Jill Lepore’s one-volume history runs from Christopher Columbus to Donald Trump
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” So asked Frederick Douglass, orator and escaped slave, in 1852, a day after the nation’s 76th birthday. The celebrations, he told his largely white audience, were “a sham…your national greatness, swelling vanity.”
Harsh words, and well-deserved. The American myth rests on contradictions. The colonies broke free of their oppressors, only to continue enslaving blacks for decades after Britain renounced the practice. The Founding Fathers knew slavery to be barbaric—Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence included a line about violating “the most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people”—yet they persisted in it.
Slavery, and the indignities faced by native Americans, women and all groups besides white men, take centre stage in “These Truths”, Jill Lepore’s clear-eyed history of the country. The feat of compression is rarely attempted, still less in one volume, and Ms Lepore brings a refreshingly modern eye to a daunting task. What, after all, is the point of America’s lofty ideals—equality, natural rights, democratic participation—if most of the population could not enjoy them?
Her main interest is America’s political evolution and the technological and social changes that accompanied it; her time-frame is Christopher Columbus to President Donald Trump. She examines the ways in which America’s founders wrestled with, or dodged, profound questions such as the definition of a citizen (curiously not spelled out in the original constitution). Again and again, she shows the centrality of slavery to the genesis of American institutions. For example, the electoral college was “a concession to slave-owners” because each slave officially counted as three-fifths of a person, thus giving Southern states more power.
A surprisingly gripping sub-plot is the history of political-campaign tactics. Beginning in the 1930s, a Californian husband-and-wife team, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, “turned politics into a business”, with slashing, soundbite-driven ploys that remain in use. They successfully backed Dwight Eisenhower for president and helped kill Harry Truman’s bid for universal health care. Ms Lepore traces the trajectory of fake news, from the terrifying broadcast of 1938 in which Orson Welles described an unfolding Martian invasion, to the era of Alex Jones and Infowars. She charts the development of modern conservatism, assisted by the abortion wars and the failed Equal Rights Amendment.
Readers will inevitably query some choices. Ms Lepore’s reverence for journalism—she writes for the New Yorker—can feel overdone. Walter Lippmann and Dorothy Thompson, two 20th-century commentators, command more space than many presidents. (One page, oddly, is devoted to fact-checking at Time.) The Salem witch trials merit the briefest mention; Ulysses S. Grant, the victorious civil-war general and president, is almost ignored. The fall of the Soviet Union gets short shrift, as does foreign policy overall. With so much ground to cover, transitions can seem glib or head-spinning. In a few pages, Ms Lepore zooms from President William Henry Harrison’s premature death to the telegraph to the naturalist meditations of Henry David Thoreau.
But even readers steeped in America’s history will learn something. In an era of raucous division, it is somehow reassuring to know that America has come through previous cycles of folly. Andrew Jackson ignored a Supreme Court ruling on the Cherokees (“the constitution now lies a heap of ruins at his feet,” one senator lamented); the nation survived, though the tribe was devastated. America also withstood the mudslinging of 18th-century partisans, the nativism of the 19th-century Know-Nothings, and the (eerily familiar) tariffs and anti-immigration sentiments of the 1920s.
Both progress and backsliding, Ms Lepore shows, are part of the American experiment. “She is still in the impressible stage of her existence,” Douglass said of his country in 1852; such youthfulness afforded “hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny.” The wisdom can still seem lacking, but the hope endures.