Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and author, has written a timely, concise book detailing the incongruities between the ideals plainly stated in the founding documents of the United States and the implementation of those ideals during the last 243 years. Lepore is appalled and alarmed by the wide gap which separates the original intentions of the founders and the current state of the union. She asserts that American identity depends on the shared belief that all people are created equal as declared in the Declaration of Independence and summarizes that founding document: “All people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws” (20).
Lepore urges that these core aspirations must be understood and claimed by every generation in order for the nation to fulfill its original aims or the nation begins to lose its bearings. She reminds readers that the United States was founded as an asylum for the oppressed, but that underpinning began to unravel in the mid-1860s, about the time when the generations of people who had memories of the founding had all died.
Reading this study of the nation’s disconnectedness from its ideal of being a sanctuary for the downtrodden is painful because it is embarrassing to realize how far afield we have moved from that aim. Lepore challenges readers to reacquaint themselves with the founders’ aspirations and allow those objectives to serve as a plumb-line for measuring how the United States is doing today as a liberal democracy.
Lepore reclaims traditional words that have been twisted for political purposes throughout our history, especially “liberalism,” “nationalism,” and “patriotism.” One of the concepts she homes in on is “liberal.” She notes that “liberal” did not initially refer to leftist political views, but instead to “… the belief that people are good and should be free, and that people erect governments in order to guarantee that freedom” (40). She then lists numerous ways liberals have historically failed to implement the founding ideals: the refusal to honor Native American’s wishes about citizenship, the violence and loss of life during the Civil War, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the failures of the Reconstruction Era, the 1924 laws limiting immigration from anywhere in Asia and the detention of 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during World War II.
Lepore challenges readers to reacquaint themselves with the founders’ aspirations and allow those objectives to serve as a plumb-line for measuring how the United States is doing today as a liberal democracy.
She also cites painful recent examples of illiberalism: the anti-Semitic rally in Charlottesville, the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the execution of eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the bitter battle over the wall dividing the United States from Mexico. Suspended over all these unpatriotic incidents is the endorsement of the President who at a Houston, Texas, rally proudly stated his efforts to upend liberal democracy when he shouted: “You know who I am? I am a nationalist, okay?” (25). Lepore strongly argues that this Presidential avowal should be repudiated by all those who believe in the egalitarian ideals of our nation’s founders.
The acclaimed historian calls for a “new Americanism” which requires a generous patriotism, a loyalty to the United States that takes an honest look at our past and makes every effort to reclaim the hopes and dreams of the founders. Lepore differentiates patriotism from nationalism in simple terms: “Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism, by hatred” (24). Patriotism, she infers, is reaching out to the other with open arms; nationalism is staring down the other with a clenched fist.
This America takes on academic historians for abandoning liberalism in the 1960s, when scholars became enamored with globalism and stopped writing about the nation’s history. Historians have been derelict in recording and analyzing contemporary events in their unique national context, she warns. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism” (20). Illliberal nationalism fills the void when liberal nationalism abandons its responsibility.
In this book, Lepore challenges the academy to rescue liberalism from its illiberal captors. “In a world made up of nations, there is no more powerful way to fight the forces of prejudice, intolerance and injustice than by a dedication to equality, citizenship, and equal rights, as guaranteed by a nation of laws” (137). This “new Americanism” will take seriously its past, reinvigorate pride in the ideals established at the nation’s inception and be driven by love, not hate. At the same time, it will be committed to an “unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over” (137).
The author restates her theme by quoting lines from the 1935 Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again” near the middle of the book:
“The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free (96) .”
This cogent book is full of less well-known historical anecdotes that help the reader understand the source of despair and restlessness common in the United States today. These incidents reveal the roots of partisanship and the seemingly irreparable tensions between illiberal nationalists and liberal patriots. The present immigrant crisis bespeaks a nation that has broken from its rich heritage of being a safe haven for the oppressed. The blatant and endless racism and xenophobia surrounding issues of gender and sexual orientation are further signs of a nation far afield from its founding values.
Lepore’s essay is important because it helps the reader understand the roots of the agenda driven by today’s extremists and also the pervasive anxiety of citizens. Lepore believes the way forward for the United States is to honestly look at our past and commit to reclaiming the aspirations of a liberal democracy.
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her prior title, These Truths: A History of the United States provides a more complete discussion of the contents of this brief book.