America In 900 Pages: 'These Truths' Packs Centuries-Long History Into A Single Volume

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"These Truths: A History of the United States," by Jill Lepore. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"These Truths: A History of the United States," by Jill Lepore. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Over the course of her career, historian Jill Lepore has focused on specific moments in the American story, like King Philip's War, or on unsung characters like Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane. But her ambitious new book, "These Truths: A History of the United States," brings it all together.

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University, about the book.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "These Truths"

Interview Highlights

On what drove her to write the book

"I really wanted to read it. I'm like everybody else, caught up in the day, I check the news many times over the course of the day, I get quite distracted by the latest breaking events. Even though I teach history every day, I felt as though it was hard to get enough perspective to pause long enough to really think about the sort of stretch-across-centuries history of whatever particular agony or whatever particular triumph was the news of the day. I thought I shouldn't just shirk the obligation to take seriously that historians should be offering that kind of a big, sweeping narrative. It's not done very often anymore. But I just thought, 'Someone has got to try,' because I do think we kind of do need a book like this."

"I thought I shouldn't just shirk the obligation to take seriously that historians should be offering ... a big, sweeping narrative. It's not done very often anymore."

Jill Lepore

On if Founding Fathers who owned slaves wrote the Declaration of Independence knowing those slaves were listening

"The most fun writing this book, for me, was finding out stuff that I hadn't known, and just things like, there's this moment, I think it's in 1782 when James Madison is in Philadelphia, and he's been serving in the Continental Congress and he has to go back to Virginia. He writes to his father, he says, 'I don't really know what to do, because my man Billy' — this enslaved man, a grown man named Billy ... he's been his property since he was a child, since they were both children, has been living with him in Philadelphia for the whole of this time that he's serving in the Congress. Philadelphia has abolished slavery. Madison can't sell Billy, and he writes to his father, 'I don't want to bring him home because he knows what liberty means, and he'll just convince everybody at Montpelier' — the Madison plantation — 'to run away.'

"I kind of respect that, like I do respect that he knows what liberty means: 'I, James Madison, who will go on in just a few years to draft the Constitution, I know what that means.'

"And he places him in a position of indentured servitude, which you can do and then it expires, and he becomes a free man, and he calls himself William Gardner and he marries. He marries Thomas Jefferson's former laundress. This is a world that is dense with challenges to the seeming order of the so-called truths of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional order."

On putting lesser-known historical details in the book

"The reason I put all that stuff in there is, historians in the academy understand how you can't understand the larger story of American politics absent those histories of race and absent experiences of women. But still in textbooks, they're sort of like, there's the main-line narrative, which is like president to president to president, and then there are these sort of like call-out boxes: 'Here's what's going on with women, and here's what's going on with black people, and here's what's going on with immigrants,' as if those things aren't all happening at the same time.

"Imagine if someone tried to explain our world by having a chapter that was about the presidency, and then having a few sidebars that were about Black Lives Matter, or were about white nationalism, or were about building the wall, or were about DACA. His presidency is part of these tensions, and also America's place in the world.

"What I tried to do ... and it's hard because you have these larger-than-life characters of the presidents, we know so much about them. Andrew Jackson leaps off the page. But I tried to pick characters who could deliver the other piece of the story, because they happen to be also good characters that you could really imagine, you could see them on the page."

On the Founding Fathers approaching America as an experiment, and how that experiment is faring today

"What gives me the most concern right now is that there's always been a way when there have been problems with the design, there's always been a way to fix it. But we are now in a situation where our political arrangements have been automated, where polarization — that was built by political consultants who wanted to polarize this electorate about that, and polarize these people about that — now that is done by machine. Now it is very difficult to escape the polarized conditions in which we live, because it's not even manually done any longer. That's what gives me the most concern.

"The way social media constructs political communities, reinforces political boundaries, social boundaries — it doesn't connect people. It divides them."

Book Excerpt: 'These Truths'

by Jill Lepore

The American experiment rests on three political ideas— “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them— political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:

that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self- evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.

Still, this divide is nearly always overstated and it’s easy to exaggerate the difference between Jefferson and Franklin, which, in those lines, came down, too, to style: Franklin’s revision is more forceful. The real dispute isn’t between Jefferson and Franklin, each attempting, in his way, to reconcile faith and reason, as many have tried both before and since. The real dispute is between “these truths” and the course of events: Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?

Before the experiment began, the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution made an extraordinarily careful study of history. They’d been studying history all their lives. Benjamin Franklin was eighty-one years old, hunched and crooked, when he signed the Constitution in 1787, with his gnarled and speckled hand. In 1731, when he was twenty-five, straight as a sapling, he’d written an essay called “Observations on Reading History,” on a “little Paper, accidentally preserv’d.”  And he’d kept on reading history, and taking notes, asking himself, year after year: What does the past teach?

The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests, too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching. Its founders agreed with the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, who wrote, in 1748, that “Records of Wars, Intrigues, Factions, and Revolutions are so many Collections of Experiments.” They believed that truth is to be found in ideas about morality but also in the study of history.

It has often been said, in the twenty-first century and in earlier centuries, too, that Americans lack a shared past and that, built on a cracked foundation, the Republic is crumbling. Part of this argument has to do with ancestry: Americans are descended from conquerors and from the conquered, from people held as slaves and from the people who held them, from the Union and from the Confederacy, from Protestants and from Jews, from Muslims and from Catholics, and from immigrants and from people who have fought to end immigration. Sometimes, in American history— in nearly all national histories— one person’s villain is another’s hero. But part of this argument has to do with ideology: the United States is founded on a set of ideas, but Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did, about what those ideas are, or were.

I wrote this book because writing an American history from beginning to end and across that divide hasn’t been attempted in a long time, and it’s important, and it seemed worth a try. One reason it’s important is that understanding history as a form of inquiry— not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting— was central to the nation’s founding. This, too, was new. In the West, the oldest stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are odes and tales of wars and kings, of men and gods, sung and told. These stories were memorials, and so were the histories of antiquity: they were meant as monuments. “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment,” Thucydides wrote, “but as a possession for all time.” Herodotus believed that the purpose of writing history was “so that time not erase what man has brought into being.” A new kind of historical writing, less memorial and more unsettling, only first emerged in the fourteenth century. “History is a philosophical science,” the North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun wrote in 1377, in the prologue to his history of the world, in which he defined history as the study “of the causes and origins of existing things.”

Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered. Early in the seventeenth century, Sir Walter Ralegh began writing his own History of the World, from a prison in the Tower of London where he was allowed to keep a library of five hundred books. The past, Ralegh explained, “hath made us acquainted with our dead ancestors,” but it also casts light on the present, “by the comparison and application of other men’s fore-passed miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings.” To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present.

This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world ­ religions— the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran— are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them— with evidence.

“I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” Thomas Paine, the spitfire son of an English grocer, wrote in Common Sense, in 1776. Kings have no right to reign, Paine argued, because, if we could trace hereditary monarchy back to its beginnings— “could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise”— we’d find “the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang.” James Madison explained Americans’ historical skepticism, this deep empiricism, this way: “Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?” Evidence, for Madison, was everything.

“A new era for politics is struck,” Paine wrote, his pen aflame, and “a new method of thinking hath arisen.”  Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton asked “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?

This book attempts to answer that question by telling the story of American history, beginning in 1492, with Columbus’s voyage, which tied together continents, and ending in a world not merely tied together but tangled, knotted, and bound. It chronicles the settlement of American colonies; the nation’s founding and its expansion through migration, immigration, war, and invention; its descent into civil war; its entrance into wars in Europe; its rise as a world power and its role, after the Second World War, in the establishment of the modern liberal world order: the rule of law, individual rights, democratic government, open borders, and free markets. It recounts the nation’s confrontations with communism abroad and discrimination at home; its fractures and divisions, and the wars it has waged since 2001, when two airplanes crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center eight blocks from the site of a ­ long-­ gone shop where the printers of the ­ New-­ York Packet had once offered for sale a young mother and her ­ six-­ month old baby and the Columbian Almanack, bound with the Constitution, or ­ without.

With this history, I’ve told a story; I’ve tried to tell it fairly. I have written a beginning and I have written an ending and I have tried to cross a divide, but I haven’t attempted to tell the whole story. No one could. Much is missing in these pages. In the 1950s, the historian Carl Degler explained the rule he’d used in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out of his own history of the United States, a lovely book called Out of Our Past. “Readers should be warned that they will find nothing here on the Presidential administrations between 1868 and 1901, no mention of the American Indians or the settlement of the seventeenth-­ century colonies,” Degler advised. “The War of 1812 is touched on only in a footnote.” I, too, have had to skip over an awful lot. Some very important events haven’t even made it into the footnotes, which I’ve kept clipped and short, like a baby’s ­ fingernails.

In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, 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, mainly because this book is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions, from the town meeting to the party system, from the nominating convention to the secret ballot, from talk radio to Internet polls. This book is chiefly a political history. It pays very little attention to military and diplomatic history or to social and cultural history. But it does include episodes in the history of American law and religion, journalism and technology, chiefly because these are places where what is true, and what’s not, have sometimes gotten sorted out.

Aside from being a brief history of the United States and a civics primer, this book aims to be something else, too: it’s an explanation of the nature of the past. History isn’t only a subject; it’s also a method. My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves. I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.

What, then, of the American past? There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty. Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but. This book is neither kind. The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the ­ dead.

A last word, then, about storytelling, and truth. “I have begun this letter five times and torn it up,” James Baldwin wrote, in a letter to his nephew begun in 1962. “I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother.” His brother was dead; he meant to tell his nephew about being a black man, about the struggle for equality, and about the towering importance and gripping urgency of studying the past and reckoning with origins. He went on,

I have known both of you all your lives, have carried your Daddy in my arms and on my shoulders, kissed and spanked him and watched him learn to walk. I don’t know if you’ve known anybody from that far back; if you’ve loved anybody that long, first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort. Other people cannot see what I see whenever I look into your father’s face, for behind your father’s face as it is today are all those faces which were his.

No one can know a nation that far back, from its infancy, with or without baby teeth kept in a jar. But studying history is like that, looking into one face and seeing, behind it, another, face after face after face. “Know whence you came,” Baldwin told his nephew. The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.

Excerpted from THESE TRUTHS: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2018 by Jill Lepore. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on September 25, 2018.



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