These Truths: A History of the United States (W.W. Norton & Co, 2018) presents a history of the nation, from 1492 to the present, that is both top down and bottom up. As historian Jill Lepore says, history itself is always both of those things: events, movements and people are formed in relation and opposition to one another. A professor of American history at Harvard, she has written several other books and is a contributing writer for the New Yorker. She took time to speak with the Current (answers have been edited for length—Lepore does not speak in soundbites) before her appearance at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, January 14 as part of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures’ Ten Evenings series.
Did you have a certain reader in mind when writing this?
I actually think ordinary people need a non-ideological, non-partisan American history that is hopefully delightful to read. There hasn’t been one since 1959. The reader of that book is my sainted mother—just a person who I would want to tell the stories that I learn about in the archives, as best I can.
I want to talk about how we view historical figures in a modern context.
I really don’t think the role of historical scholarship is to act as judge and jury. That’s not to say we don’t all have an obligation to do our reckoning with the past and our place in it. Sometimes people say, ‘Let’s not hear about George Washington as a slave owner, he was a man of his time.’ But that is to erase all people who were his property, who had lives of their own and are part of the American story. There’s not any place for an account of the past that erases women, that erases the story of slavery or puts them in a box, like a sidebar. Nor is there a place for the story of American history as a chronicle of atrocity. There’s a binary of books—the story of American atrocity and the story of American triumph. One reason I wrote this book was to insist that neither of those accounts is true—in the sense that neither is a full account.
You’ve written a lot about populist movements, can you talk about that?
One of the things that populism does is create a fiction of who ‘the people’ are and invokes the people in opposition to whatever the forces are that that generation’s populism thinks are oppressing the people. That definition of the people is often very narrow, very specific. And it becomes part of political rhetoric to use it.
The founding fathers never defined what makes a citizen and this idea is an ongoing problem.
The modern idea of citizenship is very much a 19th century idea. The American Constitution was drafted before that historical moment. Those ideas hadn’t really congealed. They’re not talking about ‘subjects’ anymore because they don’t have a monarchy, so they’re talking about citizens, but they don’t have a fully developed political idea of what a citizen is. After the Civil War, the attorney general tasks a bunch of lawyers to try to figure it out. They go through all the statutes and they’re like, ‘we don’t know.’ It’s 1866 and it’s nowhere defined in law—they have to figure out what a citizen is because they’re going to be writing what become the 14th and 15th Amendments, referring to the freedmen and women as citizens. What does it mean when we say these people are citizens?
I also wanted to talk to you about the Constitutional understanding of ‘person.’
The word ‘person’ is introduced in the 14th Amendment and is much debated at the time, mainly because Congressmen are like, ‘wait—do you mean women?!’ No one in Congress wants to extend these guarantees, privileges and rights to women. Person is also used to include people who are not citizens. There are certain rights for citizens and others for persons. It has huge influence today with regard to undocumented immigrants who are persons within the jurisdiction of the United States and therefore have certain 14th Amendment rights.
What drove you to write this book?
It draws on much of my earlier work. And it draws on incredible academic scholarship of the last half century that has enriched our understanding of the American past that hasn’t broken out of the academy. We have a very short attention span. We live in a media world where everything is treated very briefly, very quickly; our attention is diverted. The purpose of publishing this big crazy-long book is to say—some things actually require a bit of time, you have to slow down and think about the whole centuries long history.