Searching for American Truth

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States. W. W. Norton, NY, 2018. Xi-xx, 932pp. Illustrated.

Over the past several years there has been a number of American history books that have taken up the task of providing the reading public with a grand narrative of who and what we are as Americans. Most of those efforts, by esteemed historians such as Steven Hahn, Charles White, and Thomas J. Sugrue and Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore are part of larger publishing ventures such as the Oxford History of the United States. Some of those studies follow the template set by the late Howard Zinn whose People’s History of the United States continues to stand as a solid historical narrative that is deeply inclusive of voices generally not heard in traditional American narratives.

In the Fall of 2018, Jill Lepore, a distinguished historian/teacher at Harvard University and a regular columnist of the New Yorker brought forth a narrative of American History that was at once a synthesis of traditional historical chronology and richly revisionist in its inclusiveness of diverse voices in the American story. On one level Lepore’s book is a remarkable achievement. It covers ground from exploration, conquest, settlement, and colonization of the North American Hemisphere to the present day’s technologically advanced and ideologically stressed American empire. Lepore’s prose is at once elegiac and easy to read. His is not a book that us filled conceptual jargon. But it does not shrink form dealing with those issues which throughout the nation’s history has given way to deep stress and tension.

Chief among these issues is the matter of the Constitution. While hailed as brilliant document of legal authority and democratic principles, it is also a deeply compromised arrangement in governance of human socio-political relations. The main reason for the flaw settles on the political economy and race. While Lepore does not ignore this flaw, indeed, she richly and deeply explores it, one is left with the feeling that that there is no real resolution to the fact of racism and the “third way” of democratic capitalism.

Thus no matter how accurate Lepore is in factually retelling the story of America, ideas and theories are given short shrift. Thus while American democracy is good it is representative democracy within a republic that she champions. And while Lepore is clearly sympathetic to the idea of equality and civil rights, there is a peculiarly harsh tone that is taken towards the serious movements toward to achieve these ideals.

Radicalism on the Left whether in the form of the labor movement, the black struggle for freedom and self-determination, or the women’s movement takes on an equivalency balancing act in which each movement has to be seen and treated equally in all venues of society.  As it turns out however these movements for social change are often overly criticized. In sum, Lepore writes about the conflicts in American history as measures of balance. For every hard-core segregationist there is a fiery black militant. When the prominent historian Charles Beard critiqued the inability of America to deal with the Great Depression, Lepore describes him as being “bitter.” When Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) plans to go to Berkeley it is because he is easily provoked by California’s candidate for governor, Ronald Reagan into making incendiary comments at the campus speech.

There are numerous examples of these equivalencies. What this all boils down to is Lepore’s lack of coming to terms with what the effects of racism and capitalism have on equality and the quality of human relations and governance in a democratic society. In order to do that there has to be a conceptual frame to explain and help us understand why from the beginnings of the nation, with its flawed compromise on slavery onto the horrific Civil War, failed Reconstruction, a tumultuous period in which struggles for racial and gender and labor rights have roiled the country (and this in the midst of some major world wars) have landed us into a reactionary swing to the far right that has given us the present inhabitant of the White House. Quite obviously I have left out the rise of Barack Obama and a glimpse of what America could/should look like. But again those actual facts of history need a conceptual framework that Jill Lepore, however beautifully told her history is on the surface does not really deal with. Thus the question of what is America and why we are Americans stands painfully unanswered. But there is a saving grace to this work. Read between the lines.

Charles Pete Banner-Haley Professor of History/Africana-Latin American Studies

Colgate University