These Truths: A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore.
W. W. Norton, 2018.
Hardcover, 960 pages, $40.
Part Two, The People (1800–1865)
Reviewed by Daniel N. Gullotta
Sweeping histories of the United States by a single scholar always worry me. This is not to say a historian cannot or should not attempt such a feat, yet it just appears to be a Herculean task where no one can be satisfied. But if someone were capable of rising to such a task, Jill Lepore would certainly be a strong candidate. She is a professor at Harvard with a Ph.D. from Yale, she is a staff writer at the New Yorker, a best-selling author of popular history, and not only has she won the Bancroft, but she has also been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Sadly, Lepore’s take on the age of Andrew Jackson and the Civil War era frustrates more than it pleases.
Most of the second section of These Truths, “The People (1800–1865),” reads like a string of historical anecdotes. Sometimes this is used for great effect; sometimes they come off as unclear asides. But overall, Lepore paints a vivid and accurately unequal American society at the dawning of the nineteenth century. After the presidency of Jefferson, Lepore moves at breakneck speed to get to the rise of Andrew Jackson. In the process, she completely skips over the Madison and Monroe administrations and relegates the War of 1812 to a mere two pages. Once the Jacksonian era peaks with the death of John Quincy Adams in 1848, Lepore returns to her rapid pace to get up to the Civil War. Heroic figures are few and far between, but many of Lepore’s featured characters in this era should be familiar, such as Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. Lepore also brings to the forefront figures like Maria W. Stewart, William Grimes, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She weaves together a complex and sometimes disparate set of anecdotes to tell the story of American democratization. Unsurprisingly, it is in these complexities that Lepore does her finest work.
Although Lepore never dwells on any figure for too long (especially presidents), Andrew Jackson does take up a lot of the negative spotlight. Predictably, she indulges readers with tales of Jackson’s hot temper, poor education, and violent confrontations with the English, Indians, and slaves. It is quite revealing that, in a book with limited space to talk about any one figure for too long, she cannot pass up quoting Thomas Jefferson’s remark that Jackson as president would be “one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place.” Lepore claims that Jackson “masqueraded as the champion of the common man” and, like many historians of late, labels Jackson simply as a “populist.” Despite the fact that suffrage had expanded for white men, with four times as many men casting ballots in 1828 than 1824, Lepore casts Jackson’s victory as “the birth of American populism” instead of the rise of American democracy. Because populism is more of a method than a coherent ideology, and certainly one could make a strong case for placing Andrew Jackson and his Democrats within this realm, it is disappointing that Lepore gives them no intellectual weight or historical credit for creating the United States’s first mass political party. Those searching for how class politics and economic realities influenced the Jacksonian brand will find none of it in Lepore and will have to go back to Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy (2005), Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution (1991), and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (1945).
Regrettably, women have no place in Lepore’s reconstruction of the early Democratic Party, as she asserts that “Democrats banned women from their rallies” and cites one contemporary voice as saying, “the ladies were Whigs.” But the Jacksonian movement did feature women in important ways, as detailed by Mark R. Cheathem’s The Coming of Democracy (2018). Besides championing Jackson as the protector of womanly honor, one newspaper at the time claimed that Jackson “ha[d] more ladies electioneering for him than the young Hercules of the War Department (John C. Calhoun),” and another asserted that Jackson was trying “a new mode of electioneering, which [was] to enlist ladies.” While the Whigs were noted for their high levels of female participation, Lepore underestimates the enthusiasm and activity of Jacksonian women.
Related to Jackson, what is most disconcerting is how Lepore handles Indian Removal. She lays almost all the blame on Jackson, portraying him as a simple Indian hater. This rending is overly simplistic and does not grapple with his warped sense of paternalism, which has been engaged sympathetically by Robert Remini in Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (2001) and most recently and more critically by Dawn Peterson in Indians in the Family (2018). Additionally, while Jackson is certainly one of the most significant figures in the history of Indian removal, framing him as its sole architect and executor is both unfair and inaccurate. There is plenty of blame to go around. More concerning, however, is when Lepore states, “Jackson directed his policy of Indian removal at the much bigger communities of native peoples in the Southeast,” and “[t]his policy applied only to the South.” Not only is this an incomplete history, Lepore is simply wrong. As John Bowes’s Land Too Good for Indians (2016) notes, Indian removal also took place in the Old Northwest, affecting the Potawatomi, Delaware, Seneca, Cayuga, Miami, Shawnee, Wyandot, Odawa, and Ojibwe. It is a troubling oversight.
The book also includes other slippages that might confuse readers, as well as some outright errors. For example, Lepore states that, during the election of 1800, Jefferson and Adams “received an equal number of votes in the Electoral College, a tie that, under the terms of the Constitution, was to be broken by a vote in the House of Representatives.” In reality, the tie was between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, with John Adams coming in third (which Lepore correctly states a few pages later). Additionally, because Lepore does not explain the rise of the Whig Party in much detail, and since Henry Clay plays such a minor role in her recounting of the Jacksonian era, her wording “[John] Quincy Adams steered the erratic course of the Whig Party” gives the mistaken impression that Quincy Adams was key in forming the Whig Party and that he was a figurehead in its development. But Quincy Adams never formally joined the Whig Party and often found himself disappointed by the Whig leadership, particularly in regard to their softness on slavery. Not to belabor the point, but as a final example, in a section about Manifest Destiny, Lepore claims that “[James K.] Polk wanted to acquire Florida.” But by the time Polk was president, the Florida territory had been within U.S. borders since the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1820. One must assume she instead meant that Polk wanted to secure Florida’s entrance into the union as a slaveholding state, which was accomplished in 1845.
Thankfully, Lepore does not short shrift the prominent place of religion in the early Republic and the Civil War. She rightly credits how much Christianity helped shape the foundations of the abolitionist movement, she notes how anti-Catholic violence helped drive Irish and German immigrants into the arms of the Jacksonian Democrats, how the religious revivals facilitated the growth of literacy within the early Republic, and other significant factors. But like many historians of the era, where religion is emphasized, it is only Protestant Christianity. New and unorthodox Christian movements such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, non-Christians, such as Jews, and para-Christian figures in this period, like Spiritualists, are nowhere to be found, presumably for reasons of space. Those interested in alternative religious stories during this period and beyond would do well to check out Peter Manseau’s accessible and equally wide-ranging history One Nation, Under Gods (2015).
Given the book’s focus, there is little of the actual Civil War to be found. Lepore sums up most of the actual conflict with the single line, “In campaigns of singular ferocity, 2.1 million Northerners battled 888,000 Southerners in more than two hundred battles.” Instead of reading about the Battle of Gettysburg, readers will learn more about its dedication. Rather than focusing on the Confederacy’s battle tactics and military miscalculations, Lepore highlights how Confederate women protested to their government and in turn created America’s first form of state welfare. This presentation of the Civil War will no doubt frustrate some but delight others.
Lepore certainly makes it clear that the Civil War was fought by the Southern ruling class out of defense for slavery and support for white supremacy. She does not render this judgment herself, but rather allows leading Confederates to speak for themselves. Yet she gives little if any explanation as to why the average underprivileged Confederate would fight in a war to preserve slavery. For these explanatory voices, one should be directed to Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men (2017) and Gary W. Gallagher’s The Confederate War (1997).
Fortunately, even with the space constraints of These Truths, Lepore’s Abraham Lincoln comes across as well rounded. She notes his many talents as well as his flaws, but most importantly she maps Lincoln’s evolution on the issue of slavery, tracing his commitment from its gradual end to his hope for slavery’s outright annihilation. These Truths’ second section ends with his death and the national mourning, and while Lepore clearly celebrates the spirit of Lincoln, she reminds her readers of the price paid by slaves for the prosperity of the early United States.
There is a lot to applaud in These Truths, but the end result is a mixed bag written in beautiful prose. Lepore’s effortless weaving together of disparate figures to inform readers about key historical events is deeply satisfying. Those completely unacquainted with the age of Jackson, the brewing sectional divisions, and the Civil War will certainly learn from the book. But those familiar with this period will gain little more than anecdotes they may not have come across before. There are, of course, the errors and oversights, which in fairness could be easily fixed in a second edition and would not take away anything from the thrust of book. But this section covering the antebellum period to the Lincoln assassination left me wanting more. It is my hope that other readers struck by this feeling will seek out additional histories. As Andrew Jackson said of his own era, “The time at which I stand before you is full of interest.”
Daniel N. Gullotta is a doctoral student in American religious history at Stanford University.
Reviews in this series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four