Why Our History Is More Urgent Than Ever

Historian and author Jill Lepore. Photo: Kayana Szymczak/The New York Times/Redux

Leave it to Jill Lepore to set out to write a book about all of American history.

These Truths, the Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer’s latest vigorous offering, interrogates the American idea by splashing down in 1492 and ripping through to the election of Donald Trump over the course of 900-plus pages that wind up forming what the author calls an old-fashioned civics book. There’s a reason just about everyone who’s read it describes the volume as “sweeping.” (It is! It has to be.)

Organized around the challenges posed to generations of Americans by the Declaration of Independence, the book tracks the status of citizens’ political equality, their natural rights, and suffrage (the titular truths), over the course of four wide-ranging sections: “The Idea,” “The People,” “The State,” and “The Machine.”

As much a long-form examination of centuries’ worth of American ideas as a straightforward political history, the book feels especially timely, occasionally reading like an urgent reminder of Americans’ collective past and responsibilities. It places a special focus on marginalized and targeted communities throughout the country’s history. It is not, however, a book about Trump. Rather, it layers massive developments with little-known, underappreciated, and sometimes searing historical anecdotes to guide readers toward today.

The present, though, is unavoidable. I spoke with Lepore earlier this month about the book and her thoughts on publishing it in this moment. She explained that she wrote much of it during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

But first, some background: The book opens with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln, and closes with Reinhold Niebuhr.

“We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

— Lincoln, 1862

“If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a great nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

— Niebuhr, 1952

I want to ask about the quotes you’ve chosen as epigraphs. Obviously the 90 years between them is encompassed by your narrative, but can you tell me about why you chose these two quotes, which sort of read as warnings?
I think of the Lincoln quote [as] less of a warning than as a call, not to arms, but to action. I guess the Niebuhr quote is more of a warning. I could easily overthink why I chose those. I struggled in framing the book, especially as it got closer to publication. I mean, I started the project, obviously, a while ago, with the question of what kind of distance to encourage from the present — that I wanted a reader to immerse herself in this past and try to pull away from the present. I think the Lincoln quote I used to that end. A disenthrallment of the present is how I, in many ways, understood that. The Niebuhr piece at the end, we could turn to 2016. I guess there’s a certain kind of portentousness to it. I guess that’s true.

I think they can be both warnings and calls to action. But when you look at the book itself overall, did you intend it as a call to action? Or as a warning? What was the goal?
Obviously legal discourse is, by its nature, adversarial. But even a lot of historical discourse is adversarial, and is blame-seeking, so that every piece you read in the paper, or thing you hear on the radio, or watch on TV, is sort of a blame-seeking missile. That is very much what I did not want to do. I wanted to write a history that would be responsibility-seeking. With the aim that we would all understand our share of responsibility to the idea that, I guess, I hope we share.

You state your central question pretty clearly in the introduction. This is the clearest distillation: “Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?” Over the course of pulling this all together, did you find your answer changing?
Yeah. You get up in the morning and you listen to the news and your answer to that question changes. I was trying to find my bearings. I don’t mean to use these nautical metaphors tirelessly, but we are being tossed about in this terrible sea. I just really wanted to have some kind of a keel. Get out my sextant and figure out where is a harbor. That sense of, “What direction are we even sailing? I can’t see the sky anymore, it’s too cloudy.” That’s what I wanted, in doing this. That Hamiltonian question that I posed in the introduction. I have my students debate that question, I assign them sides. I don’t let them pick which side they’re going to argue. I assign them sides and I tell them they have to argue the answer now. It’s always a heated thing. It does sound kind of corny, but I do think struggling with the question is what we’re meant to do.

I don’t think that sounds corny, that seems like the right kind of thing to be doing right about now. It won’t surprise you to hear that while reading this book, I kept thinking to myself, Okay, how is this Trump moment going to come into play? How is it going to be portrayed? You don’t really paint him as the once-in-history figure that a lot of people now think of him as, but rather as a product of the convergence of various trends that you illustrate. That makes it seem as if his presidency is not surprising to you. Is that how you think about this now?
There’s a reason historians try not to write about the recent past. We just don’t have enough vantage on it. We don’t know which way the vectors are going. When I started writing the book, I was going to end with Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Just Inauguration Day: it’s a good scene, it’s a great ending, it’s comfortably in the past, it’s not that long ago. It’s only nine years ago from today, as of now, the book’s publication. I didn’t feel I had much of a perspective on anything else. It was going to be hard for me to get him elected, in terms of the narrative.

When I started writing, I didn’t even imagine constructing a novel, in terms of this Chekhovian thing with the gun on the mantelpiece. You’ve got to get this thing set up somehow that Barack Obama is going to get elected and inaugurated in 2009. Then, I was about at the Civil War. I wrote chronologically. When I was about at the Civil War, Trump was elected. I thought, Well, I have to abandon my plan to end with Obama’s inauguration, and I have to go all the way down to Trump’s election day, because it’s a real ground-floor political movement. It changes a lot of things. It seems to take the country in a very different direction. It seems like a complete betrayal of the people that voted for Trump to just sort of end at Obama. It’s like that never happened. It wasn’t even a question. It’s the same history that got Obama elected and got Trump elected.

What happened in the past isn’t different because Hillary Clinton didn’t win, Bernie Sanders didn’t win, or Marco Rubio wasn’t the nominee, or Jeb Bush isn’t our current president. The past is still the past that it was. The same country, more or less, save some new souls arriving and some old souls dying — it didn’t really affect the electorate — elected Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It seemed, at first, like that was really going to affect the whole arc of the story somehow, but it didn’t. Both of those outcomes were foretold. You can trace the origins of those very different elections to all sorts of different moments in the past. To answer your question, like I said, I had the same [feeling] you had when you were reading it. I [was] stuck in that same gear.

You were at the Civil War when Trump was elected?

What was that like? Not to draw too clumsy a parallel, but that must have been an, uh, interesting time.
Yeah, it’s a funny thing about being a historian. I started writing for The New Yorker in 2005, and then, remember, [came] the financial collapse of 2008. So, for most of the time that I’ve been writing for that magazine, the question that journalists always ask historians is, “Has it ever been this bad? Beginning with the global financial collapse, is this as bad as the Depression? Or is this not so bad, including polarization and economic inequality?” And it’s not like that’s the wrong question, but every time I was asked that, implicitly or otherwise, my answer is, “What are you thinking of? Only if you exclude in some of your notion of history all people of color is any part of American history better than now.” You know what I mean? It implies a very narrow understanding of what the American past consists of to say that the global financial collapse was the worst thing that ever happened. The Atlantic slave trade was worse. Am I making myself clear?

Yeah, absolutely.
I guess with the Trump thing, people who were really opposed to Trump would say, “Other things may have been bad, but now this is really the worst thing that has ever happened.” It was just more that it was tricky to be this person who was trying to quietly, studiously, do my work and continue to say, “Okay, now I have to talk about Reconstruction. Pretty soon I’ve got to explain populism. Now I have to explain the plutocrats of the golden age and just keep my head down and do that, and not just be tossed off the edge of my project by the storminess around me.”

When it came to the central truths that you’re talking about — political equality, natural rights, suffrage of the people — as you were writing about these areas, did you find that the current moment caused you to reconsider how you were going to treat them, or were you writing in a detached enough way that today’s, as you say, storminess—
No. I started in 2015, so it would have been pretty soon after I was really into the project that Trump declared his candidacy and [popularized] the “build the wall” slogan and cry. I have a vague recollection — I could be imagining this as a coincidence — that at the time I was doing the Mexican-American War, where John C. Calhoun said, “Look, the reason we shouldn’t be annexing Mexico is these people, they’re really not white and we can’t have them be citizens, because they’d have to be second-class citizens, but we’re a republic, we can’t have two classes of citizens.” This comes up in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Stephen Douglas says, “By our ancestors, for white men, and their posterity forever.” Some of that Mexican War to Civil War, white man’s republic stuff — the blood and soil of that — I guess it was just harder to read that when that storm was raging, because you want that to be a chapter well in the past that is closed and you can tuck it away and look at it under a glass, and not this thing that someone has just smashed the glass and reached back into the past and pulled the words of John C. Calhoun and [is] saying them on a national stage.

I knew they were going to read differently, do you know what I mean? It’s not different. John C. Calhoun said that thing. He wrote that essay. He thought that thought. That hasn’t changed, I was going to include it, I was going to quote it. It’s important, it tells us a lot. But how would it read to be so different? I struggled with thinking about the force of those words on a page. That’s not, so much, to say I would include something or not include it, but, just maybe, how to use them, where to use them. It’s elusive, but the ideal is writers really want to have a lot of control over their readers. “I want you to go from this line to this line to this line, and not turn off the bedside light right now. I want you to bring this with you on the subway ride.” You want to have a fair amount of control over your reader. That includes not going off the deep end. It all just seems a little more complicated. I suppose it also spurred me on, in a sense that I was like, “All right, I’m going to finish this thing now.”

But did you feel an urgency then, as the campaign wore on, to write this and have it out as quickly as possible?
Yeah, I did feel that the waters were getting shallower and shallower. Our understanding of the past is shallower and shallower and shallower with each passing day, with each passing minute. It’s just as deep as the distance between the top of your iPhone screen and the bottom of your iPhone case. It’s less than a centimeter. It’s just shrinking. I tell myself I’m just trying to drag people out of the shallows and into the depth where we’re all drowning. I don’t know, I’m sorry, I get so lost in these nautical metaphors. It’s just a metaphor. It sounds like I’m a sailor.

One thing that struck me was the amount of time and interest you clearly placed on the history of political consulting, as well as polling and the evolution of polling. This is obviously a political history, but why was it important to you to make that behind-the-scenes piece fairly important as part of the narrative in the last century or so?
A couple reasons. One, practically, these are things I’ve written about a lot before, and I have done a lot of archival research on, and I knew a lot about. Two, the book makes the argument, that is not a disputable argument, that for democracy to work, the people have to be well informed, and political consultants are laboring to give people bad information, often. Three — I don’t know what number I’m on now, but the book has a very strong interest in the history of technology, and technology as communication, having that political arrangement.

I’m really interested in thinking about what historians call the great acceleration. The acceleration of communication and transportation, production. These kinds of technologies of communication really matter to me. Then, this question of “How do we know what’s true?” is one that the polling industry and the political consulting industry are pretty deeply implicated in, and I think are, strangely, not so often subject to scrutiny. I think the easy villains are big money, dark money, unnamed donors, campaign spending, Citizens United, on the one hand. Or our Silicon Valley overlords or the Internet Research Agency and young people in the former Soviet Republic who are organizing political protests in Florida. They’re a familiar cast of characters now that we blame for the destabilizing of American politics. I find it kind of remarkable that political consultants have kind of got off the hook.

So in part you have viewed this as a technological history, as well. Early in the book you make clear that this is intended as a political history. Did you wrestle, particularly in the last few chapters, with the idea of also converging an economic history, and a cultural history? It does read like that, at points.
Yeah, it’s funny. I was trained, first, as a legal historian, and then as a social and cultural historian. It’s edged away from a lot of that work, into becoming a British political historian over the course of graduate school. My dissertation was kind of political and legal history. I do a lot of history of law stuff. History of technology is more of a vocation. I’m actually fascinated by the history of technology. But there’s also a lot of constitutional history in this book. I guess that’s deliberate.

The way history is taught in a lot of schools has really just emphasized social and cultural history, and doesn’t emphasize constitutional history or legal history, and really doesn’t emphasize the history of technology. Everybody’s so busy not even caring about history, because we must do STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM. The idea that STEM itself is a historical artifact, and we will get to the other side of the STEM mania and realize it was a big problem, is somehow missing. The things that the book emphasizes — political, constitutional, legal, and technological history, and there’s a lot of religious history in there too — are things that interest me. But they’re things I think are the most important things, if I had to choose. Also, they’re the things that we, in some ways, have given the least attention to, and certainly, I think, the left, liberal academy has given less attention to.

Something that clearly distinguishes this book from other American history narratives is how it’s organized: chronologically, but thematically, as well. Why do you think the best way to understand this history is these four phases into which you organize the book: The Idea, The People, The State, The Machine?
The book is unlike a lot of more popular accounts of the history of the country in that it has — there’s a whole quarter of the book that is really before the Constitution, or up through the Constitution. How I understood the structure was, I wanted to go spelunking and find the origins of these three ideas on which the nation was founded. They have long histories. I started, somewhat arbitrarily, in 1492, but I really wanted to spend a good quarter of the book figuring out where did these ideas come from. That’s the Idea part. Then People is really the democratizing of that idea, those ideas, the history of republican democracy and the disunion that is part of that.

The State, which runs from the end of the Civil War to the end of the Second World War, was about the rise of federal power and nationalizing of the government. There’s all kinds of new theories and arguments about the powers of states and the limits of states, and the wars between nation-states obviously characterize the 21st century in a different way. And the 20th century. I guess the controversial thing is the Machine part. That part of the book is usually called — the ’46 to present, I would say, in a textbook-y way — it’s usually called “America in the World” or “The Global America.” Some kind of George Kennan–y kind of foreign policy, Council of Foreign Relations something. Usually in textbooks, the last generation ends in 1989 — more like 1991 — they end at the end of the Cold War. If you tell that story, that goes from ’46 to 1991, then you do have “America in the World.” Then you have a kind of Fukuyama kind of “the end of history” tidy something. But that’s not the story, really. That doesn’t cover the internet, 9/11, the war on terrorism, disruptive innovation, and this era of populism. That doesn’t look the same way. That “America in the World” label? “Quaint” isn’t exactly the right word to describe it, but the label no longer applies. I decided to think about it, in part, in faintly hard technological terms.

In some ways it reads as if the last few chapters of our history — to you, at least — are in many ways the story of the internet.
I think maybe there’s a bold emphasis on that because that is least told. There’s some kind of contribution to be had. I think excavating the origin of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 seems like an important contribution. I don’t think people know that, what that really was. Maybe, God willing, the book’s in print and I’ll be revising it one day, maybe it wouldn’t look like that’s the most important thing, then. Maybe the refugee crisis, what it set off in other parts of the world would look like the most important thing. Maybe economic change in those years will have such deep and lasting consequences that the internet was seen as a mere distraction. We don’t know. That’s the hard part about trying to write a history that goes almost to the present.

There’s a lot of material these days.
A lot of …?

Material, these days.
Yeah. There’s a lot going on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why Our History Is More Urgent Than Ever