Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

A Liberal History of the U.S.

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull (Wikimedia Commons)
These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore (Norton, 960 pp., $39.95)

Jill Lepore holds a Ph.D. from Yale and is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard. Her first book, The Name of War, on King Philip’s War, won the Bancroft Prize. Previous works of hers have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She holds the title Harvard College Professor, given in recognition of her excellence in teaching undergraduates. The New York Times has published two favorable reviews of her latest work and then a flattering profile of the author and her new book. In These Truths: A History of the United States, Lepore develops ideas in the works of liberal-consensus historians such as Eric Goldman, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Richard Hofstadter. In short, she is perfectly positioned and qualified to update and defend the standard liberal account of American history.

The narrative begins with great promise as Lepore describes the essential ideals outlined in the founding documents. She takes political history seriously and generally avoids the moral preening found in so many discussions of the American past. She makes thoughtful arguments worthy of discussion. Moreover, she rewards readers with genuinely interesting sentences and important ideas. But of course there are some facts and issues that may lead to some disagreement.

She writes about economic growth as if she were a Malthusian or a mercantilist and argues that the Spanish and English colonies were “regimes of race” rather than, well, what they were. She clearly misunderstands the three-fifths compromise and the reasons the Constitution called slaves “persons.” In the section on the Civil War she adopts the language and legal assumptions of the racist, rebellious, slaveholding, treasonous rebels and ignores the political implications of racism during and after Reconstruction. She repeats old populist lies uncritically, gets the origins of progressivism wrong, and does not draw the proper distinctions between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. She whitewashes the beliefs and actions of Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and Margaret Sanger and writes about the Great War as if no books on the subject had been written in the last 50 years. Her description of the 1920s is likewise incorrect, as is her origin story of conservatism.

Her description of conservatism does not begin with great promise. She writes that “many kinds of conservatism coexisted in the United States in the 1930s, not yet sharing an ideology.” While it is true that many conservatives, including writers at National Review, have often confused the conservative American intellectual tradition with the conservative American political tradition, such a statement implies that Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, William H. Taft, and Calvin Coolidge did not share any political ideas. They did.

Discussing American conservatism, she neglects its political history and creates a new origin story for it. Of the writers she deems “conservative intellectuals” who opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, she concludes that they “were opposed to socialism; they were isolationists; many tended to be anti-Semitic.” Lepore does a better job with some conservative intellectuals than with others, giving a mention to James Burnham, for example, and substantial, accurate, and sympathetic treatment to Friedrich Hayek and Herbert Hoover. On the history of American conservatism, Lepore, in the end, is better than almost any other serious liberal historian of the past several generations. At least she discusses conservative ideas. She fairly and accurately describes the founding of National Review as well as the ideas of William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and Richard Weaver. Unlike previous liberal historians, she recognizes the role of women in the Republican party at the grassroots level and in conservatism generally. But even as she does some things surprisingly well, she makes assertions and inferences that range from head-scratching to gob-smacking.

Lepore’s failure to make fine distinctions between categories leads to misunderstandings, and presentism begins creeping into her interpretation of events. She does not understand Presi­dent Truman’s motivations or liberal anti-Communism generally. Describing Republican politicians, she conflates anti-Communism with McCarthyism and writes outlandish things about Nixon, Eisenhower, and Reagan. Nixon with his “Checkers” speech single-handedly made the GOP the “party of the people”? Eisenhower was a tool of advertising executives out to kill universal health care? Eisenhower’s farewell address and Kennedy’s inaugural had essentially the same message? Reagan’s two most important actions in office were winning the Cold War and nominating Robert Bork to the Supreme Court?

Conservatives might also take issue with the notion that gun rights became important only “in the shadow of a growing White Power movement” and as a backlash against civil rights and feminism. Some may quibble with her assertion that understanding the plain meaning of the Constitution as written is a new idea. Still others might balk at the notion that conservatives opposed universal health care only because they “feared” that “its popularity” would make the Democrats “unstoppable” if they succeeded and passed enabling legislation. I know some conservatives who have made different arguments against the policy.

Although I would disagree with her understanding of “Left” and “Right” as something other than polar opposites, Lepore is on more solid ground as she notes that interest groups “abandoned solidarity across difference in favor of the meditation on and expression of suffering, a politics of feeling and resentment, of self and sensitivity.” Clearly many Americans who wrongly call themselves conservatives see that behavior among their political opponents without seeing it in themselves. Real conservatives should not be tempted by the lure of populist anti-liberalism. When you are defined by your hatreds, your enemy gets to define you.

In one sentence, Lepore explains her outlook and purpose for writing: “For decades, conservatives, unlikely bedfellows with academic postmodernists, had been arguing against the idea of objectivity.” Herein lies the biggest problem; now we see the erroneous assumption that caused so many puzzling judgments throughout the book. She believes that liberals use facts and are objective. Her villains are conservatives and postmodernists. She defends the liberal establishment monoculture against the two forces she has seen threaten it. Postmodernists, with their attack on truth itself, undermined all authority in the academy. Conservatives pointed out cases of longstanding, obvious error (as on the question of gun rights) among liberals and thereby showed that some elites and experts held exalted social positions that perhaps they did not deserve. Elites do not appreciate being exposed as frauds.

Lepore is clearly gifted, clearly hardworking, and clearly interested in intellectual honesty, and yet the book contains many easily disprovable assertions. Perhaps she is demonstrating that she needs what Melville in Moby-Dick called “a little lower layer.” She does not see that her own scholarship would be better served if one-third of the faculty in the humanities at Harvard were made up of conservatives who had not gone to Ivy League schools. Which is a shame, because These Truths does contain many truths that need to be expressed. She has finally integrated women and minorities into their rightful place in the mainstream of the Ameri­can story. Her short history of the rise of relativism is spot on.

College freshmen in 2018 did not cause our current crisis of national ignorance, now in its third generation. Students cannot know what they have not been taught. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Blame professors and politicians for the takeover of history and political-science departments by leftists and postmodernists. The professors are and were politically motivated frauds; politicians and the American people let it happen. Of course most of the conservatives were eliminated long ago, through attrition and discrimination; the great change happened when the leftists drove out the liberals.

Every grand, narrative history is a work of summary and simplification, so specialists could pick many nits in their particular areas or ask for more or less coverage of a given topic. That is not the problem with this book; indeed, the problem is quite the opposite. Lepore is a wonderful narrative writer and has admirably woven the disparate elements of American history together. It is an impressive achievement. She should be recognized and commended for it. But much of what she knows and writes is simply wrong, with errors of omission or fact that would lead readers to bizarre, self-evidently incorrect conclusions. So then, what should we make of this book?

One conclusion we might draw from it is that America no longer exists. We were once an ideological nation-state, but no longer do we have any remembered or shared values, and so we have lost our reason for being and exist now only out of convenience and inertia. If that is true, patriotism has become nothing more than liking the government that delivers your mail or gathering to watch the Super Bowl every year.

Another reasonable conclusion to draw from the book is less dire: A member of the liberal elite has written a good defense of the liberal elite. It was a long time in coming and welcome in many ways. If the liberals recall a time when they did not cower before postmodernists (who say truth does not exist) or leftists (who say truth is whatever serves the Left), so much the better. For myself, I read the book with great nostalgia. It is a towering example of good old-fashioned liberal bias of a kind rarely seen in academics in the last few decades. Here is a liberal academic claiming to be an unbiased truth-teller, just as in the old days.

Conservatives should meet this book halfway. We should do our best not to make Lepore’s mistakes or to believe that we can advance our cause by doing the opposite of what she does. We should try to avoid conflating “liberalism” with “the Left.” We should recover the history of conservatism in our political history, not just in our intellectual history. Finally, we need the educational equivalent of the Federalist Society, to advance the cause of teaching traditional history and politics. Institutions such as the Ashbrook Center for Public Policy, at Ashland University in Ohio, are a good start, but the effort needs to be national in scope and thousands of times bigger.

These Truths could have been the greatest single-volume history of the United States in generations. I hope Jill Lepore gets the chance to publish a heavily revised second edition and fulfill the promise of the book’s title.

Stephen Tootle — Mr. Tootle is a professor of history at the College of the Sequoias.

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