to its own agonies: upward of 750,000 soldiers from both North and South were slaughtered during the conflict, along with an estimated 40,000 African Americans; thousands more survived with scars and mutilated flesh. Many were poor immigrants. Many were conscripted against their will—hardly the “unlimited freedom” that Stanton had imagined.

Stanton and Anthony both lived into the 20th century, second-class citizens denied suffrage, but with their limbs and ideas intact. And those ideas gradually bore fruit.

Lepore begins her expansive study with Columbus and the dawn of European colonization and moves quickly to the Revolutionary War generation, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights all imbued with Enlightenment philosophy. These early pages are sprightly, authoritative. She quotes Jefferson: We hold these truths to be self-evident, and this declarative statement serves not only as the book’s title but also as leitmotif. As Lepore grasps all too well, our nation’s truths are anything but self-evident—the historical evidence we have contradicts our own noble ideals, from the Three-Fifths Compromise onward.

And then she’s off to the races, a thrilling sprint through the major upheavals and familiar figures. Here are the clever machinations of Alexander Hamilton, the searing genius of Frederick Douglass, the human-rights morality of Eleanor Roosevelt. So how does a critic, even one as trenchant and eloquent as Lepore, justify compressing the arc of American history between two covers?

Some periods warrant only a few paragraphs. Don’t count on exegeses of the Arthur and Cleveland administrations. Lepore’s brilliance lies not in her throughline but in the fascinating detours she takes, guiding us down the offramps and along the byways where we meet a cast of remarkable, half-forgotten Americans. Collectively, these stories shine a light on how and why history is often made in the margins.

During the Second Great Awakening, a free black woman and evangelical, Maria B. Stewart, strode into the Boston office of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, demanding a job. She got it. With a preacher’s fervor Stewart wrote about slavery and racism: “Oh, America, America, foul and indelible is thy stain!” The newspaper mogul Horace Greeley hired the erudite Margaret Fuller, whose reporting in the United States and Europe was provocative, combative. “She was a scourge of lesser intellects,” Lepore notes. “Edgar Allan Poe, whose work she did not admire, described her as wearing a perpetual sneer.”

After the Civil War a prairie populist, Mary E. Lease, “the people party’s Amazon,” galvanized farmers and wage earners against the captains of industry, pioneering a “female political style” that would one day “drive the modern conservative movement.”

Walter Lippmann, the post-World War I journalist and pundit, realized that gullible Americans would swallow whatever the market cooked up, asking himself a crucial question: Does truth derive from faith or reason? The pompous critic H. L. Mencken covered the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, horrified by the ignorant, bigoted crowds outside the rural Tennessee courthouse. The fault lines within the United States have been with us a long, long time.

There’s more. After losing to FDR in 1940, Republican Wendell Willkie toured the country, drumming up support for the president’s desire to go to war with Hitler, even attacking a speech by the isolationist hero Charles Lindbergh as “anti-American.” Willkie put country over party, a genuine patriot and decent man, but he proved the exception. A married Californian couple, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, ushered in our partisan era when they founded Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm committed to electing conservatives at all costs. They played a key role in gunning down Harry Truman’s national health plan.

And Lepore beautifully fleshes out the anti-ERA crusader, Phyllis Schlafly, midwife of today’s right-wing mobs, who transformed a Republican party strong on family planning to one hostile to women’s issues. Schlafly lived long enough to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican convention in 2016. We now live in the world Schlafly dreamed of throughout her career.

These stories lend These Truths its richness and exuberance. Lepore teases out larger aspirations which are fundamental to our American character: an almost theological faith in technology as a means to progress, for instance, the bones and ligaments that have knit the country together.

She connects the rise of mass media and spread of literacy to the U.S.’s rapid growth. Again, ironies and contradictions: “The newspaper would hold the Republic together; the telegraph would hold the Republic together; the telegraph would hold the Republic together; the Internet would hold the Republic together. Each time, this assertion would be both right and terribly wrong . . . The American two-party system, the nation’s enduring source of political stability, was forged in—and, fair to say, created by—the nation’s newspapers.”

Against this lush backdrop one wonders where, exactly, is the fresh argument of These Truths? What do we learn here that we haven’t seen before? The answer comes in the closing section of the book, as Lepore mulls over the Iraq War and the lies concocted to justify it. With George W. Bush’s post-9/11 war against terrorism most of our political norms were upended, and some illegally defied. “Truthiness,” coined by comedian Stephen Colbert, has prevailed over these truths that stamp our democracy, severely undermining American principles and self-government.

Barack Obama lit a candle against the encroaching darkness, in Lepore’s estimation, ending needless foreign wars and governing while the Supreme Court affirmed the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage as a federal right. But ultimately her vision is bleak. We were conceived in the liberty of white male landowners; the rest has come only with rage and bloodshed and unspeakable pain.

It’s no coincidence, then, that Lepore ends her scintillating tome with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History: “If we should perish . . . the primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle.” This truth, then, is self-evident: The design flaws of the Constitution have emerged at a moment of peril and promise, and it’s on us to forge a path forward for the safekeeping of our children. As Whitman prophesied, we may very well contradict ourselves in the end.