For educated liberals, Jill Lepore is perhaps the most prominent historian in America today. Since 2005, two years after she moved across the Charles River from Boston University to Harvard, Lepore has written dozens of reviews and essays for the New Yorker on everything from Thomas Paine and Kit Carson to Wonder Woman and Rachel Carson. In some ways, this was a surprising development. When Lepore started her career in the Nineties, she specialized in colonial history, a period that many people view as equal parts boring and confusing. Lepore is, however, a gifted researcher and a lively writer, and her early books rightfully garnered acclaim: the first won the Bancroft Prize, and another was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
In those early books, Lepore’s argument hinged on the power of stories to shape our lives. This thesis has become the touchstone of both her historical and journalistic writing. “The rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing,” she argued in The Story of America, her 2012 collection of essays. “The United States is a story,” she claimed; “it follows certain narrative conventions. … Who has a part in a nation’s story, like who can become a citizen and who has a right to vote, isn’t foreordained, or even stable. The story’s plot, like the nation’s borders and the nature of its electorate, is always shifting.” When Lepore wrote The Story of America, she was interested primarily in studying other people’s narratives about the nation, not in writing one herself. Six years later, she has offered up her own account.
“I haven’t attempted to tell the whole story,” she writes in These Truths, her new history of the United States. “No one could.” Instead, she explains, “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.” What does the history of America seen through the lens of 2016 look like? In other words, what kind of story ends with Donald Trump?
The title of These Truths refers to Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … [and] That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Lepore glosses “these truths” as “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people,” and her book loosely follows their fate across the centuries. “Does American history prove these truths,” she asks, “or does it belie them?”
To answer that question, Lepore focuses heavily on political history: conventions, campaigns, elections, debates. This looks like an old-fashioned approach, but she gives it a contemporary twist by making the heart of the book an account of the role of truth itself in American politics. At the time of the country’s founding, Americans claimed that their political arguments grew out of truths derived from history and experience. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense offered up “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” in favor of independence; a few months later, the bulk of the Declaration was devoted to historical evidence proving the necessity of separation from Great Britain. James Madison read piles of books on political history to prepare for the Constitutional Convention, and during the ratification debates Alexander Hamilton wondered, in the first paragraph of the first Federalist, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”
Reflection and choice: Would the American people really be capable of using reason to frame good policies built on a foundation of truth? If so, Lepore suggests, they would need to be able to agree on what is true, and how to determine what is true. In these processes, the role of newspapers was crucial. Madison hoped that newspapers would knit the country together and ensure that knowledgeable voters would choose good men for public office. “It was an ingenious idea,” Lepore writes, one that worked well enough and looked so enticing that it was recycled over and over again as each new generation faced its own crises. “The newspaper would hold the Republic together; the telegraph would hold the Republic together; the radio would hold the Republic together; the Internet would hold the Republic together.” These Truths is, in large part, a history of the promises and failures of those technologies as means of communicating common values.