How Historian Jill Lepore Found a Whole New Story to Tell About American HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Jill Lepore, Trump, Me Too
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.