These Truths: A History of the United States
W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, 933 pp.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – from The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
I’m a bit of a history buff and I’ve read a good number of history books over the decades. Histories of the United States tended toward heavily-varnished hagiography with men like Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln reverenced in almost-religious terms. Of course, those men were products of their times. Jefferson could write the above words with the widely-understood qualification that Native American “Indians,” Blacks, and women did not share in “these truths.” The hypocrisy and inconsistency are glaring from our vantage point today, but also consider that only eighty-years ago, millions of American G.I.s were sent to Europe to defend the world from Nazi tyranny and persecution at the same time that Black Americans in the South lived under the tyranny of Jim Crow.
Harvard professor, Jill Lepore, wrote “These Truths” partially from the perspective of the oppressed and disenfranchised and some might dismiss it as a “woke” version of U.S. history. However, the book is necessary because most hagiographical U.S. histories of the past neglected or skimmed over the stories of the oppressed, voiceless, marginalized groups. Lepore isn’t shrill and angry (as I recently encountered with Kristin Kobes Du Mez in her critique of American Christian Nationalism, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” see here), but presents the material in a “mostly” objective manner that’s worthy of consideration. Lepore’s last several chapters that examine the increasing polarization of American society along the Red vs. Blue divide are informative and very well done.
Because of its size, “These Truths” was a major effort to get through and it occupied much more of my reading time than I like to devote to a single book. It deserves a longer review, but my time is more limited these days. A couple of closing thoughts:
- Washington, Jefferson, et al, were certainly fallible men and products of their times. I imagine that if Lepore had been brought up in the Antebellum South of the 1840s and 1850s there would have been an extremely good chance that she would have aligned with the societal mores of the region and times as well.
- The conflation of faith and nationalism has been the predominant paradigm among Christians living in America since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620. Deconstructionist examinations of U.S. history are not well-received by many. But great wrongs were done and deserve examination. Christians know from God’s Word that all men are sinners and there’s abundant evidence of that in America’s unvarnished history. Deist Thomas Jefferson’s “truths” were laudable, although certainly not applied fairly. However, Christians know of the infinitely greater Truths of Jesus Christ and the Gospel that are not restricted by national boundaries, times, or societal mores. Jefferson is memorialized in a manner that approaches idolatry, but he was a spiritually lost soul who aligned himself with humanistic “enlightenment” (including some glaring inconsistencies as a slaveowner) rather than with Jesus Christ and the Gospel.