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The Origins of America’s Enduring Divisions

For Jill Lepore, the United States has always been a nation caught between its sunny ideals and its darker realities.

Illustration by Justin Renteria

“To write history is to make an argument by telling a story,” Jill Lepore once explained. And the argument a historian makes about America’s long, turbulent, and demographically complex past—from the arrival of the first European settlers in the sixteenth century to the triumph of Donald Trump—depends upon the story she chooses to tell. It’s the story of a white man’s empire, many scholars on the left contend, against which dissenters of all races and genders have struggled to create a truly democratic society. No, insist most conservatives, it’s a narrative of individuals striving for liberty, who got stymied, at times, by meddlesome progressives and riotous radicals. One group hopes to see America become great again; the other claims that such golden age thinking is a fantasy of the privileged.

The parallel lives of Harry and George Washington illustrate the contradictions embedded in the nation’s story from birth. George, of course, commanded the Continental Army that defeated Great Britain and then became the first president of the United States; his immense popularity helped legitimize the government of the early republic. On the day the last British ships sailed out of New York harbor, the general-politician grandly toasted “the memory of those heroes who have fallen for our freedom” and vowed, “May America be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth!” Harry, a black man born in Gambia, was George’s personal property—or had been until he escaped from the Mount Vernon plantation in 1776, signing up with a British regiment that promised him and every other slave their liberty if they fought against the Patriots. It would be only his first stop on a frustrating odyssey of liberation.

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After the war ended, Harry moved to Nova Scotia, where he joined “the largest free black community in North America,” led by two evangelical ministers. But poverty and hostility from whites doomed the settlement, and Harry sailed back to West Africa, where the new British colony of Sierra Leone offered land for the asking. When that promise also proved hollow, and the colony’s rulers became tyrants, the settlers took up arms again. The rebellion was crushed, and the victors banished Harry and his fellow insurgents to a malaria-infested area along the Atlantic Coast, where he died around 1800. Still, if Harry had remained at Mount Vernon, he would probably have been buried there. George’s will stipulated that his slaves would be freed only on the death of his wife.

The tale of the two Washingtons can serve as a kind of historical Rorschach test. On the left, most would undoubtedly see it as clear evidence that the United States was founded on a despicable lie: The wigged icon who prattled on about “freedom” owed his wealth and status to the coerced labor of black men and women. Those on the right might counter that the majority of white Americans never owned a single slave, and that the founders’ belief in individual freedom eventually led the country to abolish the “peculiar institution.”

Lepore, who tells this dual story splendidly in her new book, These Truths, declines the temptation either to condemn the national project or to celebrate it. For her, the United States has always been a nation wrestling with a paradox, caught between its sunny ideals and its darker realities. “Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other,” she writes, “lies an uneasy path.” The American Revolution was far more than a mere change of power from one group of well-to-do white men to another. “The United States,” writes Lepore, “rests on a dedication to equality.” Yet throughout her deftly crafted survey, she also makes clear how often citizens and their leaders failed to implement this ideal or actively betrayed it. She borrows her title from the Declaration of Independence, to signal both the standard of reason and equality that Americans profess and how their deeds have fallen short of it.

Few writers in this country produce narratives about the past as insightful, concise, or witty as those that Lepore seems to turn out every few months or so in The New Yorker and in her many books. She divides this book, her tenth, into four parts. It moves chronologically from the making of the new nation (“The Idea” where the tale of the two Washingtons appears), to the antebellum era and Civil War (“The People”), to the growth of federal authority (“The State”), to the 70 years and counting since World War II, which Lepore labels “The Machine,” in a nod to the dominance of computers. While she confines herself mostly to political history, it’s a politics imbued with a rich understanding of culture, biography, and technology.

In her section on the early to mid-nineteenth century, Lepore draws out the contradictions of a nation that was rapidly becoming more democratic and consumer-friendly—and then split in two when the South refused to accept the popular election of a president who swore to halt the expansion of slavery. Some of these tensions are intimate: One of the unsung benefits of the first industrial revolution, which heightened inequality in the republic, was, she notes, that the price of mattresses dropped from $50 to $5—which allowed most families to afford one for the first time. But she also tracks larger shifts, observing that the same Democratic Party that encouraged ordinary white men to run for office and welcomed plebeian immigrants from all over Europe also reviled the abolitionists and grabbed a huge chunk of land from Mexico.

One vocal opponent of that “wicked war,” as Ulysses Grant called it, was “a gangly young House member” from central Illinois who became known as “Spotty Lincoln,” because he “introduced resolutions” in Congress “demanding to know about the exact spot where American blood was first shed on American soil.” At the end of the Civil War almost two decades later, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination inspired a torrent of monuments, oratory, poetry, and images that continue to define his legacy. But nearly all that memorializing left out a distinct group of Americans whose lives the sixteenth president had helped to transform utterly. In mourning Lincoln, Lepore writes,

Americans deferred a different grief, a vaster and more dire reckoning with centuries of suffering and loss, not captured by any camera, not settled by any amendment, the injuries wrought on the bodies of millions of men, women, and children, stolen, shackled, hunted, whipped, branded, raped, starved, and buried in unmarked graves. No president consecrated their cemeteries or delivered their Gettysburg address; no committee of arrangements built monuments to their memory. With Lincoln’s death, it was as if millions of people had been crammed into his tomb, trapped in a vault that could not hold them.

For more than 150 years, black Americans and their allies have been struggling to create a society that both reckons with the evils of the past and lives up to its promise.

Throughout the book, Lepore takes particular delight in tracing how both Americans with power and those without made effective use of new forms of media either to advance the ideal of equality or to betray it. From his early days as a free man in the 1840s until his death in the 1890s, Frederick Douglass sat so often before the camera that he became “the most photographed man in nineteenth-century America.” He understood that filmed portraits of black people challenged pervasive racist caricatures by showing them as they really looked and hoped to be seen. During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt mastered the art of speaking on the radio, which had become a common household appliance by the time he moved into the White House. Although we know that his Fireside Chats helped build and sustain his popularity, Lepore highlights the preparation that made them so effective. FDR memorized everything he said on the broadcasts and spurned the hyped-up style of most radio announcers in that era.

When Lepore arrives at the internet age, however, her fascination with communications technology morphs into disdain. Such pioneers of the personal computer as Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, imagined that the universal use of the magic machines would bring about the fulfillment of a libertarian dream. “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing,” gushed Brand, “power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Yet, like any shrewd historian, Lepore knows that technology does not by itself subvert the designs of the powerful. In the 1990s, none other than Newt Gingrich lobbied hard and successfully for a new Telecommunications Act, scrapping the New Deal regulations that had barred big media firms from squeezing out would-be competitors. And some Silicon Valley billionaires have aligned themselves with the right, like Peter Thiel, who cofounded PayPal hoping it would “free the citizens of the world from government-managed currency,” and went on to support Trump.

Lepore establishes the influences of technology on American ideals, but she has less time for the diverse flavors of political religiosity—egalitarian or otherwise. She dutifully notes the evangelical fervor of the abolitionists and accurately describes Phyllis Schlafly, a devout Catholic, as one of the more effective organizers of the modern Christian Right. But she glosses over the Social Gospel, which inspired many of the activists and politicians who made the early twentieth century a time of path-breaking reform. They included the mostly Protestant crusaders for Prohibition, who succeeded in getting one of the nation’s most ubiquitous consumer industries banned for more than a decade. In a land of many faiths, Americans certain of what God wanted them to do have always been central to the contest for policy and power. Even secular historians who may wish that were not true should realize that attention must be paid.

Lepore begins her book by rejecting the urge to moralize, but she cannot resist making stern judgments near the end of it about the troubling, crude politics of the present. The attacks of September 11, she argues, drove many Americans rather crazy, and a recovery is not yet in sight. Alex Jones’s accusation that the Feds brought down the Twin Towers gained him a mass audience and became a model of sorts for even more popular conspiracy theories, including the notions that Barack Obama had been born in Africa and that his health plan would create “death panels.” A decline in the readership of print newspapers and the ubiquity of smartphones have led, in her view, to a point where “truth” resides in the mind of the app-clicker and whichever online community she or he prefers. That Donald Trump both prominently advocated the “birther” lunacy and welcomed Jones’s fawning endorsement seem to prove that the country has “lost its way in a cloud of smoke.”

While her concern is obviously justified, Lepore’s jeremiad omits some key details, present and past, that might qualify the terms of the lament. Subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post have soared since Trump’s election, and Americans who oppose the president outnumber those who adore him. Which of these groups will show up at the polls this November is, of course, a different question. But this is hardly the first time in U.S. history when an election or administration “had nearly rent the nation in two” and when millions of citizens disagreed fundamentally about the accuracy of nearly every important statement uttered by a sitting president. The politics of the 1860s and 1960s were, by almost any measure, even angrier and more divisive than those we are suffering through.

Lepore is at her best when she illuminates these conflicts in both thought and action. “A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos,” she concludes. “A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.” The writers who have understood the country’s history best have always sought to capture how Americans have wrestled with these inescapable, opposing forces. Or, as Zadie Smith wrote in her obituary of Philip Roth, whose sensibility about the past matches Lepore’s, “He always wanted to know America, in its beauty and its utter brutality, and to see it in the round: the noble ideals, the bloody reality.”