These Truths review: Jill Lepore’s Lincolnian American history

A couple shares a moment during a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
‘In a nation devoted to freedom, why were some free and others not?’ Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

In the midst of the civil war, when the battle was not going well, Abraham Lincoln wrote that “[w]e must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save the country”.

Harvard professor Jill Lepore chooses to begin her history of the United States with that quotation, and much of the worst of America, from lynching to brutality to Native Americans, is rightly here. But her true purpose is much broader: as she writes, the constitution adopted in 1787 was meant to determine whether government could rule “not by accident and force but by reason and choice”.

In America’s other founding document, the declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Can this be true, for everyone of whatever race and for women too? Is it possible for the US – or any nation – to be ruled by reason and choice? For Lepore, these are the essential questions.

The “constitution cannot be made easy”, she writes, because “it was never meant to be easy”. Moreover, she notes that though the United States was “founded on a set of ideas … Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did, about what those ideas are, or were”. This is, therefore, a history of political equality which necessarily becomes primarily a political history.

It is also, very largely and appropriately, a history of race in America, of the attempts of many to realize “these truths” and the heartbreaking struggles of those who have been oppressed. This began at the beginning. From 1619, “liberty and slavery became the American Abel and Cain”. The question nearly sundered the colonies from all government. When George Washington died in 1799, Lepore writes, “the black people in that room outnumbered the white people”. But his will, published throughout the country, delayed emancipation of his slaves until after the death of his wife.

In a nation devoted to freedom, why were some free and others not? Like so many Americans, Lepore asks that question and another: “By what right are we ruled?”

The Death of Washington – as depicted in rather whitewashed fashion by an unknown artist.
The Death of Washington – as depicted in rather whitewashed fashion by an unknown artist. Photograph: AP

Her aims are ambitious. This is also a history of journalism, including what may be the first real history of the internet in a political context. It is also a history of technology and a history of religion, which has influenced so much American life and thought. Finally, “this book aims to be something else, too – an explanation of the nature of the past.”

“History isn’t only a subject,” Lepore writes. “It’s also a method. My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for…

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