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Warts and all

American history in full color

An eye-opening history of the United States.


Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books about history, especially American history. I never get tired of looking closely at seminal events, such as the Vietnam War, and figures I admire, such as the global heath hero Jim Grant.

These Truths: A History of the United States, by the Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore, is not a deep or comprehensive account of individual events or people. The book covers centuries of history in its 800 pages, so Lepore can offer only quick glimpses at major events such as America’s first presidential impeachment (only three sentences) and doesn’t even get a chance to mention pivotal figures such as Lewis and Clark.

But with the exception of a brief section covering the past 20 years (more on this below), I loved the book and hope lots of people read it. In keeping with its title, it’s the most honest account of the American story I’ve ever read, and one of the most beautifully written. Lepore comments in her conclusion that simplistic, feel-good accounts of our past undermine and belittle “the American experiment, making it … a daffy, reassuring bedtime story.” These Truths is just the opposite.

While many good history books provide perspectives beyond those of the traditional “great men” of history, Lepore’s book makes diverse points of view central to the narrative. She shows you all the ironies and contradictions in American history.

For example, Lepore tells you about Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Smith had the courage to stand up to abuses in Congress; she was particularly passionate in speaking out against Joseph McCarthy’s hateful hunt for communists in government. And yet she also willingly participated in crusades against “homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” in the language of the Congressional hearings.

Another contradiction I was not aware of relates to the GI Bill, which gave a huge boost to my dad’s education and career after he served during World War II. After acknowledging that the GI Bill was one of the wisest investments our country has ever made, she points out that it actually had a negative impact on African Americans, women, and gay people who fought for their country in World War II—most of whom were denied GI benefits.

By far the biggest contradiction in our country’s history is one that Lepore weaves into every part of her book: the fact that America was founded on assertions of liberty and sovereignty while practicing African slavery and Native American conquest.

This contradiction was obvious to America’s slaves, many of whom sided with the British during the American Revolution because they knew they had a much better chance of being freed if the British won. One of George Washington’s own slaves, Harry Washington, escaped from Mount Vernon during the war and fought alongside Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. Harry Washington later fled to Sierra Leone and became the leader of a group of revolutionaries who declared independence there.

The Emancipation Proclamation represented an important step in reconciling this contradiction. “American slavery …. had stolen the lives of millions and crushed the souls of millions more,” writes Lepore. “It had poisoned a people and a nation…. It was not over yet. But at last, an end lay within sight.” Thirty years after Lincoln’s proclamation, Frederick Douglass wrote, “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

Despite all of Lepore’s research and writing, I found the final section of the book to be out of keeping with what preceded it. This section did not sound like it was written by a professor who excels at detached historical analysis. Especially in the section about the 2008 financial crisis, it reads like the work of a critic who is caught up in the passions of the moment.

Even so, I highly recommend the book. It’s packed with amazing details I had never read before. For example, there were more than 100 incidents of violence between members of Congress between 1830 and 1860. But more important, it’s a good reminder that there’s a lot more to American history than most of us learn in school. These truths are ones we all need to hear.