A History of Truth in These Troubled Times

Resist Trump Rally, January 30, 2017 (Photo: Joe Crimmings, Flickr).

A conversation about history, truth, and the American experience is necessary in these troubled times. The truth is under assault in U.S. society at the present as the nation, and the culture, confronts an epistemological crisis in several sectors of knowledge. This crisis is exemplified in many arenas of society but, most perniciously, it is vociferously evident in contemporary politics as illustrated by the “alternative facts” and “fake news” propaganda that continuously spews forth from the pundits who represent the administration of Donald J. Trump—president of the United States. According to the Washington Post, Trump has an honesty problem; reportedly making “4,229 false or misleading claims in 558 days.”

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American history at Harvard University and a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an ambitious single volume survey history of the United States from 1492 to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Lepore is the author of several books including The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. In 960 pages of nuanced prose, These Truths is the story of the United States in sixteen chapters, divided into four distinct sections, structured around the democratic institutions and the set of political propositions that have shaped a people and a nation. These Truths also includes a brief Introduction and a short Epilogue. Lepore states in the opening pages of her commanding narrative: “The American experiment rests on three political ideas— “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people (xiv).” This set of political propositions that are etched into the founding documents of the nation are at the core of the author’s analysis.

Lepore describes her text as “chiefly a political history” (xix) and partly “an old-fashioned civics book (xviii).” Though she does craft an expansive text that encompasses some discussion of the history of religion, technology, law, and journalism, this is primarily done to illustrate how questions of truth in the American experience have “sometimes gotten sorted out.” Lepore’s political and intellectual history is prescient in this historical moment of political turmoil. There are a set of institutions and ideas that represent the basis of the U.S. Republic currently at risk, and Lepore’s These Truths is a much-needed guide to help us understand this perilous political era.

These Truths is organized into four sections using a chronological-topical framework. The ideas, the people, and the state that have historically defined “these truths” (political rights, the sovereignty of the people, and natural rights) are the main subject of the various parts of the text. The first section is entitled “The Idea,” focusing on the years 1492 to 1799. Major topics include the first encounter between Europeans and North America, the Revolutionary War, and the development of the U.S. Constitution. The second part is entitled “The People” and covers the rise of Jacksonian America to the Civil War. In the final two sections, “The State” and “The Machine,” industrialization to the rise of modern America during World War II, and the post-WWII-era to contemporary politics are covered respectively.

Lepore uses a plethora of both primary and secondary sources to construct her analysis. Legal and philosophical treatises, speeches, newspapers, prints, letters, periodicals, literature, photographs, and newspapers are some of the primary documents and materials that were used by the author to substantiate her argument. This broad array of evidence is coupled with other primary sources such as interviews, religious documents, political pamphlets, and law codes. Some classic political histories such as History of the American Presidential Elections by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. are important secondary texts used by the author to anchor her analysis while also drawing upon key texts in science and religion.

These Truths is more than a political history of U.S. society or a civics book. This work is also a truth teller’s manual. As she traverses the political history of the U.S. by discussing nominating conventions, secret ballots, polls, politicians and talk radio, Lepore instructs her readers in the craft of history. Historians are described as “storytellers” and “the teller[s] of truth” who work with a partial record (xix). In her assessment, Lepore continuously engages some of the issues confronted by historians in their attempts to reconstruct the past, including a continuous discussion of the nature of historical truth, methods, and the value of evidence. It is pertinent to note that Lepore also consistently contemplates the many contradictions in the story of U.S. history as related to questions of truth by acknowledging early in her text that “there is a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy (xix).” In some respects, though, the truth of political institutions and ideas can be verified by the evidence written into the founding documents. The meaning of these truths as outlined by Jefferson also raise the question of to whom these truths apply. The applicability of these truths has been contested over time within the complex matrix that is the American experience, as the author notes.

Lepore does an assiduous job of integrating the lives and ideas of figures such as Maria W. Stewart, David Walker, and Henry Highland Garnet neatly into a standard text on the American history narrative to illustrate that the truth is oftentimes dictated by space, place, and context. Stewart is the first African American woman to give a political speech. Lepore brings her from the margin to the center of the major debates in nineteenth century America. In doing so, Lepore demonstrates that African American history is American history given that the fundamental truths regarding the nation’s origins and history, from the framing of the Constitution to contemporary politics, more often than not involved the place of African Americans in the nation. With this monumental history of the U.S., Lepore obliterates all notions of teaching the U.S. history survey without a serious engagement of the history of African Americans. It is not possible to tell the history of U.S. society as exemplified in “these truths,” that are at the foundation of the nation, by excluding the history of African Americans. Lepore’s work is one of the better U.S. history textbooks that resoundingly makes this point.

Though Lepore aptly notes that “the United States was not founded as a Christian nation,” and that the omission of religious tests for officeholders, coupled with the “Bill of Rights,” that forbids the government from establishing a state religion, she does not overlook the power of religion in the history of U.S. politics and society (201). The founders were not interested in creating a theocratic state in 1789, but the evangelical ministers who led the Second Great Awakening”in the 1800s “recast the nation’s origins as avowedly Christian (201).” This is another contradiction exposed by Lepore in that the Republican values upon which the truths of the nation rest have been historically countered with ardently religious and theocratic currents in the history of the country to the extent that religion and politics have become, seemingly, inextricably entwined into the present.

Though, in some respects, These Truths is too nuanced. That the U.S. government at its inception was a racial state could be more explicitly stated in the Introduction of the book. Race is another truth that is intimately embedded into U.S. politics, society, and culture. A more direct engagement with race and racial formation as word and idea would make These Truths, already a work of distinction, a more outstanding textbook in U.S. history. The pros far outweigh any flaws evident in These Truths. This is a cogently written, well researched, and nuanced history of U.S. society. Lepore’s focus is clear and her prose is sound. She strikes an intricate balance between the negative aspects of the American experience with the more positive attributes of U.S. history while exposing the strident contradictions in the nation’s story. With the enumerable subfields that define U.S. history as a scholarly field, textbook authors often are forced to make choices about how to cover the vast sweep of this history. Lepore’s achievement in developing a textbook that inculcates the voices of women and marginalized groups succinctly into this story is more than commendable.

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Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.