These Truths: A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore.
W. W. Norton, 2018.
Hardcover, 960 pages, $40.

Part Three, The State (1866–1945)

Reviewed by Robert Greene II

The rationale for Jill Lepore’s attempt at a new, fresh national narrative, These Truths, can be found in her recent essay for Foreign Affairs magazine. In “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story,” Lepore argues that the nation needs more historians to resume writing the kind of national histories that once formed the backbone of American history but are, in her estimation, left behind by either local stories or transnational histories. “Nation-states, when they form, imagine a past,” she writes. Without historians writing that history, however, Lepore warns that “nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.” Lepore’s attempt to craft that history for a modern audience is valiant. The villains that arise in her work are often those born of an illiberal nationalism—like the anti-Semitic forces active in the Populist movement and the more extreme versions seen in Nazi Germany before and during World War II.

Lepore’s concern with the stories a nation-state tells itself is clear throughout Part Three of These Truths, appropriately titled “The State: 1866–1945.” The American story of recovery from the Civil War—to the end of World War II—fills an appropriate era in her narrative. These Truths is, at its core, a story of how the American people came to be, well, a people. Her focus on the radicalism of the era, especially, helps readers make sense of modern America. Often, the Reconstruction and Gilded Age periods are viewed by historians as the “beginning” of modern American history—think of how many universities offer American history survey courses that either end, or begin, in 1865. But for Lepore’s narrative, cleaving off the years from 1866 to 1945 makes perfect sense, precisely because the question of both the American nation and American state were up in the air.

Chapter Nine begins with a strong, and critical, meditation on the history—or lack thereof—revolving around citizenship in American life. In Lepore’s case, she applies citizenship to both questions of race—African American freedom—and ethnicity/national origin—immigration. While Lepore was in no position to benefit from scholarship published in 2018 while working on her book, one cannot help but think of Martha Jones’s Birthright Citizens (2018), which traces the long history of African Americans fighting for citizenship before the American Civil War. Lepore, however, also links this debate to the growth of the federal government itself, arguing that the government defining citizenship with the Fourteenth Amendment was the birth of the “modern administrative state.”

Lepore deftly weaves together the various strains of race, class, and gender histories of America that have dominated the field since the 1960s. This would be the only appropriate way to write a national history—as Lepore highlights in her Foreign Affairs essay, Carl Degler’s 1959 narrative history of the United States, Out of Our Past, also attempted to incorporate histories of oppression and resistance in a way that would be recognizable to readers today. But Lepore’s book also uses the complicated histories of Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, Populism, Progressivism, and the Depression/World War II eras to say as much about our present day as about the past. That is not surprising; most written history is, in some way, a reflection of the era in which it is written. So we must interpret These Truths through the lens of an attempt to re-create the kind of “liberal” nationalism story about the nation-state that Lepore believes has been forgotten. This liberal nationalism was defeated by the intractable problems of racism—a refusal to allow African Americans and immigrants from places such as East Asia to become recognized members of the body politic.

This explains the structure of Lepore’s sections on Populism. Answering both the modern-day public debate about what constitutes “populism”—and attempting to incorporate modern historiography about the subject—Lepore tries her hardest to give a nuanced picture of Populism as an ideology and a movement in the late nineteenth century. “Populism entered American politics at the end of the nineteenth century,” she argues, “and it never left.” Her analysis of Populism is rich with detail, except for leaving out the importance of African Americans to the movement in the South. Perhaps this is because it would complicate her narrative of the collapse of African American rights in the late nineteenth century. However, the history of the New South and Populism is, in some ways, a tragic tale precisely because of that last gasp of limited political power wielded by African Americans in places such as North Carolina and Georgia. The fall of Wilmington’s biracial government to armed white insurrectionists in 1898 is not mentioned at all. Much of the literature on Southern Populism, from C. Vann Woodward and Lawrence Goodwyn to Charles Postel and Omar H. Ali, points to the African American presence within the Populist movement as both a great strength and a missed opportunity. Not everything can be mentioned in a narrative history, even one as sweeping as These Truths, but the signal failure of the “state” to protect civil rights for millions of its citizens is still nonetheless captured by Lepore with her statement that the Confederacy “had won the peace” by 1900.

Or had it? Lepore’s chronicle of the growth of the state within the American nation-state includes the usual narrative of a growing federal government that would have been anathema to many Confederate leaders. Core to this was the struggle to understand and craft public opinion in the early twentieth century. While the issues of race and religion live throughout this section of These Truths, it is the attention to public opinion that really forms the heart of the post-Gilded Age material. The attempts by Walter Lippmann, Walter Creel, and Archibald MacLeish to shape public opinion in the early twentieth century speak to modern concerns about “fake news” and the rise of an Information Age that offers no easy solution to parsing through so much information—whether real, faked, or in a liminal space between those two poles.

The dreams of a better future also link together the chapters in Part Three. The pursuit of civil and human rights by African Americans in Reconstruction; the rise of Populists and labor across the nation; and the dreams of a peaceful world during the darkest moments of World War II—these are also important parts of Lepore’s narrative. And, of course, of the project of building a liberal national narrative.  

Robert Greene II is a visiting assistant professor of history at Claflin University and a doctoral candidate at the University of South Carolina. He is also a blogger and book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians, and has written for The Nation, Jacobin, Scalawag, and Black Perspectives, among other publications.

Reviews in this series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four