Jill Lepore’s These Truths is a sweeping history of America from the founding fathers to Donald Trump. As she says, it’s a political history with very little military, diplomatic, social or cultural history though she does refer to the role played by journalism and technology. The internet, she says, has increased inequality and facilitated the spread of false news. Lepore covers recent history at considerable length, including the rise of Trump and the conservatives. She puts them in perspective.
The Americans who fought for independence from Britain included slave-owners, she notes. The revolutionaries had high ideals. The Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by Benjamin Franklin and adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, now celebrated as Independence Day, asserts in the second paragraph:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But Jefferson, who later served as president from 1801 to 1809, was a slave-owner, as was George Washington. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. “Six months later, to pay his debts, his entire estate, including 130 slaves, were sold at an auction,” writes Lepore. “In a will that that Jefferson made months before, he’d freed the last two of his children with Sally Hemmings, Madison and Eston; he did not mention Sally,” she adds. “Hemmings, fifty-three years old, was appraised at fifty dollars, but she was not sold at auction; she had, by then, quietly left Monticello for Charlottesville, where she lived until her death.”
One might say that Jefferson and his contemporaries should be not judged by today’s standards. But slavery was abominated by many people even in early 19th century America.
Abolitionists and opponents
Journalist William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist, didn’t mince his words. Speaking in Boston in 1829, he declared the Fourth of July holiday was filled with “hypocritical cant about the inalienable rights of man”. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, was a bestseller. There were anti-slavery uprisings led by blacks like Nat Turner in 1831 as well as whites like John Brown in 1859.
The US Supreme Court chief justice Roger Taney, on the other hand, ruled that blacks could not be American citizens. He argued that the men who wrote the constitution considered people of African descent “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. That was the opinion he expressed in the Dred Scott case in 1857, when he rejected the African American Dred Scott’s appeal against slavery.
Jill Lepore dredges up all these details in These Truths.
“The Civil War was a revolutionary war of emancipation,” she writes. President Lincoln declared on September 22, 1862, in a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that he would free nearly every slave in every Confederate state on New Year’s Day 1863. But the proclamation did not emancipate slaves in the border states. That had to wait till the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery was passed by a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives in January 1865 after being approved by the Senate in April 1864.
The Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War upended the electoral system in the South. Lepore notes: “Under the terms of Reconstruction, men who had been Confederate soldiers could not vote, but men who had been slaves could.” The South Carolina legislature became “a literally black parliament”, wrote a northern journalist.
But the whites regained power in the South following the 1876 presidential election. The Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but the Republican Rutherford B Hayes disputed the returns in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. The electoral commission brokered a compromise. The Democrats accepted Hayes as president in exchange for the Republicans ending military occupation of the South. As soon as the federal troops withdrew, white Democrats, calling themselves Redeemers, took control of state governments in the South, notes Lepore. All-white state legislatures passed Jim Crow laws segregating the blacks from the whites.
Woodrow Wilson, a southern Democrat from Virginia who was president from 1913 to 1921, took segregation a step further. Lepore observes: “His administration mandated separate bathrooms for blacks and whites working in the Treasury Department; soon he segregated the entire civil service, bringing Jim Crow to the nation’s capital.”
Lepore explores the civil rights movement. Franklin Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945, is rightly remembered for his New Deal reforms to help the people. But it was his vice president and successor Harry Truman of Independence, Missouri, who paid more attention to civil rights. “From the very beginning of his career, he had courted black voters and worked with black politicians,” recalls Lepore. “Unwilling to ignore Jim Crow, he established a commission on civil rights.”
The Democrat Truman was succeeded by the Republican Eisenhower in 1953. It was during the Eisenhower administration that the US Supreme Court in 1954 ruled segregation in schools was unconstitutional. But “not all African Americans wanted their schools to be desegregated (which often resulted in black teachers losing their jobs”, Lepore points out.
Kennedy and Johnson
“Civil rights had not been among Kennedy’s priorities as a member of the Senate,” she writes. But “needing to win both black votes in the North and white votes in the South, Kennedy decided to run as a civil rights candidate, to woo those northerners, and chose Lyndon Johnson for his running mate, hoping that the Texan could handle the southerners.
Kennedy, a Democrat, won the 1960 presidential election by a hair’s breadth: 34, 221 votes to 34,108,000 votes for the Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon, who had been vice president under Eisenhower, believed the election had been rigged and blamed the Democrats, the black voters and the press, says Lepore.
After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, he was succeeded by Johnson. It was Johnson who secured passage of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. He signed it into law on July 2, 1964.
But Vietnam proved Johnson’s downfall. Lepore writes: “When Kennedy died, Robert Kennedy had pressed Johnson not to be abandon Vietnam, which had been Johnson’s inclination. By the spring of 1965, Johnson had come to understand that he couldn’t withdraw without losing, and he didn’t want to lose.” As the fighting escalated, so did American casualties and the cost of war. Lepore writes: “Eventually paying for the war would require raising taxes. To postpone that inevitability for as long as possible, he cut funding for his social programmes. ‘That bitch of a war,’ he later said, ‘killed the lady I really loved – the Great Society.’”
The Vietnam war proved so unpopular that Johnson couldn’t seek re-election in 1968. It was a terrible year in America marred by anti-war protests, riots and the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The turmoil helped Nixon come to power by campaigning for law and order.
Richard Nixon’s moment had come. He would repurpose his anti-communism in the form of a new political rhetoric: anti-liberalism. As Reagan had done in the California governor’s race two years before, he would stake his campaign for the Republican nomination, and for the presidency, on a pledge to restore law and order…
Where King and Kennedy had called for love, Nixon knew the power of hate. His young political strategist, a number cruncher named Kevin Phillips, explained that understanding politics was all about understanding who hates whom: “That is the secret.” Philip’s advice to Nixon was known as the “southern strategy’, and it meant winning southern Democrats and giving up on African Americans, by abandoning civil rights for law and order.
The Republican Nixon won the 1968 presidential election, defeating the Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who had been vice-president under Johnson.
In November, Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by winning those Americans who believed that he was speaking for them, the “Silent Majority”. The parties were being sorted by ideology. And they were being sorted by race. In 1960, about three out of every five blue-collar workers had voted Democrat; in 1968, only one in three did. In 1960, one in three African Americans had voted for Nixon over John F Kennedy; by 1972, only one in ten would vote for Nixon over the Democratic nominee, South Dakota senator George McGovern.
The new millennium has been tumultuous. Lepore observes:
Between the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the election of Donald Trump fifteen years later, on November 9, 2016, the United States lost its way in a cloud of smoke. The party system crashed, the press crumbled…
About Barack Obama, who became president in 2009, Lepore writes:
His victory seemed to usher in a new era in American history, a casting off of the nation’s agonising legacy of racial violence, the realising, at long last, of the promises made in the nation’s founding documents. Yet as he took office in 2009, Obama inherited a democracy in disarray. The United States was engaged in two distant wars with little popular support and few achievable objectives, fought by a military drawn disproportionately from the poor — as if they were drones operated by richer men. The economy had collapsed in one of the worst stock market crashes in history. The working class had seen no increase in wages for more than a generation. One in three black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine was in prison or on probation…
Lepore writes about the divisions in America:
As Trump began his term in office, Americans fought over immigration and guns, sex and religion. They fought, too, over statues and monuments, plaques and names. The ghosts of American history rattled their chains.
Lepore ends her epilogue in passionate, poetic tropes about the ship of state – she means America – tossing on a stormy sea:
It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea. If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky. With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true. They would need to drive home nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill. Knowing that heat and sparks and hammers and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals. And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art; how to navigate by the stars.
A historian who can soar from measured prose to poetic heights and weaves a wealth of material into a grand narrative, Jill Lepore has written an epic history of America.