It isn’t until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment. “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore — a professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker — is a one-volume history of the United States, constructed around a traditional narrative, that takes you from the 16th to the 21st century. It tries to take in almost everything, an impossible task, but I’d be hard-pressed to think she could have crammed more into these 932 highly readable pages. It covers the history of political thought, the fabric of American social life over the centuries, classic “great man” accounts of contingencies, surprises, decisions, ironies and character, and the vivid experiences of those previously marginalized: women, African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals. It encompasses interesting takes on democracy and technology, shifts in demographics, revolutions in economics and the very nature of modernity. It’s a big sweeping book, a way for us to take stock at this point in the journey, to look back, to remind us who we are and to point to where we’re headed.
This is not an account of relentless progress. It’s much subtler and darker than that. It reminds us of some simple facts so much in the foreground that we must revisit them: “Between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried 12 million Africans there by force; and as many as 50 million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease. … Taking possession of the Americas gave Europeans a surplus of land; it ended famine and led to four centuries of economic growth.” Nothing like this had ever happened in world history; and nothing like it is possible again. The land was instantly a refuge for religious dissenters, a new adventure in what we now understand as liberalism and a brutal exercise in slave labor and tyranny. It was a vast, exhilarating frontier and a giant, torturing gulag at the same time. Over the centuries, in Lepore’s insightful telling, it represented a giant leap in productivity for humankind: “Slavery was one kind of experiment, designed to save the cost of labor by turning human beings into machines. Another kind of experiment was the invention of machines powered by steam.” It was an experiment in the pursuit of happiness, but it was in effect the pursuit of previously unimaginable affluence.
And, of course, it was and is full of contradictions: A radically new secularism founded it, and a political-religious fervor came to define it. As industrialization accelerated, and modernity beckoned, Americans turned back to God: Before the start of the Second Great Awakening, at the end of the 18th century, “a scant one in 10 Americans were church members; by the time it ended, that ratio had risen to eight in 10.” And these religious waves advanced the cause of the spiritual equality of all human beings, which in turn became political equality. “The self-evident, secular truths of the Declaration of Independence became, to evangelical Americans, the truths of revealed religion” is Lepore’s insight. And argument raged from the get-go: constant, careening, apocalyptic and at times elevated discourse about real things, vital things, in primary colors, and with passion. All these crosscurrents — reason and faith, truth and propaganda, black and white, slave and free, immigrant and native, industry and agriculture — ripple through this history, with one obvious period where the country simply came apart in the bloodiest civil conflict in history.
No country before or since has been this convulsed with conflict and wealth. No country has been both a republic and effectively an empire across an entire continent. No country had ever been defined as one of strangers and travelers, where waves and waves of immigration constantly churned through society, in what one reformer in 1837 called “the boldest experiment upon the stability of government ever made in the annals of time.” No people were as passionate both for slavery and for freedom. The Civil War, in fact, revealed that there were effectively two countries fighting for supremacy on one continent. The Southern states showed themselves to be profoundly hostile to democracy and civil equality, as any system based on white supremacy has to be. Secessionists, Lepore brutally demonstrates, “were attempting to build a modern, pro-slavery, antidemocratic state.” This meant suppression of dissent and extirpation of free speech: “One of the first things the new state of Georgia did was to pass a law that made dissent” against secession “punishable by death.” The other country was built on the First Amendment.
The war itself beggars belief. In one single battle, 24,000 men were casualties. More than 750,000 Americans died over all, from wounds and disease. Even today, that number numbs. And yet this cathartic breakthrough for freedom nonetheless came to be alloyed. Lincoln was murdered by a white supremacist. Reconstruction — a surreal and glorious period when Confederate veterans were barred from voting and freed slaves exercised real power in the South — was abandoned in a petty political deal over a presidential ticket. Jim Crow must count as the most bitter, resentful and wicked response to defeat by the losing side in any civil war. It suggested, indeed, that the Civil War would never end, merely wax and wane. And its toll on the human spirit and the black body was matched only by its evil. From Jackson’s massacre of Native Americans to the Southern labor camps to the full embrace of torture in the Bush-Cheney administration is a single, consistent and evil line.
Lepore’s most distinctive theme she refers to as “the machine”: a concern that newspapers, and then mass media, especially radio and television — in combination with pollsters and political consultants — progressively undermined any concept of empirical truth, and thereby slowly sank the reasoned deliberation essential to republican government. She seems obsessed with the malignancy of polling; it takes up more pages than, say, the war on drugs. And she’s not wrong about the cynicism of media and political pros. But dirty campaigning, distortion of reality and propaganda were there from the very beginning, as indeed she notes. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were, in some ways, the peak of political discourse in this country, but they nonetheless were resolved by mass bloodshed. And the collapse of a common truth in the late 20th century was as much a function of modernity and post-modernity as of political malfeasance.
Is our current spasm of authoritarianism unprecedented? Hardly. It was there in Andrew Jackson’s contempt for the Supreme Court; in Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus; in Franklin Roosevelt’s effective blackmailing of the Supreme Court to back the New Deal; in the internment camps for Japanese-Americans; in the crimes of Richard Nixon; and in the claims of total executive power under Bush-Cheney. Lepore cites Mencken’s spoof Constitution for Roosevelt: “All governmental power of whatever sort shall be vested in a president of the United States.” Similarly, she exposes Walter Lippmann’s advice to the president: “The situation is critical. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”
The same can be said about the rise of white nationalism in the wake of mass immigration. The last time the foreign-born as a percentage of the population rivaled ours today, a brutally draconian immigration law was imposed, with specific racial categories for exclusion, and the Klan turned not just against blacks but against Catholics and Jews as well. Ditto the consistency of political extremism: from John Brown to Malcolm X to Black Lives Matter. Ditto huge economic inequality — in the 1920s and 2010s. Rhetorical excess? “We see dangerous signs of Hitlerism in the Goldwater campaign,” opined one Martin Luther King Jr. Social breakdown? It would be hard to match the late 1960s, when the achievement of civil rights was followed by an explosion of mass violence, beginning in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1965, and the 1970s, when domestic terrorism was everywhere.
Lepore panders a little to liberal sensibilities. And so in her account, Communism was no real threat at all; Nixon was simply playing the demagogue in going after Alger Hiss (she doesn’t note that Hiss was indeed a Soviet spy and a traitor). Ronald Reagan gets no credit for the implosion of the Soviet Union. Clinton’s crime bill was a terrible failure because of mass incarceration, and yet the extraordinary decline in crime that followed does not earn a mention. But she is withering about the New Left, and liberalism’s turn toward elitism and identity politics. And she highlights truths that are usually dim-lit: that the first attempt at a welfare state came in the South, where women secured a war widow’s pension; that the conservative movement was made possible by women, especially Phyllis Schlafly; that the gay rights movement only succeeded when it took a conservative turn. She sees John F. Kennedy, rightly, as a conservative Democrat. She admires in many ways how the right seized populism as the left abandoned it. This is not an account conservatives will hate.
She’s brilliant at times. She devastates the current maximalist position of the National Rifle Association (which the N.R.A. itself once strongly opposed) in the context of gun ownership and the historical debate about the Second Amendment. The 2008 Heller decision rejecting a District of Columbia handgun ban is quite obviously bonkers. Similarly, the emergence of abortion as the critical litmus test for both parties is an entirely novel and polarizing development: “Either abortion was murder and guns meant freedom or guns meant murder and abortion was freedom.” It is as if complexity has become a sin. She sees both sides in recent times as corrosive of liberal norms: “Both the left and the right, unwilling to brook dissent, began dismantling structures that nurture fair-minded debate: the left undermining the university; the right undermining the press.” Perfect. She notes how recent presidential candidates have declared vast swaths of the public as “unworthy of their attention” (Romney’s 47 percent of “takers”) or beneath their contempt (Hillary’s “deplorables”). They both deserved to lose. And she sees the deregulation of the airwaves (the end of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan) and of Wall Street (under Clinton) as key reasons our politics is now so nihilist and unequal.
Lepore is also a writer. This book is aimed at a mass audience, driven by anecdote and statistic, memoir and photograph, with all the giants of American history in their respective places. There wasn’t a moment when I struggled to keep reading. We know that Washington ordered his slaves freed once his wife died; I didn’t know that in the room where he died, there were more black people than white. I’ve always admired Benjamin Franklin, but he is a glittering star in this account: “He was the only man to have signed the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the Constitution. His last public act was to urge abolition. Congress would not hear of it.” There are moments, however, when you wince at the purple prose. “The Republic was spreading like ferns on the floor of a forest.” Dred Scott was “suffering from tuberculosis, a slow sickness, a constitutional weakening, as relentless as the disease that wracked the nation itself. Frederick Douglass watched, and looked for a cure, an end to suffering. … But it was as if the nation, like Oedipus of Thebes, had seen that in its origins lay a curse, and had gouged out its own eyes.” Oof. The last two paragraphs of the book amount to one of the most excruciating extended metaphors — yes, the ship of state! — I have ever had the misfortune to struggle through.
But these are quibbles. We need this book. Its reach is long, its narrative fresh and the arc of its account sobering to say the least. This is not Whig history. It is a classic tale of a unique country’s astonishing rise and just-as-inevitable fall. And if you reread the book and ask yourself, what is the period of American history that most resembles today?, you would have to say, I think, the late 1850s and early 1860s. Here’s Lepore’s description of that time: “A sense of inevitability fell, as if there were a fate, a dismal dismantlement, that no series of events or accidents could thwart.” Lincoln thought of the nation as a house, and quoted Scripture: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And his words, as always, cut through the ages like a knife.