Thomas Jefferson appears several times in Jill Lepore’s latest book. In a piece that discusses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s treatment of black men, Charles Dickens’s horror at Jefferson owning his own offspring, and William Wells Brown’s 1853 novel “Clotel,” about a white president’s black daughter, the most shocking section involves part of a letter Jefferson wrote concerning racial mixing and categorization. A person like Harriet Hemings, his daughter with slave Sally Hemings, would be, in his classification, called “e (eighth), who having less than ¼ of a, or of pure negro blood, to wit ⅛ only, is no longer a mulatto, so that a third cross clears the blood.” It’s a document as obscure as it is revealing.
“The Story of America” comprises 20 essays, each of which concerns a text, such as John Smith’s bogus history of the founding of Jamestown, Va.; Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack’’; Noah Webster’s “Nue Merrykin Dikshunary,” as one mocking editorial dubbed it. Lepore, who teaches history at Harvard and writes for The New Yorker, brings to the task a keen eye for the often-competing claims of history, politics, and literature. She finds her most fruitful subjects in the intersections among the three; as she argues, “the rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing, which is one of the reasons the study of American history is inseparable from the study of American literature.”