Book notes: These Truths: A History of the United States—Jill Lepore

Americas is a nation unique that a lot of documents from its founding are preserved

Much of what they said is a matter of record. “The infant periods of most nations are buried in silence, or veiled in fable,” James Madison once remarked.4 Not the United States. Its infancy is preserved, like baby teeth kept in a glass jar, in the four parchment sheets of the Constitution, in the pages of almanacs that chart the weather of a long-ago climate, and in hundreds of newspapers, where essays for and against the new system of government appeared alongside the shipping news, auction notices, and advertisements for the return of people who never were their own masters—women and children, slaves and servants—and who had run away, hoping to ordain and establish, for themselves and their posterity, the blessings of liberty.

Americans were not primarily English.

The fiction that its people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over, and, having waged a war against England, the very last thing they wanted to celebrate was their Englishness.

Christianity and the discovery of America

Early in 1492, after the last Muslim city in Spain fell to the Spanish crown, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered that all Jews be expelled from their realm and, confident that their pitiless Inquisition had rid their kingdom of Muslims and Jews, heretics and pagans, they ordered Columbus to sail, to trade, and to spread the Christian faith: to conquer, and to chronicle, to say what was true, and to write it down: to keep a diary.

Liberals on equality

Thomas Paine’s “plain truth,” that, “all men being originally equals,” nothing was more absurd than the idea that God had granted to one person and his heirs the right to rule over all others. “Nature disapproves it,” Paine insisted, “otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”9 These became their new truths.

At the end of the seventeenth century, John Locke, imagining an American genesis and borrowing from Christian theology, would argue that all men were born into a state “of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another,” each “equal to the greatest, and subject to no body.”

Britain did not lose America but abandon it

Benjamin Franklin, serving as diplomats in France, to secure a vital treaty: in 1778, France entered the conflict as an ally of the United States, at which point Lord North, keen to protect Britain’s much richer colonies in the Caribbean from French attack, considered simply abandoning the American theater. Spain joined the French-American alliance in 1779. Germany entered the conflict by supplying paid soldiers called, by Americans, Hessians.

And, partly because the Dutch had been supplying arms and ammunition to the Americans, Britain declared war on Holland in 1780.

The battle, Howe’s successor, Henry Clinton, believed, was “to gain the hearts & subdue the minds of America.”85 That strategy failed. And when that strategy failed, Britain didn’t so much lose America as abandon it.

The French were led by the dazzling Marquis de Lafayette, whose service to the Continental army and impassioned advocacy of the American cause had included lobbying for French support.

England would have no slaves and America would have no king.

England gained a more attentive audience, and the proslavery lobby was vastly weakened. Quite the reverse applied in the United States. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, slave owners in states like South Carolina gained political power, while slave owners in the West Indies lost it. West Indian planters were outraged by Britain’s decision to forbid trade between the islands and the United States, a decision that led to

“Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.” But wasn’t humility the best course, in such circumstances? “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution—Ben Franklin

The postponed question: slavery

Nearly everything Washington did set a precedent. What would have happened if he had decided, before taking that oath of office, to emancipate his slaves? He’d grown disillusioned with slavery; his own slaves, and the greater number of slaves owned by his wife, were, to him, a moral burden, and he understood very well that for all the wealth generated by forced, unpaid labor, the institution of slavery was a moral burden to the nation.

Jefferson and Madison, who founded the Democratic-Republican Party, believed that the fate of the Republic rested in the hands of farmers; Hamilton and the Federalist Party believed that the fate of the Republic rested in the development of industry. Jeffersonian agrarianism was not only backward-looking but also largely a fantasy.

“It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation.”

Erie canal opens

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, took eight years to dig and covered 360 miles.

The church

evangelical faith in technological progress, an unquestioning conviction that each new machine was making the world better.

But during the Second Great Awakening, evangelicals recast the nation’s origins as avowedly Christian. “Upon what was America founded?” Maria Stewart asked, and answered, “Upon religion and pure principles.”

Interpreting the constitution

In the midst of all this clamoring among the thundering white-haired patriarchs of American politics, there emerged the idea that the authority to interpret the Constitution rests with the people themselves.

constitutionality of the provisions of a welfare state. Britain, which does not have a written constitution, established the foundations for what would become a comprehensive welfare state—complete with health insurance and old-age pensions—at the very time that the United States was failing to do the same. Wilson pointed out that the Constitution, written before mass industrialization, couldn’t be expected to have anticipated it, and couldn’t solve the problems industrialization had created, unless the Constitution were treated like a living thing that, like an organism, evolved.

“At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher pointed out in 1916.

Supreme Court

Dred Scott v. Sandford, for the court to wield this power again. Writing for a 7–2 majority, he declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. But it was his logic that staggered. Congress had no power to limit slavery in the states, Taney argued, because the men who wrote the Constitution considered people of African descent “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” No “negro of the African race,” he ruled, could ever claim the rights and privileges of citizenship in the United States.

That same day, the Independent ran a piece: “Can Judges Make Law?”98 Its answer: No.

In a 7–1 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling and thereby made the landmark ruling that Jim Crow laws did not violate the Constitution—by arguing that separate accommodations were not necessarily unequal accommodations.

Then came the reversal. Beginning with West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, a ruling issued on March 29, 1937, in a 5–4 opinion written by Hughes, sustaining a minimum-wage requirement for women, the Supreme Court began upholding the New Deal. Owen Roberts switched sides, a switch so sudden, and so crucial to the preservation of the court, that it was dubbed “the switch in time that saved nine.” It looked purely political. “Even a blind man ought to see that the Court is in politics,” Felix Frankfurter wrote to Roosevelt, “and understand how the Constitution is ‘judicially construed.’ It is a deep object lesson—a lurid demonstration—of the relation of men to the ‘meaning’ of the Constitution.”125

Originalism was, in large part, an answer to the Supreme Court’s privacy-based decisions about contraception and abortion; if the left could find rights in penumbras and emanations, the right would find them in ink and parchment.

On slavery

delivered “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” “Is it not possible that an individual may be right and a government wrong?” Thoreau asked. Brown, he said, was, for his commitment to equality, “the most American of us all.”29 Thoreau’s own commitment to abolition was strengthened by his reading a book just published in London. The same was true of many of his contemporaries. The book had made its way to Concord even as Brown was raiding Harpers Ferry: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Thoreau, a naturalist, a man of beans and bumblebees and frogs and herons, had been following Darwin’s work, and when the book appeared, he read it with a passionate interest, filling the pages of six notebooks with his notes.

Civil war

It would become politically expedient, after the war, for ex-Confederates to insist that the Confederacy was founded on states’ rights. But the Confederacy was founded on white supremacy. The South having seceded, Lincoln was nevertheless inaugurated, as scheduled, on March 4, 1861.

War creates passports

“Until further notice, no person will be allowed to go abroad from a port of the United States without a passport either from this Department or countersigned by the Secretary of State.” From then until the end of the war, this restriction was enforced; its aim was to prevent men from leaving the country in order to avoid military service.

Also the greenback


Many of the reforms proposed by populists had the effect of diminishing the political power of blacks and immigrants.

No group of native-born Americans was more determined to end Chinese immigration than factory workers. The 1876 platform of the Workingmen’s Party of California declared that “to an American death is preferable to life on par with a Chinaman.”55 In 1882, spurred by the nativism of populists, Congress passed its first-ever immigration law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigrants from China from entering the United States and, determining that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to people of Chinese

“How could they be?” asked Indiana Republican Albert J. Beveridge. “They are not of a self-governing race. They are Orientals.”

Twenty thousand Americans, some dressed in Nazi uniforms, gathered in a Madison Square Garden bedecked with swastikas and American flags, where they denounced the New Deal as the “Jew Deal,” at a “Mass Demonstration for True Americanism.” Thompson snuck into the rally, started laughing, and, even as she was dragged out by men dressed as storm troopers, kept calling out, “Bunk, bunk, bunk!”14

Income tax

in 42 of 48 states, six more than required, winning passage in state senates with an average support of 89 percent and, in state houses, 95 percent. In nineteen lower legislatures, the vote in favor was unanimous. The Sixteenth Amendment became law in February 1913. The House voted on an income tax

Hoover regulates the airwaves

Hoover refused to leave this to chance, or to the public-mindedness of businessmen. The chaos of the early airwaves convinced him that the government had a role to play in regulating the airwaves by issuing licenses to frequencies and by insisting that broadcasters answer to the public interest. “The ether is a public medium,” he insisted, “and its use must be for the public benefit.”3 He pressed for passage of the Federal Radio Act, sometimes called the Constitution of the Air. Passed in 1927, it proved to be one of the most consequential acts of Progressive reform.


the Depression. But there was more to the rout. FDR’s election also ushered in a new party system, as the Democratic and Republican Parties rearranged themselves around what came to be called the New Deal coalition, which brought together blue-collar workers, southern farmers, racial minorities, liberal intellectuals, and even industrialists and, still more strangely, women. With roots in nineteenth-century populism and early twentieth-century Progressivism, FDR’s ascension marked the rise of modern liberalism.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”30

Roosevelt assembled a “brain trust” that included Frances Perkins as his secretary of labor, the first female member of a presidential cabinet.

. The National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), established by FDR in 1940, was headed by Vannevar Bush, the so-called czar of research, who by 1941 was also head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Meanwhile, Perkins drafted the Social Security Act, passed by Congress later that year. It established pensions, federal government assistance for fatherless families, and unemployment relief.

If the Depression, and alike the New Deal, created a new compassion for the poor, it also produced a generation of politicians committed to the idea that government can relieve suffering and regulate the economy. In 1937, lanky former Texas schoolteacher Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected to Congress, where he worked to obtain federal funds for his district for projects like the construction of dams to improve farmland.

“If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing,” Roosevelt told the NAACP’s Walter White. “Southerners, by reason of the seniority rule in Congress, are chairmen or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees.” The anti-lynching bill died.

Roosevelt had asked Bush to prepare a report that, in July 1945, Bush submitted to Truman. It was called “Science, the Endless


Radio made fundamentalism into a national movement. In 1925, Paul Rader, the director of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle, began broadcasting The National Radio Chapel. During the hardest years of the Depression, revivalist ministers railed against modernity and the suffering it had wrought, calling on listeners to return to God. Radio Bible Class, broadcast from Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought the tradition of Sunday and summer Bible study to communities that stretched as far as its radio signal could reach.


Raised a Mennonite, he decided to convert to Presbyterianism, becoming the first president to be baptized while in the White House. His administration inaugurated the practice of national prayer breakfasts. “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply religious faith, and I don’t care what it is,” Eisenhower said. During his administration, Congress mandated the inclusion of “In God We Trust” on all money and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.113 For more reasons, too, conservatives had high hopes for Eisenhower, whose 1952 campaign had included a promise to repeal New Deal taxes that, he said, were “approaching the point of confiscation.”114 Eisenhower’s cabinet included the former president of General Motors. (With Eisenhower’s pro-business administration, Adlai Stevenson said, New Dealers made way for car dealers.) Eisenhower was also opposed to national health care, as was his secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, a longtime conservative Texas Democrat named Oveta Culp Hobby, who’d recently switched parties. She liked to say she’d come to Washington to “bury” socialized medicine. Both Eisenhower and Hobby considered free polio vaccinations socialized medicine, and Hobby argued against the free distribution of the vaccine, a position that would have exposed millions of children to the disease. In the end, after a related scandal, Hobby was forced to resign.

Douglas said. Instead, “Ike’s ominous silence on our 1954 decision gave courage to the racists who decided to resist the decision, ward by ward, precinct by precinct, town by town, and county by county.”143


1965, former presidents Eisenhower and Truman, Republican and Democrat, together served as co-chairmen of a Planned Parenthood committee, signaling an across-the-aisle commitment to contraception.

House, George H. W. Bush, a decorated navy pilot and young Republican congressman from Texas, pressed the case. “We need to make family planning a household word,” Bush said. (So known was Bush for his support for family planning that he got the nickname “Rubbers.”)

the court neared a ruling on Roe, Nixon’s advisers saw a political opportunity. In 1971, Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan told the president that abortion was “a rising issue and a gut issue with Catholics,” and suggested that the president’s prospects for reelection would be improved “if the President should publicly take his stand against abortion, as offensive to his own moral principles.” A week later, Nixon, jettisoning his previous support of abortion, issued a statement in which he referred to his “personal belief in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the yet unborn.” Exploiting Catholics’ opposition to abortion was a deliberate attempt to inject doctrinal absolutism into party politics.


The NRA supported the 1968 Gun Control Act, passed after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., banning mail-order sales, restricting certain high-risk people from purchasing guns, and prohibiting the importation of military surplus firearms. Some elements of the legislation “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens,” said the NRA’s executive vice president, but “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

began to change in the 1960s, not because the NRA started talking about the Second Amendment, but because black nationalists did. In 1964, not long before he was shot to death, Malcolm X said, “Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.”

As late as 1986, the Second Amendment was still known as the “lost amendment.” But by 1991, a poll found that Americans were more familiar with the Second Amendment than with the First.85 Nevertheless, Hatch’s committee relied less on anything ever written by James Madison than on very recent

New Democrats

The new Democratic understanding of the world was technocratic, meritocratic, and therapeutic. They believed that technology could fix political, social, and economic problems, and yet they also believed that they owed their own success to their talents and drive, and that people who had achieved less were less talented and driven. They tended not to see how much of their lives had been shaped by government policies, like government-funded research, or the zoning laws and restrictive covenants that had created high-quality schools in the all-white suburbs or the occasional swank urban pockets in which they typically lived.

“The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops,” announced Joe Biden, a hard-bitten senator who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new State prison cells.”

elements of the Glass-Steagall Act, passed in 1933. The repeal lifted a ban on combinations between commercial and investment banks. Larry Summers, Clinton’s Treasury secretary, boasted, “At the end of the 20th century, we will at last be replacing an archaic set of restrictions with a legislative foundation for a 21st-century financial system.” The freewheeling securities industry saw record profits in the wake of the repeal. By the end of the decade, the average CEO of a big company earned nearly four hundred times as much as the average worker. And, not long after that, in 2008, during a global financial collapse, Summers’s twenty-first-century financial system would be revealed as having been cracked from the start.

When people from Clinton’s campaign and from his administration left politics, they made piles of money, hawking their access to policymakers. In the two and a half years between when senior adviser Rahm Emanuel left the Clinton White House and when he ran for Congress, he pocketed more than $18 million, chiefly working for an investment banking firm. The opportunities for corruption and ethics violations were endless. The opportunities for ratings, driven by scandal, were limitless. In 1996, CNN had 60 million subscribers; MSNBC, 25 million; and Fox, 17 million. Two years later, a news story broke that led to a 400 percent increase in Fox’s prime-time ratings.165

am my brother’s keeper”—as on the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”; and he recited both as prayers. (Like William Jennings Bryan before him, Obama had worked with a Shakespearean speech coach.) Part preacher, part courtroom lawyer, he electrified the crowd. “There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes,” he said. “Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is a United States of America.”

Yet Obama’s foreign policy looked aimless and haphazard and tentative, which diminished both his stature and that of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. While war in Afghanistan wore on, Islamic militants attacked U.S. government facilities in Libya in 2012, and by 2014 a new terrorist group, calling itself the Islamic State, had gained control of territory in Iraq. America’s nation-building project in the Middle East had failed. Obama, who had been an early critic of the Patriot Act, of the prison at Guantánamo, and of the Iraq War, led an administration that stepped up surveillance through a secret program run by the National Security Agency, prosecuted whistle-blowers who leaked documents that revealed U.S. abuses in the Middle East, and used drones to commit assassinations.