BY MATTHEW HERBERT
“The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison reflects in Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.
But it was not so with America. We have a clear record of the founding acts. Madison himself kept detailed notes about the crafting of the constitution. There were numerous newspapers that recorded the goings on in Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1787. The flourishing businesses that were enriching young America kept extensive books and made reports of their commerce. They thrived on, and archived a wealth of, factual information about the tastes, ambitions, and livelihoods of Americans at the time of our founding.
Perhaps most famously, three of our country’s founders, Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, wrote the Federalist Papers, 85 essays on why the Americans of 1787 should form a single nation under the constitution written in Philadelphia rather than remain in a loose confederation of independent states.
You can pick up the Federalist Papers for a couple bucks, by the way. Now that I’m in my 50s I don’t really care if I sound like a scold when I say: Please do acquire and read your own copy. Or, refrain from making any political arguments that start with, “Well, the Founders believed . . . ” If you’re going to do the latter, you must do the former. And do keep quiet if you cannot bother to acquaint yourself with the intellectual record of a country founded on a basis of literacy.
Jill Lepore, a scant two months older than I am, manages to strikes a friendlier tone than I do as she invites you to read the history of our country. She is an acclaimed Harvard scholar and writes clear, incisive, often beautiful prose so effortlessly (it seems), she has time to contribute frequently to the New Yorker. So, if you aren’t moved by my harangues to come to grips with the Federalist Papers, try Lepore instead.
I recently read These Truths, in about a week despite being busy with job, family and all the usual. It is a breathtakingly good book. This is less a review of it than a zealous appeal to read it for yourself.
Why did Lepore write a one-volume history of the United States? A fair question. It is long–933 pages with notes, 753 without. But for Lepore, it is the through-line of our whole history that gives sense to the big question she wants to ask.
The purpose of the book, Lepore writes, is to work out a 2018 answer to a 1787 question, posed by Alexander Hamilton:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Reflection and choice. Or accident and force. That dichotomy is the lens through which Lepore examines the whole history of our country. It is a simple device that produces magnificent clarity.
When our country began, accident and force determined (among other things) that African slaves were to be treated as property, not persons. Even as the founders debated, disputed and drew up an explicit plan for liberal democracy, they mutely allowed the growth of a parallel totalitarian regime to rule the enslaved humans in America who did not count, in Hamilton’s formulation as “men,” capable of choosing, forming, or participating in a government.
Our history is a record of the long struggle to stop pretending that this regime did not exist, and that accident and force did not frequently overmaster reflection and choice as our guiding principles.
But make no mistake, These Truths is not a simple, prosecutorial history of slavery and repression and all the ways America has gone wrong because of its original sin. It is a much more complicated and satisfying story of how Americans have, with courage and daring and vision, persisted in seeking an answer to Hamilton’s question despite the original sin and despite the wrong turns along the way. I urge you to read it.