I just finished Jill Lepore’s “These Truths,” a history of the United States. It’s quite wonderful, and very different from the history texts we all read in school. Lepore is a history professor at Harvard, but she also writes lively and entertaining stories for the New Yorker. Most history texts are sequences of events — wars, natural disasters, elections and so on. “These Truths” is more a history of ideas. For example, she portrays the early years of our republic in terms of the significant ideological differences between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. And she makes clear how those differences continue to resonate today.
Most history texts — the ones I remember, at least — paint U.S. history in glowing terms: not quite exceptionalism (America is unique, blessed, destined for greatness and so on), but close. In Lepore’s view, we’re not particularly exceptional in any way except for our early commitment to democracy. Or sort-of democracy; she’s particularly scathing about our long-standing and deeply entrenched treatment of women and people of color. She’s convinced me that slavery is our original sin and that we have not yet redeemed ourselves.
I couldn’t read her book straight through, but had to pause now and again to think about what I’d read. “These Truths” has more than 600 pages to read and another 200 pages of notes. But it’s worth it. I think everyone should read this book.
William Campbell, Hudson, Wis.
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