H.W. Brands has been writing about American history for 30 years. His next book, “Heirs of the Founders,” will be published in November.
Themes in history are like constellations in the night sky. Both are artificial constructs superimposed on reality by observers of confusing terrain. They often tell more about their makers than about the reality observed. Orion looked like a hunter to the ancient Greeks; the same stars today might be called Pylon (for holding up power lines). The groupings of stars depend on the position of the observer. Cygnus is a compact swan when seen from the Earth’s orbit; from other locations its stars would be strewn across the entire sky.
Themes have been as essential to historical navigation as constellations once were to nautical navigation. The favored themes have changed over time. George Bancroft in the nation-building era of the 19th century made the emergence of the American republic appear part of a providential plan. Charles and Mary Beard took the skeptical view of capitalism characteristic of the Progressive era of the early 20th century and read it back into the 18th and 19th centuries. Howard Zinn, in the 1980s, caught up in contemporary movements for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, Native American rights and other rights, wrote of how the rights of the many had long been sacrificed to the privileges of the few.
Jill Lepore’s guiding star is the Declaration of Independence. “These Truths” of her title are the ones Thomas Jefferson called “sacred and undeniable” and Benjamin Franklin amended to “self-evident”; Lepore distills them to three: “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.” She traces the development and application of these ideas in America’s history, demonstrating where the country has lived up to Jefferson’s challenge and where it has failed. “There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty.”
Lepore is a professor at Harvard and the author of several books on American history. She is also a staff writer for the New Yorker. She has drawn on her books and articles for the present work, which is strongest where it overlaps the ground she has previously covered. Her delightful book on Jane Franklin and her brother Benjamin provides a wealth of material for her coverage here of the colonial and early national eras. Her book on slavery in New York sets the template for something her current book does better than any other comprehensive history of the United States: writing the lives of slaves into the story of the republic.
Authors get to choose what they include in their books and what they leave out. “I’ve confined myself to what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty-first century need to know about their own past,” Lepore says. She adds that she intends for her book “to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” Perhaps it’s been a while since she examined old civics books, because Lepore’s doesn’t look much like any of those. This is a good thing, for the most part. There was a lot that was left out of those books, on women and minorities, and on the warp and woof of daily life.
But any reader who expects a primer on America’s political evolution is going to be at a loss at times. Lepore admits to paying little attention to military history, yet the short shrift she gives to the Civil War, as an episode in American political history even apart from the battles, is going to leave uninitiated readers mystified as to why that conflict still roils the nation. She covers World War I in hardly more space than she devotes to H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds.” This, too, would fall under the author’s prerogative, if the subtitle of the book — “A History of the United States” — didn’t promise more. The lack of coverage of the American West will remind some readers of the famous New Yorker map that compresses everything west of the Hudson River into an undifferentiated blur.
Lepore recounts the founding of the New Yorker in the 1920s and the origin of the magazine’s devotion to fact-checking. Book publishers don’t have the budgets to comb so closely. The inevitable errors in a work as ambitious as this are mostly minor. American deaths in World War I are confused with casualties, and the wrong year is given for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. A more significant slip has the Confederacy consisting of 15 states. In fact only 11 of the 15 slave states seceded. Had all 15 gone out, the task of preserving the Union would have been much harder.
Lepore generally lets her story tell itself. Where she renders judgments, they are usually sound. She chides Woodrow Wilson for segregating the federal workforce, but she reminds us that the Jim Crow system had many authors besides Wilson. “This was the work of his generation, the work of the generation that came before him, and the work of the generation that would follow him.”
Lepore’s account of the transformation of attitudes toward the Second Amendment is timely. So is her treatment of immigration and the legal construction of citizenship. She demonstrates that attack advertising in politics is as old as advertising itself. The continuing assault on Obamacare has its roots in conservative resistance to Harry Truman’s plan for a national health insurance system. The emotions that elected Donald Trump have been around for generations. “Populism entered American politics at the end of the 19th century, and it never left,” she says. Interestingly, Lepore’s coverage of the Jacksonian era describes something that looked a lot like populism at that earlier time.
There’s not much historiography in Lepore’s book, which is another good thing; the history of history can be deadly dull. But she lights into Newt Gingrich for recasting American history into a fairy tale for Republicans: “Gingrich’s account of America’s past was a fantasy, useful to his politics, but useless as history — heedless of difference and violence and the struggle for justice. It also undermined and belittled the American experiment, making it less bold, less daring, less interesting, less violent, a daffy, reassuring bedtime story instead of a stirring, terrifying, inspiring, troubling, earth-shaking epic.”
Yet the Gingrich version carried conservatives to power. Lepore employs a different metaphor to explain how this happened: “Conservatives had pulled up the ship’s planking to make bonfires of rage; they had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship’s very mast.”
Those devoted to an honest reckoning with America’s past have their work cut out for them. Lepore’s book is a good place to start.
By Jill Lepore
W.W. Norton. 960 pp. $39.95