In 2018, Jill Lepore wrote what I would consider to be the best single-volume history of the United States, titled These Truths. The theme was clear, that the US, despite its messy history, was founded on admirable principles that it has slowly and arduously fought to live up to—and continues to do so. The result was an objective history, one that didn’t hide from the atrocities or ignore the positives, centered around a unifying and inspiring theme.
It is in comparison to this 789-page masterpiece that makes it difficult to fairly judge Lepore’s latest book, This America: The Case for the Nation. At a short 138 pages, This America is more a long-form essay than a book, as the author acknowledges. It also, in what is both a positive and a negative, repeats much of the content and underlying themes from These Truths.
On its own merits, though, as a short book, This America is an exceptional work. Lepore has become one of my favorite authors, and in this book she packs a lot of scholarship in a limited number of pages, presenting a concise history of US nationalism and a strong case for a new Americanism.
The book begins with a warning delivered in 1986 by Stanford historian Carl N. Degler, who said, “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job.”
The problem is that serious historians, put off by twentieth-century ethnic nationalism, had stopped writing national histories, opting instead to write either global histories or else focus narrowly on racial or class-based histories. As Lepore wrote:
“Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will….When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”
One of the consequences of this is that nationalism and patriotism have been conflated. The terms used to mean the same thing, but as Lepore wrote, with the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century, “nationalism had come to mean something different from patriotism, something fierce, something violent; less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and a hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial, or religious majority.”
Patriotism has been co-opted by ethnic nationalists who create the impression that they are the only ones who truly care about their country. And those who seek a unified national narrative have no alternative liberal view, as the intellectual left has given up on the project.
This is part of the reason I hold These Truths in such high regard; it provides this national narrative in the liberal tradition from a serious scholar. And like I mentioned above, it doesn’t hide from the atrocities America has committed, but it doesn’t focus on them at the exclusion of the better story: America living up to its founding ideals. As Lepore wrote:
“A nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and offering asylum to anyone suffering from persecution is a beacon to the world. This is America at its best: a nation that welcomes dissent, protects free speech, nurtures invention, and makes possible almost unbelievable growth and prosperity. But a nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy at every turn.”
Nations get things wrong—as any account of US history can attest to—and we’re probably getting plenty of things wrong now. But as long as the rights of free speech and press are protected, those wrongs can be challenged and corrected. The history of the nation IS that struggle for continual correction and moral progress. Instead of looking back at contempt for the injustices that plague our history, we can in equal measure celebrate the progress we’ve made based on our constitutional and moral identity.
Rather than making America great again, the goal is to make it better than before, through constant vigilance in ensuring that the founding principles are not violated and that we strive to get closer to the founding ideals of equality, equal treatment under the law, and judgment on the basis of character alone.
The demonizing rhetoric of the ethnic nationalist, full of hatred and fear and contempt and irrationality—rhetoric that could not be more different from the language of the founders—must be countered with the opposite: reason and hope. The country was founded, and has made great progress, on a “deeply moral commitment to equality and dignity.” As Lepore wrote, “the United States holds to these truths: all of us are equal, we are equal as citizens, and we are equal under the law…anyone who affirms these truths and believes that we should govern our common life together belongs in this country. This is America’s best idea.”
Also check out my review of These Truths: A History of the United States and The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American.
These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J. Ellis
The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How it Might Be Saved by Michael Tomasky
The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American by Andrew L. Seidel