'These Truths'

Jill Lepore, who is a professor of history at Harvard, has written "These Truths," a history of the United States from its origins to the present day (or almost). This is a singular achievement. Most historians shy away from such big topics, preferring to study individual characters, like Ulysses Grant, or particular periods, like Reconstruction, or much more restricted subjects. This narrative covers almost 800 big pages, plus a hundred more of end notes. "These Truths" is a book for the general reader, not the specialist, though scholars confined to narrow areas would profit from reading it.

The volume is divided into four major sections: "The Idea" (1492-1799), "The People" (1800-1865), "The State" (1866-1945) and "The Machine" (1946-2016). The reader who hesitates to begin at the beginning may dive in at any point. The prose is lucid and reads right along. This is political history, although Lepore has pages on the telegraph, newspapers, advertising, public relations, polling and especially the internet, which the author considers socially destabilizing. This is evidence-based history, told as objectively as possible.

Big American wars — the Civil War, World Wars I and II — receive only a few pages, since their stories have been told in detail elsewhere. New emphasis is given to the Native Americans, the slaves and their descendants, and women, whose stories have been neglected until recently. King Philip’s War, in the 1670s, is an exception, with its possible influence on the Salem witch trials at the end of the century.

American history here is the story of the struggle to resolve the contradictions of its founding documents: the fact that the founding fathers accepted slavery, although claiming to assert that “all men are created equal” while leaving women out of the equation entirely, along with the indigenous peoples. The Native Americans, their ranks diminished by disease, were eventually rounded up and exiled on reservations. Sweeping, glowing statements about American democracy, by Frederick Jackson Turner, among others, during the 19th century, are belied by these realities.

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I found two things to quibble with. Lepore underrates Union Army Cmdr. George McClellan, whom she calls “a meagre candidate” in the election of 1864, and “an inept general.” McClellan’s behavior with Lincoln was outrageous, but he won the battle of Antietam, one of the two or three pivotal battles of the war. Had he not checked Lee in Maryland, Lee might have advanced on Baltimore or Philadelphia, and caused the Union to sue for peace. The victory at Antietam also put military muscle behind the moral strength of the Emancipation Proclamation; without it, the proclamation might never have been issued.

Lepore also passes over the war-weariness of the North, which made possible the 1877 agreement between Rutherford B. Hayes and the South Carolina electors to withdraw Union soldiers from the South and end Reconstruction. Half a million northern soldiers had died in the war. People in the North were tired of the war, with its endless casualties and its issues. They turned with relief to other things; the Gilded Age went forward. This attitude is not admirable, but perhaps understandable. Moreover, a Union occupation of the South would have had to last many decades to be effective; and the southern response to such an occupation might have been endless guerrilla warfare.

Closer to our own time, there are vivid pages on Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, the two Bushes, the Kennedys and Obama. Some stiff-necked historians may consider these pages "current events," but they are necessary to round out this history. It is not, at the moment, a success story. The American citizenry is confused and polarized. One of the causes of this, the author suggests, is the decline of newspapers and fact-based reporting, and the flood of tweets, blogs and postings that traffic in opinions, theories and outright lies. In the academy and even in government, the very notion of "truth" is questioned. And America continues to deal with the contradictions of its founding documents.

I finished the book thinking that over recent decades, too many American presidents have made too many mistakes and told too many lies, and today we are living with the consequences. There is a lot to think about here.

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Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.