A sprawling journey through time

Jill Lepore works to condense 240 years of American history into one volume.

A VISITOR browses in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. (photo credit: WHITNEY CURTIS/REUTERS)
A VISITOR browses in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
At the end of the musical Hamilton, the cast chants, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – a question profound to both historians and nations.
After the 2016 election, Jon Durbin, an editor at W.W. Norton, suggested to Jill Lepore, the prodigiously gifted Harvard scholar, that she attempt the preposterous: a single-volume history to tell the story of a divided country.
Such books were popular in the 1930s, when fascism and Nazism imperiled democracy. A clutch of American historians sat down at their manual typewriters to tap out a case that governance by the people wasn’t hopelessly overmatched by the dictators du jour.
Lepore, a staff writer for The New Yorker, bit. She begins with an 1862 epigraph from Abraham Lincoln: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
In her vivid tour de force, Lepore takes only six paragraphs to reach Alexander Hamilton. In the first Federalist Paper, writing anonymously, he asks “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.”
Lepore’s brilliant book, These Truths: A History of the United States, rings as clear as a church bell: the lucid, welcome yield of clear thinking and a capable, curious mind. She hangs her history on Hamilton’s question, letting it echo through the centuries along 880 pages – 87 of which are densely packed footnotes in a tiny font.
“Some very important events haven’t even made it into the footnotes,” she writes, “which I’ve kept clipped and short, like a baby’s fingernails.” She doesn’t appear to be joking.
Lepore is writing a political book, and where one begins is a political question.
She picks October 30, 1787, when a newspaper called the New-York Packet carried a front-page advertisement for an almanac. Inside it was a copy of the unratified Constitution, 444 words, “a strange, intricate document” the people considered as they went about their daily lives. Readers could also buy an African-American woman: “20 years of age, she is healthy and had the small pox, she has a young male child.”
Lepore, a specialist in early American history, is in her element in the first quarter of These Truths, zestfully documenting complexity and contradiction amid a welter of citizens. Her history brims, much more so than, say, the one David McCullough depicts in 1776.
“My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves,” she says, and her chewy quotations mesmerize. So Jane Franklin’s words are not obscured by her celebrity brother Benjamin’s. And Thomas Jefferson’s bitter complaints that the press “live by the zeal they can kindle, and the schisms they can create” sound like the sentiments of his successors.
Lepore has taught biography at Harvard, and she can shape a life in quick strokes. She writes of weather and crops, of Andrew Jackson (“ferocious, ill-humored and murderous, on the battlefield and off”) and Harriet Tubman running away for the first time when she was only seven.
The book moves chronologically across four sections: “The Idea (1492-1799),” “The People (1800-1865),” “The State (1866-1945)” and “The Machine (1945-2016).” It scatters small illustrations like juicy raisins. On the page where Jefferson carps about the press is an 1804 political caricature of him as a rooster and Sally Hemings as a hen, “testament to how widespread were rumors about the president’s relationship with one of his slaves.”
Lepore finds in the nation’s past “an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty.” But she steadily weighs US history through the fulcrum of racism, what is suppressed in many other accounts animates These Truths.
Here is the sentence most likely to be quoted: “A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.”
She makes this argument – sees history itself as a form of argument – with a steady march of evidence and figures. Ernie Pyle pops up, as does Dorothea Lange and her limp. Occasionally, Lepore overreaches; she struggles to find a way to end.
But These Truths makes a beautiful case for abiding. It samples James Baldwin telling his nephew: “Know whence you came. 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.”