These Truths: A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore.
W. W. Norton, 2018.
Hardcover, 960 pages, $40.
Part One: The Idea (1492–1799)
Reviewed by Craig Bruce Smith
“The United States is founded on a set of ideas,” says eminent historian Jill Lepore in the opening to her massive new saga of the United States. Yet amid today’s deeply partisan political battleground where the nature of what and who is American is debated daily, she continues, “Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did, about what those ideas are, or were.” Lepore’s These Truths seeks to educate twenty-first-century Americans in non-judgmental, balanced terms on the nation’s political history through three foundational ideas—“these truths”: “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.” With commendable sentiments, this book’s framework counters troubling recent trends in historical writing, such as deemphasizing political history, passing modern moral judgment on historical figures, using “spotty” evidence, and focusing only on “anguish” and “hypocrisy.” In Lepore’s view, America was born of a great idea that often falters in execution and interpretation. “Part One: The Idea (1492–1799)” is no different.
Beginning with Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World and ending with George Washington’s death, the first of four parts of this book is further divided into four chapters that explore a bridging of continents and the continual question of rule—“By what right?” Elegantly crafted, as all readers of Lepore’s books and New Yorker articles expect, the chapters flow marvelously and effectively link events in Europe and America. She also successfully develops historical figures (famous and lesser known) as characters, in a feat to be marveled at given the book’s expansiveness. She weaves in quotations well, letting the historical actors speak for themselves. This is not a textbook. Using Benjamin Franklin as a central figure throughout the eighteenth century is particularly skillful and provides personal insight into crucial moments.
These Truths combines frequently ignored ethical and ideological principles and builds to a recognition that “the United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea” and the centrality of the “common good.” To this end, the American Revolution becomes an idea that preceded and followed the actual war. And the Declaration of Independence, rather than being a singular stroke of Jeffersonian originality and brilliance, was an expression of ideas that already existed among Americans. Meanwhile, the Virginia Declaration of Rights and early state constitutions are compellingly celebrated as the revolutionary antecedents of their later national counterparts.
As a synthesis, this book naturally focuses more on published sources than original research. But Lepore is still able to offer novel interpretations. Her portrayal of English colonization as spreading “[humanity], [courtesy], and [freedom]” suggests colonizers’ motivations beyond the now-traditional claims of lusts for money and power. She also asserts that American slavery was a failure of English ideals and laws but was a necessary counterpoint that led to an expansion of free people’s rights and “new ideas about liberty and government.” This claim that “the idea of equality came out of a resolute rejection of the idea of inequality” is striking for a book that concurrently aims to engage American “hypocrisy” and “decency.” Still, despite a strong narrative and moments of originality, These Truths is a fairly generic history.
This book begins with a puzzling decision. It starts in 1492, thereby dismissing thousands of years of Native American history (and pre-Columbian Viking exploration). A recent Los Angeles Review of Books article by Christine DeLucia severely chastised Lepore for marginalizing Native American voices throughout the whole book. It’s a charge that will stick. Surprisingly, there’s even a deemphasis on women’s contributions within this section. The author has excessive references to the lesser-known Jane Franklin and uses the obligatory Abigail Adams “remember the ladies” line, but where are Anne Hutchinson, Mercy Otis Warren, and Phillis Wheatley? Where is the discussion of the significance of gender during the Salem Witchcraft Trials? What about the actions of women in the Revolution, such as during boycotts of British goods that brought them into the political sphere?
In any expansive history, certain events and individuals will be cut, but These Truths omits crucial elements necessary to achieve her goal of educating the public by creating “an old-fashioned civics book.” The colonization of Massachusetts and Virginia are well represented, but other colonies receive only a passing mention. Important events ranging from the Pequot War to the Albany Plan of Union, both reflective of evolving colonial ideals, are similarly brushed aside, while Lepore disproportionately highlights topics she has covered in her previous books, such as the aforementioned Jane Franklin and the 1741 New York slave conspiracy.
Some of these editorial decisions can certainly be blamed on These Truths being a centuries-long study meant for a broad non-specialist audience. But Lepore’s source selection should give a reader pause, as she doesn’t cite (or glosses over) some key works on the era, while exhibiting an overreliance on others. For example, take her discussion of General Edward Braddock, the British commander in North America during the French and Indian War. She blames General Braddock’s loss at the pivotal Battle of the Monongahela (near modern day Pittsburgh) on the outdated (though pervasive) interpretation of his own hubris. A use of David Preston’s innovative Braddock’s Defeat would instead have illustrated the result as a victory by the French and Native forces, rather than the personal failure of a single British officer.
These Truths is written with the poetic confidence of a tenured Harvard professor, but the beautiful prose is often overwhelming and detracts from a book that already suffers from clipped content. She writes, “colonies sprouted along the Atlantic coast like cattails along the banks of a pond,” but try to find a mention of the colony of Georgia. Lepore’s style is pure artistry, but at points, her poetry overwhelms accuracy. For example, the controversial possibility of cannibalism in Jamestown (debated with nuance by historians Kelly Watson and Rachel Herrmann) is reduced to the evocative but questionable phrase, “They ate one another.”
Lepore’s most egregious error is against the backdrop of Shays’ Rebellion. She shockingly states, “Washington began to wonder whether the nation needed a king after all.” Washington had surrendered his commission to Congress and returned to Mount Vernon the American Cincinnatus—this was a man who refused a crown. Lepore confusingly arrives at this conclusion due to the former general complaining to James Madison in a November 5, 1786 letter, “We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion!” What she leaves out is that Washington prefaces this with: “Without some alteration in our political creed, the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expense of much blood and treasure, must fall.” Washington makes no mention of monarchy, but devoutly wishes for a change to government structure—one realized with the U.S. Constitution. As Lepore cites the letter via Noah Feldman’s The Three Lives of James Madison, this mistake may appear at first glance as a misinterpretation from an excerpt. But the error is not Feldman’s, as he notes the earlier line without any hint of a coronation. Perhaps, giving the benefit of the doubt, this is another example of Lepore’s writing style confusing the issue. Regardless, it needs to be corrected in future editions.
The above section aside, Lepore is refreshingly fair in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Founders compared to many recent works, although the book tends to skew towards their “failure to meet the challenge” of slavery. Balance is taken seriously, but it’s often achieved by presenting two extremes in a contradictory fashion rather than a moderate approach. In this way the Declaration of Independence can be both “an act of extraordinary political courage” and “a colossal failure of political will.”
Lepore has long held the rare, enviable, and deserved position of being a historian who is beloved by both academics and average readers. Her work has a reach that most historians can only fantasize about, and she likely views These Truths as Franklin would: with providing “the diffusion of knowledge.” Lepore emphasizes a desire for this book to reach the general public, which she undoubtedly will. But she also wanted to create “an old-fashioned civics book” to educate that same audience. At a time when everyone is a political pundit, this is a much-needed service. But for whom is this book written? It’s not scholarly enough for academics, it’s too cursory for classroom use, and it’s lacking in the specifics to truly educate.
Despite These Truths not meeting her usual standards (and not receiving her usual praise), Lepore’s status as one of America’s premier historians will not change. Writing such a book is an achievement in itself and there is a lot to celebrate within Part One, including the brilliance of the theoretical conception. Lepore caused controversy with her November Chronicle of Higher Education interview where she, reminiscent of Gordon Wood’s oft-vilified claims, accused “the academy” of being “responsible for its own peril” due to “the retreat of humanists from public life.” In questioning academics’ willingness to engage with the public, social media erupted, causing one early American historian to remark, “I’ve now lived long enough to see the wolves come for Jill Lepore on Twitter.” The book undoubtedly deserves some of the criticism it is currently receiving, but perhaps there are also undercurrents at play.
Craig Bruce Smith is the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era and an assistant professor of history at William Woods University.