These Truths

Few history books attempt to fundamentally reinterpret the history of an entire nation. Yet that is exactly what Jill Lepore, a journalist and historian who writes for The New Yorker and who has taught at several august third-level institutions including Harvard University, has attempted to do with her 2018 book, These Truths: A History of the United States. The title of Lepore’s book is taken from a section of the Declaration of Independence, one which was later referenced by Martin Luther King in his ‘I have a dream’ speech before the Washington Memorial in 1963, in which it is stated “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” As Lepore notes towards the start of her book, the ‘these truths’ which Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was referring to were the concepts of political equality, the natural rights of citizens and the sovereignty of the people in the United States. Lepore’s aim in writing her book is to assess whether or not the United States has actually lived up to those three lofty aims during the nearly two and a half centuries since Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Having established what her goal in writing the book is, Lepore proceeds to divide the text into four distinct parts. The first is entitled ‘The Idea’ and deals with the period from Christopher Columbus’s rediscovery of the Americas for Europe in 1492 through to 1799, shortly after the foundation of the United States. This explores how America was first settled by a mix of Europeans from various countries and religious backgrounds, but primarily from Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The United States was then born out of the idealism of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century as the Patriots launched the American Revolution and established a republic independent of the British crown.

The second part, which Lepore called ‘The People’, explores how a popular republic began to emerge in the United States in the nineteenth century. Yet this was a troubled nation, one which fundamentally trampled on the rights of the Native American people, breaching all of Jefferson’s core statements in the Declaration of Independence by engaging in quasi-genocidal policies towards the natives of the Midwest and the southern states. Similarly, slavery was maintained here for decades longer than in most other parts of the western world and eventually a civil war had to be fought between 1861 and 1865 before the institution was rooted out of the southern states.

The third part of Lepore’s book, entitled ‘The State’, covers the period from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 down to the end of the Second World War in 1945, while the fourth and final part, called ‘The Machine’, examines US history in the post-war period through to the present day. Throughout these latter sections Lepore is anxious to highlight how various powerful interest groups and institutions, including the media, big business, political lobbyists and right-wing nationalists have consistently distorted the way in which Americans think about their own nation and the role of the United States in the world. In the process the three key ‘truths’, which Jefferson was arguing were self-evident to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence, have generally been undermined and thwarted throughout the modern history of the United States.

While this is the broad sweep of Lepore’s book, this is a very lengthy book, stretching to nearly a thousand pages when the extensive notes and apparatus are taken into account, and it examines a vast array of issues relating to US politics and society. For instance, Lepore highlights how the two-party political system has developed and changed in America over the space of nearly two and a half centuries and how that same system has impacted on US political life, often to the detriment of the American people. In its wide-ranging assessment of US politics Lepore also draws on a broad spectrum of political views and case studies to present a fundamentally new history of the United States. The book was generally rated a success and when it was published in 2018 it was reviewed positively and extensively in most major national newspapers and academic journals.