These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
Book review by Jim Scott
This ambitious book addresses Hamilton’s pregnant question posed in 1787, “whether societies…are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force?” Searching for an answer, Lepore quotes Lincoln, “We must disenthrall ourselves,” and James Baldwin, “What one begs American people to do…is simply to accept our history.” Paying homage to both, she offers her story to those who want to know about our past and seek an honest reckoning. She delivers it as an inquiry into whether and how America has kept its documented promises.
Professor Lepore, Harvard historian and literary journalist at The New Yorker, organized her book by both time and theme, covering the history of political thought, American social life, industrialization, mass communication, and technology. Complementing historically sound research, Lepore integrates the lives of lesser known, previously marginalized men and women into the standard parade of the famous and better known. This gives deeper insights into the culture and creates a more interesting read, presenting opportunities to focus on traditional topics from new angles. As a talented and published investigator of the impact of technology on society, Lepore brings that skill to bear throughout the book, particularly since 1945 following nuclear warfare, when “technological change wildly outpaced the human capacity for moral reckoning.”
Thanks to her own recent disclosure, her book includes the Obama presidency and the first eighteen months of Trump’s, but not as part of her original book design, only as an afterthought. Consequently, the book’s analysis of those years suffers from lack of historical distance, and reflects noticeable disorientation of untested day-to-day news.
Ideologically, Lepore spares the reader from a Gingrich-like liqueur of relentless, patriotic, national progress; nor does she bludgeon with overt, political bias from the left or right. Instead, Lepore narrates masterfully between the ideological goalposts and runs the gamut of our nation’s undulating past. However, the book is not without several factual errors, such as referring to a fourth session of the critical 1ST Congress when there were only 3; or 15 Confederate states when there were but 11 (the extra four may have affected seriously the subsequent balance of power); or misstating that the drafting of the Constitution and invention of the cotton gin were contemporaneous (for if they had been, the non-slave North would likely not have thought that slavery would die quietly).
In the end, Lepore leaves the answer to Hamilton’s questions in the hands of her readers, who, in my opinion, will have been richly informed by having read her outstanding book.