Prolific author and Harvard professor Jill Lepore offers a compelling, comprehensive American history seen through the prism of the Declaration of Independence.
Historian and Harvard professor Jill Lepore, a sleuth and storyteller, explores the principles underlying the “political history” of the United States. She revisits the questions Alexander Hamilton asked in Federalist No. 1: If Americans can gain a free democracy, can they keep it?
The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.Jill Lepore
Lepore’s approachable “civics primer” provides an insightful guide for those reflecting on history with a critical, inquiring eye and for every US voter.
Hamilton asked if Americans could establish and maintain “good government” by making thoughtful choices – or if, instead, they and their nation would succumb to misfortune, violence, biases and lies? Could the government support people’s efforts to govern themselves fairly? Hamilton’s questions provide the lens through which Lepore examines US history.
The important question [is] whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.Alexander Hamilton
Lepore believes that the United States, born of revolution, will always face chaos. She cites multiple challenges and themes that resonate throughout American history: internal debate; electoral procedures; the size of government; religion – broadly, and Christianity, specifically; educational opportunities; the Supreme Court and its rulings; racial and gender inequality; the changing identities of political parties; health care and welfare; international affairs; poverty and affluence; technology and communication; politics and parties; and the history of news and “fake news.” She finds lessons and connective themes in every corner of the nation’s narrative.
When the Spanish conquerers came to America, Lepore reports, they developed a system of skin color gradations indicating various combinations of Africans, Europeans and Native Americans. The English, in contrast, regarded people as either Black or white. Both approaches – mixing or pretending not to mix – contributed to American notions of race.
If proslavery southerners defended free trade and pro-labor northerners defended free soil and free labor, abolitionists defended free speech.Jill Lepore
Lepore reports that factories existed in the United States before the Industrial Revolution: The enslaved were the first factory workers in outdoor factories, such as the rice fields of North and South Carolina and the tobacco fields of Virginia. The Southern economy depended on the strength of the institution of slavery.
The colonial Federalists, who favored ratifying the Constitution, and their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, established a two-party system in the 1780s. They provided the distant roots of today’s parties.
Ideologically minded politicians and intellectuals talked about liberalism and conservatism…but to ordinary voters these terms had virtually no meaning. Jill Lepore
When Abraham Lincoln joined the Republican Party, it stood for reform; the Democratic Party for slavery. Women launched the Equal Rights Party around 1870. In his 1896 presidential campaign, William Jennings Bryan, identified two forms of government. In one, the goal of legislation was to help make the well-off more prosperous so prosperity would trickle down. The Democratic goal was to legislate prosperity for the masses. Now, Lepore asks, what is a Republican or a Democrat?
Lepore describes government by and for the people as a math problem. She explains that the Electoral College came into being in 1787. The number of electoral delegates echoed the size of representation in the House: one representative in Congress per 40,000 people. Each enslaved person counted as three-fifths of a person.
The question became what legal doctrine would be used to talk about the bodies of people that the framers…understood as subject to the rule of men.Jill Lepore
In 1800, only taxpayers or property owners could vote in 13 of the 16 states. In Maryland, Black men who were born free could vote for a few years, until a state constitutional amendment excluded them. In 1870, the 15th Amendment of the Constitution ended restrictions on voting rights based on color, race or “previous condition of servitude.” For Black men, voting proved dangerous and difficult.
The United States had no federal regulations against immigration before the 1880s. In 1924, new restrictions established the Border Patrol, a quota system and a process for deporting “illegal aliens.”
The Constitution disavows any relationship between church and state. Lepore explains that the Bill of Rights prohibits the federal government from establishing a national religion, but she also illustrates that the way the nation functioned – and still functions – often boiled down to peoples’ religious perspectives.
Very often, histories of nation-states are little more than myths that hide the seams that stitch the nation to the state. Jill Lepore
During the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s, evangelicals reframed the country as steeped in Christian values. For instance, fundamentalists rejected evolution. In 1925, John Scopes faced criminal charges in Tennessee for teaching it in public schools.
In the 1930s, faith-based constituencies supported President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which rested on Christian beliefs, such as being your “brother’s keeper.” Despite their underpinnings, New Deal programs often excluded Black people. And, Black soldiers didn’t receive the same GI Bill benefits as white soldiers gained.
In Boston in 1848, Lepore asserts, 1% of the people controlled 37% of the wealth; the bottom 80% controlled 4%. By around 2000, average workers earned about 400 times less than average large-company CEOs. And by 2013, America suffered income inequality on par with China and Uganda.
If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a RebellionAbigail Adams
Lepore asserts that women lacked a unified voice. Northern women had been fighting for abolition for years when Southern white women – often war widows – sought to gain government services. Women did not vote in America until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Lepore illustrates that no American life or issue exists in a vacuum. She provides background and context, reasons to despair and reasons to be hopeful.
In The New Yorker and multiple books, including this one, Lepore bores beneath headlines or current rhetoric to unearth the factors driving political policies and public discourse. Applying her vast knowledge of many yesterdays, Lepore proves that she is among today’s most reliable and articulate chroniclers.
Lepore possesses a distinctive, highly readable, witty, often ironic and always enjoyable prose style. So, while a 960-page historical tome may daunt readers unfamiliar with her work, those who know her abilities also know this history – at whatever page count – is a welcome, essential guide to the United States today and to the ways its past has shaped its future. For those compelled by these questions, Lepore provides indispensable reading.
Factions might not…consist of wise, knowledgeable and reasonable men. They might consist of passionate, ignorant and irrational men, who had been led to hold ‘counterfeit’ opinions by persuasive men.Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore’s books include The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity; The Secret History of Wonder Woman; This America: The Case for the Nation; If Then: How One Data Company Invented the Future ; Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History; and New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan.