American history is more important now to comprehend and understand than perhaps anytime in our lives. Jill Lepore’s momentous single-volume These Truths, a critically acclaimed work provides a lens into the past and delivers a narrative of unparalleled significance for our times.
Writing a sweeping narrative of American history is very difficult. It’s even more difficult if you attempt to do it in a single volume. On that score alone These Truths would be a work of incredible force.
Even more importantly, Lepore has chosen to deliver a narrative devoid of the usual pro-American patriotic propaganda and focus on the nation’s painful history of discrimination – against anyone who was not a white protestant. While this emphasis means Lepore quickly races through some pivotal events in US history (like the War of 1812), it keeps a consistent critical lens on the most famous subjects in the history of the country.
Has the nation lived up to the promises that were articulated in the documents and lofty rhetoric of its founding? This is the central question that guides Lepore’s writing and all too often the answer she concludes is “no,” at least for large swaths of time. From Lepore’s work we come to a simple conclusion – the United States is perhaps the only nation (with the exception of the Republic of South Africa) that in its conception very blatantly put the premise that white protestant males are superior to all other beings front and center. This is despite the rhetoric of the nation’s founding and the whitewashed flowery history most Americans and immigrants to the United States have long been taught.
The narrative assumes the reader has a certain passing knowledge of American political history and races through events taking the perspectives of the disadvantaged- almost always including African-Americans and women, but also at various points including Native Americans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and immigrants from Eastern Europe.
I’ve often noted in my own writing that I believe part of the American Revolution was inspired by a hostility to Catholicism. Lepore points out accurately that the hostility to Catholicism was an underlying part of American history for nearly two hundred years, and from that we are reminded the hostility towards Catholic immigrants then is similar to the hostility toward newer immigrants now – most of whom are also Catholic.
Lepore’s use of historical anecdotes and weaving of political history together with the reality about society at the time is brilliant. While other histories of the United States have taken the side of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised most notably the excellent works of the late Howard Zinn, this narrative has something unique to it – an ability to strike a very soft and moderate tone while eliciting anger from the reader.
Perhaps the most important parts of Lepore’s work is the discussion of mass communication, political consulting, public relations and fascism. The defeat of Harry Truman’s national healthcare plans marked a decisive turning point in the political culture of America. Whitaker and Baxter, the original political consultants were able to turn discussion of Truman’s plan into essentially a contrast between freedom (status quo bankrolled by the AMA) and socialism/communism (Truman). The success of Whitaker and Baxter has had a direct impact on how campaigns on anything and everything in American society are waged to this date.
It must be pointed out some sloppy but minor factual errors can be found in the narrative, as is the case with many works of history . Two of these are noted below.
Lepore’s work is likely the most important book related to the United States to be published during 2018. It’s a critical read for any American committed to fairness, the truth and worried for our future. It’s a must read for any one with an ounce of intellectual curiosity about our country and should be required reading for every policy maker and elected official in the nation. Alas in this era of political polarization, an outgrowth of much of what Lepore lays out in These Truths, many with a political narrative or agenda will dismiss this work as either unimportant or biased. Shame on them- this book should be widely circulated and read by all concerned citizens of our nation.