Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s latest book, These Truths: a History of the United States, is an epic, sweeping and often disquieting look at the nation’s past. The 800-page opus, starting in the 1500s and moving along briskly to Donald Trump, also serves as a liberal cri de coeur – an answer to conservative claims on the stewardship of our history, our founding principles and especially the Constitution.
Lepore, and Thomas Jefferson, argue that three central principals bind the American experiment: political equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty. But disputes and differing interpretations about these founding truths are present at the creation: religiosity vs. secularism, urban vs. rural, local control vs. a strong federal government. “It’s a call for inquiry,” Lepore says. “A big argument of the book is that history is an inquiry. It’s not a form of tourism. It’s not something sacred. It’s an obligation for all of us to figure out where we came from and get our bearings and figure out a good direction to go in, and that requires being honest.”
Despite all the weighty ideas in the book, it is also delightfully populated by forgotten characters from our past. For example, there’s the hunchback abolitionist who changed Ben Franklin’s views on slavery, or the strikingly tall 19th century suffragette populist leader who railed against Wall Street and probably would have loved a MAGA hat, or the African American war widow suing for her deceased husband’s pension from the war of 1812. Lepore, who has previously written a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s kid sister and about the secret life of Wonder Woman’s creator, brings as much life and import to these people as she does to John Locke. “It’s a lot of work to research because we don’t have as much of a record,” Lepore says, “but it’s also the super fun part.” By acknowledging the common person, These Truths is a history book that’s not just about decisive battles and lofty notions but one that gives voice to the powerful social movements that have churned our collective past.
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Do you think Trump’s election affected or distorted our view of history?
I think that he really very much ran on a view of history, right? “Make America Great Again” is a four-word historical interpretation. That’s a historical argument. I think that resonated with a lot of people in the same way “Change We Can Believe In” and “Yes We Can,” the Obama slogans, resonated with a lot of people, and in many cases the same people. One of the things that’s going on is that two views of history are competing with one another. If our greatness lay in the past, that gets you one place politically, and if greatness lies in the future, that gets you another place.
The political divisions you delineate run deeply through our history. By the end of the book, I was thinking that it’s a wonder we’ve made it this far. Were you as well?
Yeah, I was. I’m a sucker for a good story. I listen to Slow Burn, the podcast [about Watergate], and I would catch myself because I kept thinking, “My God. Are they really gonna take down this president?” That’s good storytelling. So I was working at a very frenetic pace and going chronologically. I myself at times wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out. The whole thing has a sense of continuance and a by-the-skin-of-our-teeth recklessness to it all. It could have gone differently at every single point. I tried to keep that spirit in a storytelling fashion.
You also really get this sense of the word “experiment.”
Yeah. I do think we have lost a sense of how much of our Constitution was really patched upon, patched upon, patched upon. We can tear off those patches and we can make different patches and we could rip them all the way down. We don’t have to have a party system, if we don’t think it’s working anymore. If we don’t think we should have an Electoral College. There are a lot of things that are add-on. If we think that the government has a regulatory role to play in Facebook news feeds. These are not written in the Constitution. It was meant to offer that spine.
Hasn’t stopping that fluidity been the backbone of conservative legal thought for many years? And for the originalists, it’s become doctrine.
Right. Which I think is dangerous. Originalism is not original. It’s a point worth making. It has been enormously influential. It’s a provocative set of ideas, but it doesn’t have any credibility as historical interpretation. It just doesn’t. Originalism emerges out of a very different sensibility than the sensibility in which the Constitution was drafted.
I think the founders would be shocked by the theory.
Jefferson thought the Constitution wasn’t going to last 20 years. People were really surprised that it lasted as long as it did. It was a very surprising development. Sure, it became calcified. It served as a kind of sacred writ for a national creed for a specific religion. And that’s important and sustaining, but in many ways, that is a weird distortion. I’m with Thurgood Marshall, who said it’s a flawed document. Excuse me, but the three-fifths clause. Let’s celebrate the 200 years of struggle to realize the promise of that document, but let’s not put that document on a pedestal.
Your depictions of the blood and horror in American history, especially in terms of the African American experience, is particularly vivid and brutal. How hard was it for you to reckon with that level of violence as a writer?
I was so fueled by a spirit of urgency about the degree to which our national story is itself a) polarized, and b) segregated. There are two different versions of the American past that compete with one another. One is this triumphalist narrative that is largely a story of American exceptionalism and that really tells the story of slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights as a sidebar and dismisses those aspects.
And then on the other hand, there’s this very different, very dark history of American atrocity, conquest and slaughter and enslavement and white supremacy and segregation and incarceration. And that narrative gives no quarter to the idea that there are ideals and forms of political expression and freedoms and episodes of courage and of character in the American story. And so you have this conservative “we are colorblind” American history, and then you have this very lefty history that can’t find a source of inspiration in the nation’s past and therefore can’t really plot a path forward to power.
That feels like what happened in 2016
It didn’t work that way in the past. So I was really motivated to not pull those two stories together and mash them up, but actually, to tell a whole new story.
That’s what I loved about the book. It doesn’t feel like the same old familiar stories…
One of the things I argue is that people talk about polarization and how new that is, but we should understand enslaved people as a de facto political party, and until you do that, American history makes no sense. People, just because they can’t vote, just because they’re completely politically suppressed, they still have their political demands and are shaping the political interests of everybody else. You can’t set aside, here’s politics and here’s slavery. Slavery is politics. The story of the presidents is a story of slavery.
It’s also always the story of compromise. Isn’t that what successful politics throughout our history is? Why have we forgotten how to compromise in our politics now?
Well, there is just so much structural dysfunction in what’s going on in our politics now. If you think about people you know, who are the kind of people that are interested in meaningful solutions and open to fairness, and then you think about the kind of people you know who might conceivably run for office. If you’ve got a Venn diagram, there’s a non-overlapping set. There’s just nobody with those traits in Washington. The incentives that people have running for office to have a scorched-earth political form of rhetoric and set of political positions — and once they get into office, the intent is to act that way because they’re constantly campaigning for re-election.
Was it always like that?
There have been a lot of areas in American history where politics has gotten unbelievably corrupt, but also where people fighting for political reform, for good government reforms, have made big steps and made headway and succeeded. So it’s not that dispositionally people can’t compromise anymore, it’s more like, what do we mean by people? If we’re talking about people who hold office, yeah. No, they can’t.
You devote a lot of space to evangelical activist Phyllis Schlafly in the book. I found her story fascinating, and in all the madness of 2016 I had forgotten her pivotal last act of endorsing Donald Trump. But I wonder if after devoting her life to conservatism, to then end up with someone as amoral as Trump as your leader, if that isn’t a failure?
Oh, in every sense. It’s flatly deciding that everything comes down to immigration. But Phyllis Schlafly is an overlooked political genius who explains a lot about contemporary American politics. She had this incredible longevity as a major figure in building the conservative movement. She and those suburban conservative Republican women were the foot soldiers of the Republican Party in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. They’re really important to our politics now. Schlafly was pretty clear about why Trump is her hero — he’s the one who’s willing to stand up for the position that she’s been arguing for quite some time, this incredibly hardline, just utterly brutal position on immigration.
But is the movement that she spent her life creating deeply wounded by a demagogue being at the top of the party?
Historians cannot be relied on specifically, but there’s truth [there]. I think that liberalism needs to be renewed, but conservatism needs to be completely reformed in the aftermath of Trump. I think they’re both really damaged in different ways. But no, I don’t see how conservatism holds itself together after this, but historians are generally wrong.
Has having a binary choice throughout our history hurt America? As you write, the two-party system has led to incredible stability, but is there a downside?
If you were going to redesign our political system, I don’t know that the two-party system would be a thing you’d hold onto. Remove the Electoral College, that’s for sure. But we’re not given that opportunity; that requires a constitutional amendment. Offering up something other than our two-party system, that can be done. Younger people don’t have much allegiance at all to the party system, nor has their allegiance been earned or even really sought. So I guess they get to decide.
You write, “A nation born in revolution always struggles with chaos.” But that’s not the national story Americans teach ourselves. Why have we avoided thinking about that aspect of our history?
Revolution is etymologically a turn of a wheel. The people on the top end up on the bottom. But then the wheel keeps turning. And the dangers of revolution, as ancient political thinkers thought of it, is: How do you stop a revolution? It’s just going to keep going and going and going. That’s of course what happened in France. Revolutions are incredibly difficult to contain. What happens in the United States is that the Constitution is the brake, it’s the brake on the wheel so that the revolution just can’t keep turning over. And that’s what provides the stability. It’s this genius thing. It’s a broken and vexed thing, too, but it does stop the wheel. It means that whenever you want to engage in political revolution, you have to engage in a conversation about the Constitution.
Even to change things incrementally…
Even just a little bit, and whether it’s another 16th Amendment — we’re going to have a graduated federal income tax because we’ve got a problem with income inequality and the allocation of resources. Or we’re going to have a 19th Amendment or a 14th Amendment. The amendments are each of them their own revolution in this quite extraordinary way. And look at all these other social and political revolutions that kind of winch the thing. We embrace revolution, and any political movement — whether it’s liberal or conservative or left or right — calls itself a revolution. The Tea Party was a revolution. Occupy was a revolution. The Me Too movement thinks of itself as a resistance revolution.
And Trump of course…
The Trump supporters think about themselves as a revolution. That banner of revolutionary politics is a universal one, but it has a different historical infliction in the United States. There’s a tipping-just-at-the-edge quality to it all the time.
Are there dangers for the historian when you’re trying to make the past relevant to the present?
Yeah. Absolutely. Historians talk about the fallacy of presentism, that is, if you’re too interested in what’s going on in the present, you will adjust your past to justify your preferences about the future. That is a sound caution. On the other hand, if people who are cautious and careful and concerned about evidence and argument and method refuse to talk about the relationship between the past and the present, then the only people who will be doing that will be Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.
So much of popular American history is about the Battle of Saratoga or the Battle of Brooklyn or World War II. And I wonder if that’s because so many of the historical books have been written by men and military history is something men get very jazzed about.
Most popular history is either military or presidential and has little sense of the incredible force and political power of social movements and protest movements, and doesn’t have any way of understanding a politics that doesn’t involve the White House. You wouldn’t write a history of this era and say everything was Trump, although that is what everybody thinks in the moment. Everybody’s fallen into the Trump vortex. But if you pull back, you go like, “OK, well actually there’s a lot of things going on.” And among them we get Me Too and Black Lives Matter. These are a really important part of realignments. Nor would you write a history of the Me Too movement without talking about Trump. Because a lot of Me Too is the proxy war on Trump. And a lot of Trump’s followers are actually engaged in a proxy war on Me Too. They’re inseparable analytically in the world that we live in. So why do we accept a public history that imagines that there’s presidential history and then there’s also a history of political movements. You have to look at them together. And you know, it’s hard and it’s a mess, but it’s also really illuminating.
You devote a lot of space to populism in American politics. Is Trump’s variety a new strain that we haven’t really seen before?
Trump has engaged in some of the signature moves of populism. There’s a lot of consistency. Populism in the 19th century was left. Populism in the 20th century gradually moved to the right. But its source of continuity was its nativism and its racism. That’s a big part of what left-wing populism was about and it remains a big part of right-wing populism. Not to say that all populists are racists, but historically part of the appeal to the people was to take your country back. The question is from whom? Trumpism has a kind of comic-book cartoon version of that and really comes from the most juvenile part of popular culture. So it’s kind of like populism meets childishness.
Much of this tide rose out of rural America…
If you just look at the map and see where Trump’s support is and populism from the 1800s, there’s a lot of overlap. That’s because the people that populists were opposed to in the 1900s were city people and city reformers who completely failed to attend to the suffering of and struggle of people in the countryside. And so have 21st century progressives. Populists are people who are mad about being left behind because they have, in fact, been left behind.
Well, they’re not wrong.
They’re not wrong. For me, Hillary Clinton’s campaign really was just an incredible vehicle for contempt, for the expression of contempt for a certain sort of person. So it’s a little bit weird to talk about populism versus elitism because I don’t think either of those terms quite fit it, but there’s just as much animus on the other side. It’s one thing to enlist support by telling people you promise to address their problems, but it’s another thing to enlist support by telling people that other people are the source of their problems. And all of our politics is that second kind now.