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.”
The result is terrifically readable, intellectually engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. Lepore’s essay on Franklin, our first and best polymath, is delirious in its admiration for its subject and vigorous in its debunking of the myths that have painted him as a kind of cuddly savant. Lepore strips another founding writer, Thomas Paine, of the wrongheaded reputation that made him a hero to Ronald Reagan, revealing a man vilified in his own time for his “uncompromising condemnation of all of the world’s religions.”
American history isn’t a monument, these essays tell us; it is a story — one with a plot that, as Lepore says, “could have gone a thousand other ways.” If Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, which attacked the institution of slavery, had prevailed; if John Adams had listened to his wife, Abigail, who exhorted him to include women in the new body politic; if George Washington had made different choices in any of the precedent-setting acts he established as our first president — as with any narrative, each fork the plot follows leads to its own new path.
At the same time, while history may be about stories, not all are true. Facts matter. Lepore is positively gleeful in skewering the false narrative, exposing the puffed-up. In an essay about presidential campaign biographies, she traces the birth and proliferation of the log cabin meme. Starting with Andrew Jackson, a formula was quickly established, and stuck: “East of piffle and west of hokum, the Boy from Hope always grows up to be the Man of the People.” Not all narratives are healthy or useful, either. If Jackson was grateful his biographer recast his weaknesses as strengths — “He had almost no political experience: he was, therefore, ideally suited to fight corruption” — we are still living with the fallout.
History is always a conversation between present and past — how we understand our present influences how we read (or misread) the past — and many of Lepore’s essays suggest the double lives of our texts. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, in 1860, of Paul Revere’s 1775 ride, Lepore argues, he was thinking not only of the American Revolution but also of Charles Sumner and Frederick Douglass’s calls to arms.
Lepore’s subjects mostly range from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but the essays feel remarkably relevant, grappling with ideas about race, equality, voting rights, taxes, poverty, the role of America in the world. “Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate,” Lepore says. It’s a high standard, and one this book meets.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@
Correction: A previous version of this article referenced Daniel Webster instead of Noah Webster.