“This book,” explains Jill Lepore in the introduction to her exhilarating one-volume history of the United States, “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” It’s not a conventional advertisement, but we could do worse than to press a copy of These Truths into the hands of every bored high-school sophomore peeking at Instagram during government class, or every immigrant hoping to obtain citizenship. One of the country’s most accomplished historians, Lepore teaches at Harvard and has written books on topics as diverse as Benjamin Franklin’s underappreciated sister, Jane; the seventeenth-century King Philip’s War in colonial New England; and the origins of Wonder Woman, the comic-book heroine. She has even coauthored a novel—and all this while producing a stream of crisp, witty essays as a staff writer at the New Yorker. In a recent interview, Lepore expressed frustration with encomiums to her productivity, likening them to “complimenting a girl on her personality.” Well, okay. But her output over two decades does inspire awe.
At the outset of These Truths, Lepore warns her readers that the task of fitting the history of the United States into one volume requires hard choices. My own deformation as a professional historian made me flinch when she glided by the Pacific theater in World War II in a paragraph, while spending a couple of pages on the relatively obscure wartime Office of Facts and Figures. Her assessment of the economic boom of the 1950s and ’60s—a few disjointed paragraphs—is insufficient. And Commonweal readers may find the unreflective treatment of Catholics (constituted by Fr. Coughlin, Phyllis Schlafly, and malevolent opponents of Roe v. Wade) discouraging.
But to focus on the inevitable quibbles is to miss Lepore’s achievement. These Truths is at once a compelling narrative and an argument about American democracy, and in making that argument, it keeps one eye focused on our democracy’s unstable present. If the initial two chapters, taking us from Christopher Columbus up to the American Revolution, are the least compelling, that’s because for Lepore the real story is yet to begin. Only with the Declaration of Independence and its self-evident truths, followed eleven years later by the Constitution and its effort of “securing the blessings of liberty,” does American history succeed in fashioning a template for an ongoing argument about equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.
The ricochets of these arguments structure Lepore’s book. The most consequential is the relationship between slavery and the “unalienable” right to life, liberty, and happiness—a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson a few years before he fathered the first of six children with his enslaved lover, Sally Hemings. Such paradoxes abound. The first New York newspaper to include a printed copy of Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist No. 1, Lepore tells us, also contained a classified ad offering for sale a “A LIKELY young NEGRO WENCH,” touting her as “healthy” and “remarkably handy at housework.”
Lepore deftly sketches the protagonists in the enduring debate over slavery, beginning at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia and continuing into the middle of the nineteenth century. The cast includes James Madison; abolitionists David Walker and William Lloyd Garrison; John Brown; John Calhoun; Abraham Lincoln and his political rival, Stephen Douglas; and above all, Frederick Douglass.
The first half of These Truths is organized as much around Douglass as any other figure. The world’s most famous person of African descent, the most photographed person of the nineteenth century (for Lepore, photography is the “technology of democracy”), and the most celebrated American memoirist since Benjamin Franklin, Douglass did more than anyone to demonstrate the inhumanity of the slave system he himself had escaped. His 1852 denunciation of slavery, conspicuously delivered the day after the Fourth of July, excoriated the “boasted liberty” of the United States as a shameful blend of “bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy.”
After the Civil War, Douglass fought for civic equality for freed slaves. He favored the vote for women, too, even if he angered feminist allies by not pressing the issue when Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, granting voting rights to all men—but not women—regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” He lived to see white southern (and some northern) politicians successfully evade the spirit of the Reconstruction-era amendments. By the early twentieth century, just a decade after Douglass’s death, slavery had long been vanquished but it had also become illegal for a black child to play checkers with a white child in a Birmingham public park.