Jill Lepore’s Liberal Gospel

The Center Does Not Hold

Jill Lepore’s awkward embrace of the nation.


In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams published The Epic of America, a one-volume history of the country. At more than 400 pages, it was a formidable volume, but Adams’s lyrical prose and insistence on putting everyday people at the center of his narrative drew readers in. They took inspiration from his idea of an “American dream,” a phrase he coined for the book and intended as its original title. As Adams saw it, the American dream—the notion that all who lived in the United States would be able to pursue their ambitions “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”—wasn’t empty talk. It had shaped the country’s past, and it might well shape its future.

Adams wasn’t the only one trying to cram the national narrative between two covers; it was a “crowded field,” he noted. Writing single-volume overviews of US history was once a venerable tradition, and such masters of the craft as Samuel Eliot Morison, Charles and Mary Beard, and Carl Degler offered their own additions to it. Many have faded with time, but one—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980—has not. Zinn’s history was bleak, a story of the tyranny of the powerful and of the popular movements that fought back. But with the country still smarting from Watergate and the rise of Ronald Reagan portending a new stratification of wealth, the book’s themes suited the times. For many readers, it appeared that the mask had finally slipped, that history had been revealed as a violent struggle between the elites and the masses.

Zinn sought to provide a defiant riposte to the traditional flag-and-freedom histories, but his book has entered the canon. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s a they’re-all-phonies book that, despite itself, now appears regularly on high school syllabi. Though decades old, A People’s History still cracks Amazon’s list of the 50 best-selling history titles. Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg, an expert on history education, says that it “has arguably had a greater influence on how Americans understand their past than any other single book.”

Yet Zinn’s book, perhaps the most successful single-volume history of the United States, also drove a stake through the heart of the enterprise. Seeing the country as divided between oppressors and oppressed, he made little room for common cause, for shared dreams, for even a common history. Indeed, after Zinn the once-crowded field grew bare. It’s not just that no subsequent single-volume history has penetrated the national psyche the way Adams’s and Zinn’s did; it’s also that, textbooks aside, few major US historians have attempted the feat. There are still one-volume histories being written but not, by and large, by scholars who profess a lifelong expertise in the subject.

At least this was the case until Jill Lepore set out to “rekindle a lost tradition” with her nearly 1,000-page tome These Truths: A History of the United States, published in 2018. A Harvard professor, she won the Bancroft Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the field, for her first book, The Name of War. The last 10 winners whose ages I could determine won the Bancroft, on average, in their late 50s; Lepore won it at 33 and has been virtually unstoppable ever since. Her colleagues in Harvard’s history department have written an average of three scholarly books apiece; she has written 11. She’s also cofounded a journal, coauthored a novel, and served on the staff of The New Yorker, for which she has written more than 100 pieces on topics ranging from Frankenstein to management theory. What is most impressive is that, in this white heat of research and writing, her work has been, well, conspicuously and reliably good.

It’s been good, above all, because she is a superb storyteller. Her fans attest to weeping over These Truths, and I’ll confess to feeling a prelachrymal lump in my throat more than once while reading it. The story of Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved consort Sally Hemings isn’t news. Yet reading Lepore’s rendition of it, in which the tragedy of slavery cries out with an almost unbearable poignancy, is like watching a virtuoso pianist set to work on the “Moonlight” Sonata. You’ve heard the piece a thousand times; you just never quite appreciated how rich it was.

But what do these deftly narrated stories add up to? Lepore is coy about announcing a thesis. Her flavorless title, These Truths, does less to guide the reader than Zinn’s pugnacious A People’s History of the United States or Adams’s intended, evocative The American Dream. She is fascinated by political discourse, questions of inclusion, and communication technologies, yet it is only with her follow-up book—a short volume bearing the (similarly bland) title This America—that we clearly see how they connect. In the new book, Lepore shows her hand, revealing the political commitments that impelled her to write These Truths and that shape her worldview and approach to history.

This America announces its intentions on the very first page. It is, she writes, an argument for “the enduring importance of the United States and of American civic ideals.” Those words may sound tepid, but they are, for Lepore, a declaration of a multifront war. Against scholars who have become too enamored with far-reaching global histories of capitalism and empire or too tightly focused on subnational identity groups, Lepore sternly redirects attention to the nation, a single people united by common experience. Against the “postmodernism” that she says has “suffused” politics—a Fox News right crying “fake news” and a millennial left that, she claims, locates epistemic authority in personal identity—Lepore stands for the reasonableness of the center. She’s for free speech, civil debate, democratic processes, and love of country.

Like Zinn, Lepore has written a soup-to-nuts history of the country. But unlike Zinn, she doesn’t regard it as an us-versus-them story. Instead, she likens the nation to a ship that is barely still afloat. As liberalism’s enemies pull up the planking to light “bonfires of rage,” patriots must mend the listing vessel before it tilts into the “doom-black sea.” Her history is itself intended as an act of repair. In the face of the forces rending the United States, Lepore depicts it as a unitary society with a distinct and laudable set of civic ideals, one whose past can be intelligibly told as a single story.

Single stories are unfashionable at present. Historians today are relentless pluralizers, far more inclined to write the histories of modernities than the history of modernity. They have good reason(s). The more the field grows—new research, new perspectives—the harder it becomes for writers to agree on a central narrative. Two tendencies in particular have turned US history into a forest of tangled branches. The first is diversification: As their ranks have grown more heterogeneous, historians have consciously sought to offer accounts that aren’t narrated solely from the implicit vantage of well-off white men. The second is globalization: The acceleration of flows of ideas, people, and things across borders in recent decades has called into question what “the United States” even means and whether its history can be hived off and told apart from that of the rest of the world.

With regard to history’s diversification, Lepore is warmly receptive. Having written a biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s lesser-known sister, Lepore is practiced at opening up the past so that it is not just the story of presidents and generals. On this score, These Truths excels. The American Revolution, for Lepore, stars not only George Washington but also Harry Washington, who toiled in slavery on the founder’s plantation. Harry Washington escaped twice, fought with the British in the Revolution (while “wearing a white sash stitched with the motto ‘Liberty to Slaves’”), and sailed for Sierra Leone, where he led his own revolt against the colonial government. Similarly, Lepore’s version of the civil rights movement features, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Pauli Murray, the brilliant intellectual and tactician whose contributions were likely kept quiet because Murray, born with female genitalia, identified as male.

One of the great achievements of These Truths, in fact, is how tightly it weaves the Harry Washingtons and Pauli Murrays into its tapestry. Lepore includes them not dutifully but eagerly and to great effect. And by taking both Harry Washington and George Washington seriously at the same time, she compellingly demonstrates that writing an inclusive history needn’t require splitting the past into separate histories “divided by race, sex, or class,” as Lepore contends many of her colleagues do.

The second change that has fractured national narratives—globalization—is a more complicated story. Living with porous borders has led historians to recognize that the past isn’t served up neatly in national containers. Borders, they argue, have never been as fixed and straightforward as maps suggest—and events have a way of spilling over them anyway. It’s for this reason that historians increasingly study empires, borderlands, diasporas, oceans, trade networks, climatic zones, and other transnational entities rather than countries, as they used to all do.

This is where Lepore draws the line: “This world is a world of nations,” she insists. These Truths is thus a resolutely national history, concerned with what takes place inside US borders, not beyond them. Lepore recognizes diversity within those boundary lines—the nation contains many kinds and colors—but she nevertheless consistently interprets that diversity as part of a shared national heritage.

There is something admirably inclusive about Lepore’s vision of the country as a diverse nation, but there is something restricting about it, too. After These Truths appeared, historian Christine DeLucia and other critics noticed that Lepore had made little room in her story for Native Americans, especially in the latter half. She acknowledged this and has added material to the paperback edition. Yet from reading This America, it’s easy to see why indigenous peoples initially played a small role in her story. These Truths is the history of a nation, which Lepore defines as a “political community” that joins people “as if they were a family.” Native Americans, who have often defined themselves (and been defined in federal law) as nations apart from the United States, do not easily fit within her frame. They have been and continue to be an integral part of the country, but they haven’t uniformly sought membership in the US nation, in what she calls the “community of belonging and commitment.”

In This America, Lepore reckons with the presence of tribal nations within the United States. “The struggle for native nationhood,” she writes, helps to “constitute the nation in much the same way that debates over the Constitution constitute the nation. They challenge the nation to live up to its ideals.” This is fine as far as it goes, but notice what she has done in making such an assertion: To force indigenous demands for sovereignty into the frame of US national history, she’s reinterpreted them as internal dissent, as part of a rich debate about how to achieve shared national goals. She’s turned a country containing multiple nations into a single diverse nation. The problem is that seeing the “struggle for native nationhood” as a bid to help the US nation “live up to its ideals”—Lepore likens it to the civil rights movement—is to miss the point.

Overseas territories are another blind spot, another part of the country that doesn’t fit Lepore’s nation-centered approach. By 1940, about 19 million people lived in the United States’ colonies, meaning that one-eighth of the US population lived not in the States but in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, American Samoa, or the US Virgin Islands. Yet major events in the country’s colonial history, such as the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy or the Puerto Rican nationalist uprising of 1950 (which included an assassination attempt on Harry Truman), don’t merit mention in These Truths. The Philippine War, which might have killed more US nationals than the American Civil War, appears briefly, but in Lepore’s telling, it matters more for how it reflected and affected race relations in North America than for what it did to the Philippines.

Lepore’s national frame consistently directs her readers’ gaze inward; it’s the history of a “we.” She rightly has an inclusive understanding of that “we,” but she exhibits little interest in anything outside of it. The Vietnam War, which split the nation, consumes Lepore’s attention. The Korean War, which didn’t, she barely mentions, even though it permanently divided the Korean Peninsula and may have taken as many Asian lives as the Vietnam War did. Lepore writes ably and critically about the George W. Bush administration’s Global War on Terrorism, yet she is more concerned with how the use of torture violated long-​standing norms and tarnished national morals than she is with the far more consequential destabilization of the Middle East.

Such far-off consequences of US actions are beyond Lepore’s remit. In writing These Truths, she confined herself to “what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty-first century need to know about their own past.” That sounds sensible. But given that the nation in question is also an empire—with Native American reservations, overseas territories, and hundreds of military bases spread across the planet—perhaps its members should also know a little about the other peoples and pasts this empire has engrossed. They, too, are US history.

There’s a reason Lepore doubles down on the nation—on the “we”—and it’s not that she’s ignorant of other approaches. While her colleagues are embarking on their free-form jazz odysseys, decentering the nation by writing books about oceans, most readers still see the world in terms of nations, and they want history written accordingly. “They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will,” Lepore warns.

She has a point. “Serious historians,” as Lepore calls them, are reluctant to deliver single-volume national histories or accounts of the powerful men and wars that shaped the country, but that hasn’t stopped the less serious. “America’s bestselling historian,” according to his publisher, is not a learned professor but former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. His wildly popular Killing series (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Reagan, etc.), coauthored with Martin Dugard, offers national history in its familiar Father’s Day form, just with more gore and less accuracy. Joining O’Reilly and Dugard atop the New York Times best-seller list are Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, authors of the counter-Zinnian A Patriot’s History of the United States. Schweikart can be found these days on Twitter, offering edifying thoughts about the “DemoKKKrats.”

Driving the demagogues out of the Barnes & Noble will require more than just taking back the nation as an object of serious historical inquiry. Lepore also sees a need to show that object in a more flattering light. Whereas many of her colleagues narrate US history as a tragedy and a chronicle of oppression, Lepore sets out to capture a fuller range of feeling. Her version features “a great deal of anguish,” she admits, but it also contains “decency and hope,” “prosperity and ambition,” “invention and beauty.”

Lepore’s relatively upbeat tone is more than a sensibility; it’s a politics. The Bill O’Reillys of the bookshelf, she insists in This America, have not only taken control of the national story but also claimed for themselves the mantle of patriotism. Lepore wants to take it back for liberals. O’Reilly and his ilk are, in her view, best described not as patriots but as nationalists using the flag as a cloak for their illiberal agendas. True patriots, those who cherish the liberal values of the country, must stand and be counted. Lepore’s distinction—“patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred”—is not one that holds up well under scrutiny, but her point is clear enough. She hopes that she can tell US history in an inclusive way, staring the cruelties of the past full in the face yet coming out of it with her faith in the country intact.

This determination not to cede love of country to the nationalists supplies Lepore with a creed. “The United States,” she insists, “is a nation founded on a deeply moral commitment to human dignity” and to the proposition that “all of us are equal.” What’s noteworthy here is not Lepore’s celebration of dignity and equality; it’s her insistence that such values lie at the core of the United States and always have. But that claim, essential to her patriotism, is hard to square with history. We now have a much better understanding of how central patriarchy, the Indian Wars, and slavery were to the country’s founding, and Lepore denies none of this. (She writes that George Washington attended the Constitutional Convention wearing “dentures made from ivory and from nine teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.”) Yet her faith is dauntless. “Notwithstanding the agony and hypocrisy of the nation’s past,” she insists, “these truths endure.”

These truths endure. Lepore’s devotion to the country’s core values is a major part of This America. She twice quotes historian Michael Kazin’s point that radicals and reformers succeed in the United States only when they appeal to what he calls “the national belief system.” Lepore has little patience for those who fail to heed Kazin’s advice, for the reformers and radicals who see that the national belief system as an impediment to equality rather than an instrument for achieving it.

In These Truths, this comes out particularly clearly in Lepore’s treatment of the Black Power movement, which she narrates through the figure of Stokely Carmichael. He began his career with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as someone for whom political action meant registering voters. But by 1966 he had given up on reforms secured within the existing frame of US politics. “The reality is that this nation, from top to bottom, is racist,” he wrote in The New York Review of Books. “We won’t fight to save the present society.”

Lepore regards this position as reckless. She explains that his star wasn’t the only one rising; this was also an era when a newly emboldened right emerged. When Carmichael received an invitation in 1966 to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, a California gubernatorial candidate named Ronald Reagan seized on it as a chance to bolster his own campaign. “We cannot have the university campus used as a base from which to foment riots,” Reagan declared. Predictably, Carmichael refused to back down, and in so doing, he “played right into Reagan’s hands,” Lepore laments. The Republican candidate used Carmichael’s speech as a wedge issue and won the election handily, triumphing in 55 out of California’s 58 counties. It was, she writes with palpable irritation, “a victory of conservatives over liberals.”

Lepore’s pairing of Carmichael and Reagan is telling. Other historians charting the rise of the right have invoked such structural and economic factors as white flight to the suburbs and the rise of corporate-funded think tanks. Her narrative stresses what she views as the ill-advised intransigence of the left. “With each new form of public protest, Reagan’s political capital grew,” she explains. As campus activists “descended into disenchantment and a profound alienation from the idea of America itself,” Republicans fed off that disenchantment. Conservatism surged, she writes, when liberalism faltered because “the idea of identity replaced the idea of equality.”

We are now risking imminent collapse, Lepore insists. “The nation has been coming apart.” One horseman of the apocalypse is the right-wing radio host Alex Jones, who consumes so much of her attention that a reader unfamiliar with history might conclude from These Truths that his arrival in politics was more momentous than the Korean War. Certainly, Jones is a perfect villain for Lepore: Not only is he malicious, but he openly scorns any shared national project.

But other illiberal horsemen stalk the land as well. Lepore sounds the alarm over “left identity politics,” particularly the campus-based “alt-left” (here she uses a Breitbart-favored pejorative), which she regards as comparable to the alt-right. She decries the left’s “meaningless outrage” and “sanctimonious accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.” As an illustration, she describes a Twitter squabble. “After fourteen people were killed in a terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in San Bernardino, California,” she writes, “the alt-left spent its energies in the aftermath of this tragedy attacking one another for breaches of the rules of ‘intersectionality,’ which involve intricate, identity-based hierarchies of suffering and virtue.” Twitter users, she continues, responded to the news by angrily correcting newscasters who described the attack as the worst massacre in US history (that would be Wounded Knee, they insisted) and arguing about whether it was ableist to blame the shooting on mental illness.

This is a caricature and an uncharacteristically mean one for Lepore, who typically treats her subjects with sympathy. Her account comes secondhand from Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, and Lepore’s garbling of it—conflating the attack on the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino with the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando, Florida—strongly suggests that she hasn’t read the offending tweets herself. I have. They seem far more calm and reasoned in context, and I saw no evidence that they consumed the “energies” of the left or set off cascading wokeness competitions. What is more, in reducing the younger left to these tweets, Lepore overlooks its bold environmental and economic agendas. At a time when progressive millennials are achieving extraordinary political success pushing programs like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, Lepore sees them as largely feckless, more likely to sink the ship than steer it.

What young leftists fail to recognize, she continues, is how fragile the nation has become. In the decade before the Civil War, New York Senator William Seward warned of an “irrepressible conflict” brewing. Lepore quotes him when describing the sharpening of political knives that has been ongoing since the Reagan administration: The 2016 election “nearly rent the nation in two,” she writes. Holding it together will require repudiating extremism, affirming core values, and grabbing tight hold of the nation. “Whether nations can remain liberal,” she counsels, “actually depends on the recovery of the many ways of understanding what it means to belong to a nation, and even to love a nation, the place, the people, and the idea itself.”

The “irrepressible conflict” of which Seward warned killed hundreds of thousands, yet it also ended slavery. The war’s two faces illustrate the big question at the center of Lepore’s view of US history. For her, the United States has professed democratic equality from the start. There is no shortage of what she calls “hypocrisy”—the failure to live up to announced values—in its past. But progress has only ever been achieved by affirming the nation and those core values.

That is the liberal view, and Lepore isn’t alone in seeing things that way. Yet radicals tend to have a different understanding. In their view, the United States—a settler empire carved out of Native lands by rich white men, many of whom enslaved others—was not particularly egalitarian in its origins. If it’s a better society today, this is because activists made seemingly unrealistic demands and fought for them. Stark conflict has been essential to progress, and the times of greatest national division—the 1860s, the 1960s and ’70s—have also been times of major progressive victories like the abolition of slavery and the establishment of reproductive rights. For a radical, this is not the time to mend rifts or make compromises. It’s a time of crisis—and when it comes to the threat of global warming, an existential one. It’s also a rare chance to achieve root-and-branch change with regard to the environment, the economy, gender, sexuality, and race. If what is needed is an overhaul rather than an adjustment, then the ideals and methods of 18th century men—“these truths”—may not be the best guides.

Lepore doesn’t disavow radical aims, so her case for nation-centered histories and liberal patriotism is tactical. Global solidarities and widened horizons are fine to contemplate, but there’s a reason that books about the nation sell best. To reject the nation is to give up on reaching an audience, on making a difference. Similarly, in her view, radical intentions are laudable, but radical political programs that condemn the nation backfire and inadvertently aid the enemy. In the end, she argues, it is liberals, not radicals, who can deliver progressive change. They do so using the most powerful tool within reach: the nation.

The problem is that Lepore is preaching this liberal gospel in increasingly radical times. The Trump presidency and the climate crisis have raised sharp challenges to her worldview. She finds herself in the awkward position of espousing patriotism at a moment of cruel nationalism, of explaining why radicalism doesn’t work at just the time radicals on all sides are gaining clout, and of insisting that the nation is the most relevant geographical unit while storms, droughts, and heat waves make a mockery of political borders. In the face of such challenges, Lepore stands firm: The nation and its founding values are a shared heritage, and we must hold fast to them. The epic history she has written from this position is an important one, further evidence (if any were needed) of her prodigious powers. Yet it’s hard not to wonder, as the evidence mounts daily that the old rules no longer apply, if the ground that Lepore is digging her heels into isn’t an ice shelf, melting beneath her feet.

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