The story of a less perfect union — and its original sin
The number of college students majoring in history is dropping. In the five years between 2012 and 2017, the fall off was more than 20 percent, according to the American Historical Association. Students are turning away from all the humanities, but most of all from the study of the past. Perhaps they think it is boring or irrelevant. I once asked a student at a college where I taught journalism to tell me the purpose of a liberal arts education. He replied, “Networking?”
College administrators wishing to lure students back to the history classroom might start by assigning Jill Lepore’s new chronicle of the United States. A Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, Lepore writes that she means her book to “double as an old-fashioned civics book,” and it does, except that it is everything those books were not: gripping, moving, and beautifully written.
Besides it’s clear her goals extend beyond those of a primer. She makes no pretense of trying to tell the whole story of the nation (which, she notes, may be impossible to do anyway). Instead hers is a “political history,’’ a narrative of events and ideas, a rigorous argument for how things came to be. And it comes at a time when “Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did’’ on our founding principles.
The “Truths” of the title are the ones set out by Thomas Jefferson: political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. The founders knew they faced a challenge back in 1787 when they wrote the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
The struggle to create a “good government” that lives up to “those truths” has been a hard one, and of course the journey never ends, Lepore writes. But she makes the story intensely vivid and suspenseful. America’s history is a “stirring, terrifying, inspiring, troubling, earth-shaking epic,” she writes. In her hands, it is.
She begins her story long before 1787 with some harsh statistics. “Between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas,” both north and south. “[T]hey carried twelve million Africans there by force; and as many as fifty million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease.” The English, believing in liberty, were more enlightened than the Spanish, who seemed bent on conquest and religious conversion. But liberty was always meant for white people, not blacks or Native Americans. In 1765, John Adams, a 29-year-old Boston lawyer and leader of the Stamp Act opposition against the British Parliament, wrote, “We won’t be their negroes.”
The founders were bedeviled by slavery and the lie it gave to the declaration that “all men are created equal.” They avoided using the words “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution, while counting a slave as three-fifths of a person. Though Lepore’s survey ranges widely — and is especially revealing about the manipulation of public opinion — slavery (“America’s Achilles’ heel”) is at the heart of her saga.
Lepore mines fascinating details about the slaves who worked for the founders. George Washington named one of his slaves Harry Washington. Harry, who groomed Washington’s horses, ran away to join the British forces, which had offered freedom to any slave who joined the effort to crush the rebels. (Lepore notes that the general’s “beauty was marred only by his terrible teeth, which had rotted and been replaced by dentures made from ivory and from nine teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.”)
Such tales, while eye-opening, are dispiriting. And yet, Lepore makes clear: The achievement of the founders was remarkable in light of most of humankind’s history, where power had usually changed hands by force or coercion. Lepore asserts, “[Thomas] Jefferson’s inauguration [in March 1801] marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political opponents in the new nation, a remarkable turning point.’’
The founders got the basic structure right, craftily balancing power between the three branches of government. But slavery’s stain would not come out. Through the Civil War, “black codes,’’ Jim Crow, mass lynchings, and the resurgence of the Klan, African Americans were kept down, often mercilessly. “By one estimate, someone in the South was hanged or burned alive every four days,” writes Lepore of the period at the end of the 1800s. The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to guarantee the equality of freed slaves, was soon used to protect businesses from government regulation. In 1937, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black observed that after 50 years “only one half of one percent of the Fourteenth Amendment cases that came before the Court had anything to do with African Americans or former slaves.” The “Confederacy had lost the war,” writes Lepore, “but it had won the peace.”
And yet . . . the arc of American history does bend upward. In 1954, the Supreme Court gave equal protection its intended meaning by ruling that racially segregated schools were in fact not “separate but equal.” The case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, who, in the sort of ironic twist that delights Lepore, had been required, as a schoolboy, to memorize the Constitution as punishment for making mischief.
Lepore is gloomy about the present day. She clearly worries that populist demagogues and “cyberutopians” will push the country in the wrong direction. But I read her book as showing why America is resilient enough to withstand Donald Trump and the disrupters of Silicon Valley, or far worse. My one quibble is that she shortchanges American economic dynamism.
One of the virtues of history is the constant reminder that however awful things seem today, they looked just as bad a century or two ago. Worried about the growing gap between the rich and poor? Consider: “In Boston, the top 1 percent of the population controlled 10 percent of the wealth in 1689, 16 percent in 1771, 33 percent in 1883, and 37 percent in 1846,” writes Lepore. (Today, the top one percent owns about 38 percent.)
Think that partisan rancor is getting out of hand? Well, “[a]lthough hardly ever reported in the press, the years between 1830 and 1860 saw more than one hundred incidents of violence between congressmen, from melees in the aisles to mass brawls on the floor, from fistfights and duels to street fights.” (Now they just bash each other on cable TV.)
Lepore writes, “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.”
In her introduction, she notes that “[s]ome American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but. This book is neither kind.” No, it is not. It is instead the sort of book that would make college students (and their parents) want to read history and to learn why it matters.
THESE TRUTHS A History of the United States
By Jill Lepore
Norton, 960 pp., illustrated, $39.95
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Evan Thomas is the author of a forthcoming biography of Sandra Day O’Connor. He was a Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton from 2007 to 2014.