Award-winning historian Jill Lepore has written a large political and cultural history of our nation, from Columbus through the early months of Donald Trump's presidency. These Truths: A History of the United States is a big book in more ways than one. It traces the origin and fate of the big ideas behind the American experiment and is the most important one-volume United States history in decades.
Most of these big ideas are found in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and 1787 Constitution of the United States. In an introduction titled "The Question Stated," Lepore notes that the Constitution was meant to initiate a new era of government. Alexander Hamilton pointed out the new nation was an experiment that would determine whether people could govern themselves based on reason and choice, or whether they must be governed merely by accident and force, as had long been the case. The book is an account of the origin, course and consequences of this experiment.
Thomas Jefferson noted that America rests on three ideas: political equality, natural rights and sovereignty of the people. Regarding these ideas, he wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
Lepore ends the book with an epilogue titled "The Question Addressed" that responds to the introduction. Are Americans really capable governing themselves? Her response is not encouraging. Although the American story is still unfolding, based on past performance it's questionable whether we have lived up to our founding aspirations and documents. Have we in fact governed ourselves based on reason and choice, or have special interests and prejudices -- "accident and force" -- prevailed? Have all people, including, for example, blacks, native Americans and women, received political equality? Is it fair to say that all Americans, including all income groups, receive the "unalienable rights" of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Lepore does not answer such questions with a flat "no," but she certainly has her doubts, stemming from the all-too-clear history of our nation.
Between these introductory and concluding book-ends, Lepore paints in soaring prose the 520-year saga of America. The book is chiefly a political history, with germane fragments of social and cultural history and practically no attention to military or diplomatic history.
It's impossible to convey the breadth of Lepore's many threads, but one of her most significant themes is the history of black people in America. The colonies began importing African slaves into New England in 1638. Between 1600 and 1800, one million Europeans migrated to British America, while two-and-a-half million Africans were carried there by force. The Constitution speaks of rights and of equality, but by what right were Africans forcibly brought here? What became of human equality when slaves were bought, sold and treated as property?
The question of slavery was fervently debated for decades prior to 1776. All the colonies were vulnerable to slave rebellions. George Washington's slaves had been running away since 1760; in all, 47 of his slaves fled. In 1771, a slave of Washington's named "Harry" escaped and was then recaptured. In 1775, the British governor of the colony of Virginia offered freedom to any slaves who would join His Majesty's troops in suppressing the American rebellion. Washington's cousin opined that all the slaves would leave and join the British if they could make their escape. Five hundred men, including Harry, ran from their owners and joined the British forces, including a man who ran away from Patrick Henry and eight men who ran away from Peyton Randolph, the president of the First Continental Congress. Lepore writes "There were not one but two American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century: the struggle for independence from Britain, and the struggle to end slavery. Only one was won."
The issue of slavery nearly wrecked the movement, between 1776 and 1787, to form a single nation out of the disparate states. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not settle the question of whether blacks are full-fledged citizens, and a debate over the legitimacy of slavery raged from that time until it broke into open warfare in 1861. Lepore leaves little doubt that the Civil War was fought over this issue.
Most Americans, certainly including me, need to improve their understanding of our own history. In these times, when Americans seem again divided into unassailable islands of ideology, it's more important than ever to understand where we have been in order to be aware of where we're headed. I highly recommend These Truths to Americans of every ideology.
Commentary on 10/15/2019
Print Headline: These Truths: A history