Book Reviews

Jill Lepore

W.W. Norton and Company

By 1915, (a Congressional) committee had drafted a bill providing for universal medical coverage. “No other social movement in modern economic development is so pregnant with benefit to the public,” wrote the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. “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. It would maintain that unenviable distinction for a century.

                                  from These Truths

 

  

A history for our time.

From its beginnings, the United States of America has been an ongoing dialogue “in order to form a more perfect union,” often trying to find a compromise between its promise and principles and its practices. During its first one hundred years, America was the land of liberty…and slavery. You see the problem.

Our history is a record of working through our contradictions.  At any one moment in time, this dialogue is who we are as a people.

For readers who love history, Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States is a must-read. A Harvard history professor, she focuses on what “people constituted as a nation in the early twenty-first century need to know about their own past.”

She begins by looking at the principles upon which our nation was intentionally founded—“These truths” Jefferson called them: political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. Lepore traces the evolution of these ideas, starting with England’s Magna Carta of 1215 through the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers. They become a yardstick by which each era must measure itself: Are we living up to our founding principles?

She then presents a fascinating trip through American history, examining questions that continue to test and challenge those principles, questions of who is equal? Whether some people are more equal than others. Which rights are “natural” and which, um, un-natural? (gun rights? abortion rights? right to health care?) Is the government here to serve the people, or the people meant to serve the government?

Through the lens of “these truths,” she revisits recurring issues that have divided us and threatened that dream of a more perfect union: nativism and immigration, populism and the protection of the minority from the prejudices and power of the majority, race—from slavery to segregation to the uneasy present—as well as women’s long fight for equality against the glass ceiling of history.

We are presently in another period when the dialogue threatens to tear us apart. But ours has always been a history of ideas in conflict, no more so than on the eve of civil war. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln sought to find unity by recalling the nation’s common roots—“We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies”—and by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”

Lepore reminds us, “The better angels did not prevail.” The question is might they now.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 25, 2019.) Reprinted with permission.


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