The title of Jill Lepore's new history of the United States should be instantly recognizable to all Americans.
It comes from, of course, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It's hard to think of a single passage more emblematic of the American ethos.
But has America lived up to the ideas of the founders of this country, many of whom failed to heed their own words in the first place? That's the question that forms the basis of Lepore's magnificent book. Or as she writes, "The real dispute is between 'these truths' and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?"
Writing a one-volume history of the United States is, obviously, a daunting task. There's way too much to pack into one book — Robert A. Caro, after all, has written four titanic books about the life of just one president, and he's still going. Lepore acknowledges that she's not able to cover everything: "No one could. Much is missing in these pages."
She has chosen to look at America through the lens of the lens of the promises America has made to itself, and whether we've kept them. One of the earliest of the country's broken promises was slavery, which the authors of the Declaration of Independence failed to mention in their document. "The Declaration that Congress did adopt was a stunning rhetorical feat, an act of extraordinary political courage," Lepore writes. "It also marked a colossal failure of political will, in holding back the tide of opposition to slavery by ignoring it, for the sake of a union that, in the end, could not and would not last."
Lepore examines slavery closely in the book, lamenting that the victims of our country's greatest social sin never received the mourning that the president credited with freeing them had: "In mourning [Lincoln] ... Americans deferred a different grief, a vaster and more dire reckoning with centuries of suffering and loss ... With Lincoln's death, it was as if millions of people had been crammed into his tomb, trapped in a vault that could not hold them." Lepore is scrupulously fair, writing about the country with neither easy cynicism or unearned sunniness, but her writing is often at its best when she betrays anger and disappointment in our country's past.
The chapters of These Truths are organized by both time and theme; she has sections that center on industrialization, mass communication, modernism and so on. This allows her to focus on topics that have been covered before with a new angle, placing them in fresh, but always accurate, contexts. And crucially, she often turns her sights on names that don't often appear in school textbooks: Margaret Chase Smith, for example, a senator and fierce opponent of McCarthyism, and Phyllis Schlafly, the arch-conservative activist who "was as keen as the most cunning battlefield general."
Lepore covers all the defining eras and events of American history but, unlike some, doesn't ignore recent history. She writes intelligently, although briefly, about Barack Obama's presidency, as well as the 2016 election, which, she argues, "dredged from the depths of American politics the rank muck of ancient hatreds. ... And it exposed the bleak emptiness of both major political parties."
Lepore leaves it to her readers to answer the questions she poses in the beginning of the book. "A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos," she writes, hinting that the American story isn't yet over, and it's up to us to write the next chapters. She strikes a tone that's wary but hopeful, declining to be glib about a nation that's being torn apart, again, today.
Jill Lepore is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and These Truths is nothing short of a masterpiece of American history. By engaging with our country's painful past (and present) in an intellectually honest way, she has created a book that truly does encapsulate the American story in all its pain and all its triumph. And with this country once again struggling to define itself, Lepore's timing couldn't be better. "To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present," she writes. "The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can't be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There is nothing for it but to get to know it."