Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

These Truths: A History of the United States

Rate this book
Widely hailed for its “sweeping, sobering account of the American past” (New York Times Book Review), Jill Lepore’s one-volume history of America places truth itself—a devotion to facts, proof, and evidence—at the center of the nation’s history. The American experiment rests on three ideas—“these truths,” Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. But has the nation, and democracy itself, delivered on that promise?

These Truths tells this uniquely American story, beginning in 1492, asking whether the course of events over more than five centuries has proven the nation’s truths, or belied them. To answer that question, Lepore wrestles with the state of American politics, the legacy of slavery, the persistence of inequality, and the nature of technological change. “A nation born in contradiction… will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history,” Lepore writes, but engaging in that struggle by studying the past is part of the work of citizenship. With These Truths, Lepore has produced a book that will shape our view of American history for decades to come.

960 pages, Paperback

First published September 18, 2018

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Jill Lepore

37 books1,174 followers
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best non-fiction book on race, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War (Knopf, 1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize, and the Berkshire Prize and a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Award.

A co-founder of the magazine Common-place, Lepore’s essays and reviews have also appeared in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, the Journal of American History and American Quarterly. Her research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, the Charles Warren Center, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She has served as a consultant for the National Park Service and currently serves on the boards of the National Portrait Gallery and the Society of American Historians.
Jill lives in Cambridge,Massachusetts.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
5,850 (55%)
4 stars
3,576 (33%)
3 stars
910 (8%)
2 stars
195 (1%)
1 star
91 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,658 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Gates.
Author 10 books514k followers
December 12, 2019
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books about history, especially American history. I never get tired of looking closely at seminal events, such as the Vietnam War, and figures I admire, such as the global heath hero Jim Grant.

These Truths: A History of the United States, by the Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore, is not a deep or comprehensive account of individual events or people. The book covers centuries of history in its 800 pages, so Lepore can offer only quick glimpses at major events such as America’s first presidential impeachment (only three sentences) and doesn’t even get a chance to mention pivotal figures such as Lewis and Clark.

But with the exception of a brief section covering the past 20 years (more on this below), I loved the book and hope lots of people read it. In keeping with its title, it’s the most honest account of the American story I’ve ever read, and one of the most beautifully written. Lepore comments in her conclusion that simplistic, feel-good accounts of our past undermine and belittle “the American experiment, making it … a daffy, reassuring bedtime story.” These Truths is just the opposite.

While many good history books provide perspectives beyond those of the traditional “great men” of history, Lepore’s book makes diverse points of view central to the narrative. She shows you all the ironies and contradictions in American history.

For example, Lepore tells you about Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Smith had the courage to stand up to abuses in Congress; she was particularly passionate in speaking out against Joseph McCarthy’s hateful hunt for communists in government. And yet she also willingly participated in crusades against “homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” in the language of the Congressional hearings.

Another contradiction I was not aware of relates to the GI Bill, which gave a huge boost to my dad’s education and career after he served during World War II. After acknowledging that the GI Bill was one of the wisest investments our country has ever made, she points out that it actually had a negative impact on African Americans, women, and gay people who fought for their country in World War II—most of whom were denied GI benefits.

By far the biggest contradiction in our country’s history is one that Lepore weaves into every part of her book: the fact that America was founded on assertions of liberty and sovereignty while practicing African slavery and Native American conquest.

This contradiction was obvious to America’s slaves, many of whom sided with the British during the American Revolution because they knew they had a much better chance of being freed if the British won. One of George Washington’s own slaves, Harry Washington, escaped from Mount Vernon during the war and fought alongside Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. Harry Washington later fled to Sierra Leone and became the leader of a group of revolutionaries who declared independence there.

The Emancipation Proclamation represented an important step in reconciling this contradiction. “American slavery …. had stolen the lives of millions and crushed the souls of millions more,” writes Lepore. “It had poisoned a people and a nation…. It was not over yet. But at last, an end lay within sight.” Thirty years after Lincoln’s proclamation, Frederick Douglass wrote, “The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

Despite all of Lepore’s research and writing, I found the final section of the book to be out of keeping with what preceded it. This section did not sound like it was written by a professor who excels at detached historical analysis. Especially in the section about the 2008 financial crisis, it reads like the work of a critic who is caught up in the passions of the moment.

Even so, I highly recommend the book. It’s packed with amazing details I had never read before. For example, there were more than 100 incidents of violence between members of Congress between 1830 and 1860. But more important, it’s a good reminder that there’s a lot more to American history than most of us learn in school. These truths are ones we all need to hear.
Profile Image for James Thane.
Author 9 books6,943 followers
January 6, 2019
Jill Lepore's These Truths is a massive (932 pages) and beautifully-written new history of the United States from Columbus to the Age of Donald Trump. It raises the critically important question of whether a nation founded on the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution can survive under the assault of the Internet, talk radio, twenty-four-hour cable "news," and all of the other maladies that now afflict the nation's democracy.

The depth of Lepore's research is nothing less than astounding. The book reflects the latest scholarship and illustrates the fact that, contrary to the arguments of an earlier generation of American historians, the nation's development has not been one glorious march along the road to progress. Rather, we have proceeded in fits and starts. Our history has been characterized by periods of reform alternating with times of retreat. We have enjoyed times of great economic prosperity only to have them shattered by periodic economic collapses. We have been led by men and women of brilliance, courage and foresight, but we have also on occasion fallen prey to scoundrels and charlatans. Ours is a complex history, marked by moments of selfless sacrifice and great triumph, but marred by injustice and tragedy as well.

For much of our history, many of the nation's citizens, especially women along with blacks and other minorities, have been denied the opportunity to participate fully in the society and especially in its political life. Thus the struggle to provide equal opportunity for all Americans has been a long-running theme of American politics, ever since the days when the right to vote and to otherwise participate in the nation's governance was reserved for white, adult, male property owners.

Anyone who is reasonably well-versed in the history of the United States will understand that the nation has experienced--and survived--many difficult moments before. And, of course, every generation is almost automatically bound to assume that the times they live in are the most important, the most exciting, the most perilous, or whatever, in the history of the country. Still, one finishes this book with a profound sense of foreboding, and you can't help but wonder if the age of rabid partisanship in which we now live, along with the tools now at the disposal of those who would divide rather than unite us as a people, will finally be enough to overwhelm the "truths" left us by the Founding Generation.

This is a very timely book that will appeal to large numbers of readers looking for a fresh look at the history of the American people and the challenges that we face today.
Profile Image for Ryan Boissonneault.
198 reviews2,067 followers
June 29, 2019
In an age of political polarization, Jill Lepore reminds us that there has never been an age without political polarization. The faintest familiarity with United States history should convince you that political conflict has deep roots.

Some examples: the revolutionaries and loyalists fought vigorously over the issue of independence during the Revolutionary War; the Federalists and Anti-Federalists fought over federal versus state rights; the Mexican-American War was vigorously defended and opposed, as was the Indian removal policy, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson; proslavery and antislavery advocates fought intensely over whether new states should be admitted as free states or slave states; business has battled against labor since the 19th century; and the equality of races and sexes was vehemently defended and opposed for virtually all of US history.

Further, congressional violence was common throughout the 1800s, as when John Wilson stabbed Representative J. J. Anthony to death during a dispute about the administration of bounties for the killing of wolves. In 1865, Charles Sumner, a prominent abolitionist, was attacked and almost killed with a walking cane by Representative Preston Brooks for criticizing slaveholders. For this act of violence Brooks was praised by many and then later reelected. Political duels were also common, as when Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

The mass manipulation of voters is also as old as newspapers themselves, which have always been in the business of supporting candidates and causes. Radio and television were always used for purposes of propaganda, and advertising agencies were immediately employed for political purposes. In 1945, Harry Truman proposed a universal healthcare bill, only to see the bill killed by a targeted advertising campaign deployed by Campaigns Inc., a political consulting firm, that ran thousands of ads capitalizing on widespread Communist fears. Labeling the bill “socialized medicine” and “a product of Germany,” the agency manipulated the psychology of millions of people with scientific precision, long before Russia interfered with the latest 2016 US presidential election.

The problems we face today are old problems with new technology, but the problems cannot be said to be more barbaric or more violent than the problems of the past. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Even if this progress is frustratingly slow, the conditions of today are far superior for most people compared to almost any point in the past, as horrific act after horrific act is painstakingly documented by Lepore throughout the book.

The United States, like any other nation, has a complex history of conflicting ideas, motivations, events, and institutions, with an equal mixture of well-intentioned and noble ideas along with racist, evil, and destructive ideas. Lepore doesn’t hide the negative aspects of US history, but at the same time doesn’t focus on them exclusively. Lepore notes that the US was founded on the concepts of truth, reason, science, liberty, and equality, and that current and future progress hinges on these truths.

Lepore reminds us that the founders of the United States were scientists and political philosophers before they were politicians. They drafted the first secular constitution the world had ever seen—one which did not mention God or Christianity a single time—and one that mentioned religion only for the purposes of granting religious liberty. Religion is mentioned in the Constitution exactly twice: Article 6 states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” and the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson noted that the three greatest men that ever lived, in his opinion, were Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke—a philosopher of science, a physicist, and a political philosopher. Notice that, during an age where everyone believed in God and everyone was Christian, Jefferson didn’t include Jesus or St. Augustine or any religious figure in his list. Likewise, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay were all well-versed in the writings of the scientific revolution and Enlightenment philosophy, including Bacon, Locke, Newton, and Montesquieu, in addition to Plato and Aristotle. (How familiar do you think the current president is with the writings of Aristotle or Montesquieu?)

The founders were creating, in their own words, the “American experiment,” based not on divine rule but rather on experimentation, freedom of speech, press, and religion, and open debate and free discussion based on principles of rationality. This is the essence of democracy as a political experiment; everyone is free to express their views, and differences of opinion are resolved through debates and votes rather than through violence. This is Enlightenment philosophy applied to the founding of a nation.

Of course, the implementation of this ideal was far from perfect. It was not lost on anyone that the author of the Declaration of Independence owned hundreds of slaves. While arguing against the arbitrary power of English rule and stating that all men were created equal, Jefferson simultaneously denied liberty to hundreds of African Americans working his plantation. In fact, four of the first five presidents owned slaves, including George Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

At the same time, Jefferson was ambivalent about slavery and did work to gradually end the slave trade, while others like Benjamin Lay were strident abolitionists even before the Revolutionary War. And so slavery, an obvious stain on the character of the United States, was a complicated issue with people on both sides and sometimes on both sides at the same time.

While the United States has much to be ashamed of in regard to slavery and racism, the founders established the principles that the country could slowly live up to, even if the founders themselves fell short. By establishing a country based on the principles of reason, democracy, freedom, and equality, rather than on religion or divine rule, the founders set up the conditions for continued progress.

But progress, like always, depends on living up to the ideals of reason, free speech, humanism, liberty, and equality, and not backsliding into religiosity, racism, violence, and authoritarianism. And, like always, it also depends on an informed public, able to leverage the power of their own reason without falling victim to the manipulation of mass media or to the echo chambers of their favorite news outlet or internet site.

As citizens of the US, each of us has access to more information than any previous generation, yet in practice most of us consume information from a much narrower range of sources. The remedy to the problem of mass manipulation has always been the same: the development of critical thinking skills within the population, a commitment to reason, intellectual humility, and the toleration of competing viewpoints that can be debated in a civilized manner. Regardless of which technology becomes available, progress forever hinges on our ability to live up to these ideals and these truths.
February 10, 2019
With this history I have told a story... (c)

🐬Just my unpopular opinion.

What's most interesting is that there isn't all that much history to speak about.
In all due seriousness, it has been what? 2 centuries? 3? Not quite.
Before doing the 'sweeping volumes of history', a country should live those volumes first.

The only good thing coming from this lack of historical tradition is that it should be very short and up to the point. It's easier to establish facts when the timetrack isn't too oversized. Still, somehow, this priviledge wasn't built upon. Instead, we have a rambling account, which starts (as tradition dictates!) at Columbus. Of all things.

I believe that starting at Columbus was pointless:
- The US didn't start with Columbus. It wasn't a thing until 1776, which gives the historian a measly period of 284 years to cover.
- What about all those Norsemen, who discovered this continent 500 years before him?
- What about all the Mayan and Incan and Aztecs? Were they officially worthless? Is it not enough to just destroy them, do we need to forget them, as well? From this one we mostly learn that they all died. Well, we sort of guessed it from the beginning.

A very sanitized account. One won't learn from this 'story' just how the US came to be the only currently existing state built on ashes of indigenous peoples (other than Australian tribal woes) annihilated on a continent-wide scale genocide.

A ramblic apologetic account of how US came to be. A book has this phrase aptly catching it all:
All of it is unfortunate; none of it is unusual. (c)

🐬Fun to read. I do love my flowery tales and metaphoric language. What I don't like is when they posture as serious lit, such as 'history volumes, civic lit... etc'.
'Facts, knowledge, experience, proof.' (c) Not too much of all that. A lot of posturing instead. 'Storytelling, and truth' have had a hard time in here. And 'truth' might have been lost in all the fantasy and conjecture... However magisterial and beautiful and evocative and inspiring and idealistic and what-not they might be.
Profile Image for Henk.
875 reviews
November 29, 2020
A pageturner on American political history and the deep roots of some of the current day racial problems and two party polarization
To write something down is to create a fossil of a mind

The ideal book to read after the 2020 elections and make sense of the current predicament the US political system finds itself in.
Jill Lepore packed this brick of a book with fascinating insights in history and parallels with our current times.
It's not that often that I pick up 800+ pages of non-fiction, but often these book do end up impressing me. Lepore looks at the political history of the US and the eb and flood, the steps forwards and steps back that have shaped the nation.
Even though the book is large, it can of course not capture nearly everything, but I found These Truths: A History of the United States enlightening and fascinating.

The early beginnings:The past is an inherentence and a burden
But time has passed, beginning has come to end. What then is the verdict of history?
Lepore starts the book with the strange notion that the US is a nation founded on ideas and a belief in empiricism, as contrasted to the European powers founded on a shared history and racial similarities.

Starting from the arrival of Columbus, she follows the colonisation and the seeds of discontent leading to the revolution, focussed on the question: by what right does one govern another.
These chapters zoom into the fascinating journey books make through time, with just luck deciding if copies make it to the historical record.
Right from the start one of the other large narratives of the books become apparent: Columbus as experienced slave trader and this background leads to the marginalisation and exploitation of a large number of people in the New World. With the mass deaths of the indigenous people due to cruelty and diseases slavery with people of African descent becomes integral to the America's.
This leads to polarisation where slave and black become homogeneous, a fertile ground to the racial tensions still visible in current society.
Gutenberg's invention of the printing press led to a spread of knowledge while the fact that Europe takes a land 5 times as large and its mineral riches leads to an astonishing increase in the speed of progress.

There are harrowing tales in these sections, of people eating each other in the colonies, with the "manifest" destiny of a country straddling a whole continent far away. Also it is very interesting how political turmoil in England shaped migration to the new colonies and formed the thinking about the importance of rights and liberties
By what right are we ruled?
In the end Britian didn’t so much lose America, as abandoned it (for more wealthy sugar colonies in the West Indies). Which as a Dutch person reminded me a lot of how the colony of New Amsterdam, the now metropolis of New York, was ceded in favour of Surinam and its plantations.
In the war with Britain many slaves side with the coloniser, who seemed more committed to abolition and rights than the nascent US. Fascinating is for instance how South Carolina rather lost its capital Charleston than arm slaves and offer them freedom while fighting the Brits.

The relation between continental congress, empowered due to the crisis at hand, and the states is very much like the relation between the EU and the member states nowadays, with financing by outside tariffs seen as a compromise acceptable enough for not infringing on sovereignty.

The republic has degenerated to a democracy
The founding fathers where products of their time and many of congress viewed democracy as a thing to be feared, a start of mob rule. Which is one of the reasons an electoral college was introduced to serve as a safety measure...
In 1792 already the first financial crisis originating from Wall Street appears and two more parties using the newest technology (newspaper instead of Facebook in this case) for partisan cases emerge.
Already in 1800 the elections between Jefferson and Adams are enormously polarized and partisan, with an electoral college in a main role in deciding the winner.
And how Jackson in 1824 won the vote through populist rhetorics, something having a whole other connotation in that time than 200 years later.

A thing Lepore notes is how industrialization meant a decoupling between home and work, leading to more uncertainty about changing times and how this gave rise to new evangelical zeal. While first religion and test of faith are strictly kept out of founding documents, now faith starts to make America a decidedly Christian nation.
At the time of founding only one in ten of Americans were often visiting churches and almost no mention of God is included in the Constitution.

In 1812 the burning of Washington from England, moving from Canada amazed me, given the special friendship the two countries now profess to have with each other.
The fear for increase of immigration and wealth concentration in the top 1% in 1830’s then again seems very familiar.

These are also years of great brutality and unfairness. One in four Cherokee dying in their forced removal from their homeland within Georgia
Southern slave owners, forming 1% of the population but with enormous vested interests, managed to make discussing abolition illegal in the senate. Still they were not above using the 3/5 voting power in respect to slaves to further their agenda.
Can people be things? is however a question more and more jarring, leading to more than 100 violent brawls in the house of representatives between 1840 and 1860. Even Charles Dickens expressing dismay when he visited the Capitol towards the partisan discussions.
Still the republic grows, with Mexico ceded half of it’s land for $15 million after a war in respect to Texas, equalling to 15% of the current US land.

Civil War
The confederate states being founded on the belief, articulated by the vice president of the Confederacy: "upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition"

What if Lincoln had lived on and enfranchisement continued or Wilson didn’t have a stroke when trying to guide the League of Nations through the senate? Meanwhile lynching just continues in the South and black citizens are through the threat of violence kept from voting.
In the end civil rights for cooperations come more easily through the Supreme Court than rights for Chinese who work in the gold mines of California
Also an interesting link drawn by Lepore is between women’s rights awareness and prohibition of alcohol, to prevent domestic violence.

The confederacy had lost the war but won the peace by the Supreme Court declaration that segregation was not in violation to the constitution

Familiar modernity
Subtlety is your enemy
Hearst and Pullitzer stirring up the Spanish American war to further sales of newspapers, eerily similar to the impact of social media on current day elections.
Also the hopes of new mass communication measures are enormously similar to the hopes of social media uniting the world

77% highest income tax, leading to the 1% richest Americans paying around 80% of the taxes during First World War, lead you to have quite a changed view on the golden age from The Great Gatsby.
While 5 million KuKuKux clan members in the interbellum is sobering, as is the realisation that the NRA supported gun control laws in the 1920’s.

Campaign Inc of Whitaker and Baxter meanwhile transform campaigns, with credo's like:
Pretend you are the voice of the people &
Fight or put up a good show

And when radio came people believe everything that came through that new machine is something that again feels very much alike to someone saying "I saw it on Facebook".
Political bubbles of Republican and Democratic radio, newspapers and rallies emerge.
And the initial America First movement, being approved by the Nazi’s propoganda...

World War II and liberalism
The federal budget grew during World War 2 from 9 billion to over 100 billion, with the Pentagon being build in 16 months during 1942 and 1943.

After the war the G.I. Bill provided 16 million veterans with free college, interest mortgage breaks and benefits, leading to a rise of the middle class and the after war economic boom.
But of course 5.000 army men and 4.000 marine men were excluded as being suspected of being gay and black servicemen also were kept from many of the veteran benefits.

Nixon and Kennedy being voted in together and even travelling together sounds like a start of leaving partisan tension behind, but the fight for universal American healthcare failing in 1948 due to a kind of avant la lettre disinformation campaign funded by the Medical Association and a mere $100.000, shows once more eerily how similar the past is to the present.

In this section of the book I began reflecting how history feels an awful lot like a few hard fought giant leaps forward and a lot of continuous reactionary steps back.

Nixon and McCarthy using the television age to bring their conservative and reactionary programme to people, combined with a gay and communist scare seems quite like the hysteria and conspiracy theories of the current day alt right "thinkers" in respect to a deep state and pedophile networks.

The Nut Fringe like a Tea Party avant le lettre in the 1960 Republican party and police violence leading to riots in the 1960’s; all so similar...

The partisan divide
Abortion being murder and guns being freedom, or abortion being freedom and guns being murder.

Abortion rights being written into law by Nixon and defended by newly elected H.W. Bush
Plant Parenthood being headed by Republicans give some perspective on the current entrenched positions, as do gun control laws being strengthened under Republican administrations.

Originalism, focussing on a two century old text and the possibility of gauging the intentions and a opinions of the writers of that text for a modern society, starts arising in the 1980's in the Republican Party. Judges being replaced by Reagan in a breakneck speed, favoring this policy, make the ACB appointment pale.
But the left is far from innocent, with them being called out by Lepore for both embracing the neoliberal dangerous lie of meritocracy and techno optimism and for calling anyone opposing them racist, sexist, homophobic or dumb.
Mass incarceration, with the US locking up 4 times as much as global average, being supported by both Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, also comes into play.

Cable news as an information bubble reinforcing partisan views of the world. How Bush his nephew was head of the decision desk of Fox that called as first the 2000 presidential election result

The sobering current day
On the Internet everything looked new even though most of it was very old
The more I as reader came to the modern day the more depressed I became of the feeling that the book portrays that a kind of war is ongoing versus the concept of an objective truth, and the casting of press and science as just partisan instruments doing politics.

The September 11 attack narration always gets me in a kind of emotional sense, but even then the country was far from united and the idea of truth and human rights itself was seriously challenged.

The book, as said, ends sobering, and Lepore has no easy lessons from the past for our current day predicaments. Uganda and China being as unequal as America in the 2000’s based on the GINI coefficient. Super-PAC’s and lobbying bringing even more money into politics.
Make promises to voters and then blame the failings to conspiracies of the press or other parties as the only policy.
Two times as much guns in the US per person as the second country in the world: war torn Yemen.

If anything, These Truths shows that no progress was, nor is, uninvitable and that only the strivings of many persons have brought about a semblance of the self evident truths the US was imagined upon. This is both a scary and a hopeful message of a very thought provoking and interesting tale about a country that so much has decided the course of our current modern day and age. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Socraticgadfly.
1,044 reviews336 followers
February 2, 2019
This book has been heavily touted.

That makes it all the more disconcerting to see an error as early as page 8 and a whopper to boot.

Indeed, beyond that as representative of numerous errors of fact, there’s numerous arguable errors of interpretation, and dubious decisions what to contain and what to omit.

Behind THAT, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, as far as I can tell, there’s no “there” there.

With that, let’s dig in.

Page 8: No, pre-Columbian American Indians did NOT herd pigs because there were none in the New World!
18: Contra Lepore, plenty of plants went from New World to Old, and quickly became common parts of Old World diets. Tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize and chiles are the obvious ones.
33: Kind-of sort-of on the Virginia Colony. Its original grant went to today’s Canadian border on the coast; a reformulation in 1609 changed that. Hence the worries of the Separatists fears of settling in Plimouth in 1620, even though they had no charter from the crown for anywhere.

By page 45 or so, I realized that I would find little to nothing in the book in the way of facts that were new to me.

So, I started skipping and grokking. (Flame me, those who will.)

116ff. Ignores larger background of Shays Rebellion, and issues related to this in the Washington Administration, ie, the promissory notes for land offered to veterans, speculation on them and repurchase, etc.
145: America had political factions, and alliances, of various sorts long before federalists and anti-federalists. And the Founders knew that. 1790s newspapers did not spring parties into being, and the Founders should have known that.

World War I take? Wasting pages on Germany being criticized by fundamentalists for higher criticism, and making that the intro to Bryan and Scopes, with almost zero coverage of the controversy over entry into the war itself, and Bryan’s time as Secretary of State? Horrible. As for Wilson’s health, he arguably had at least one mild-moderate stroke, and more than one mini-strokes or TIAs, a few years before the War.

242: Polk couldn’t have “wanted to acquire Florida,” as the U.S. had acquired it all by 1821
242: Russia had renounced its Oregon claims by the time Polk became President. Spain had in the Adams-Onis treaty sidebars, and thus, any later Mexican claims (contra Lepore, there surely weren’t) would be rejected by the US anyway.
250: No, the Mexican War boundary line did NOT end up at the 36th parallel of latitude after Polk allegedly gave up on seeking the 26th parallel. El Paso is at the 32nd parallel. The Mexico-California border is approximately 32°30’. Also, I’ve never seen claims that Polk wanted Mexico down to the 26th parallel. Indeed, Polk even specifically mentions the 32nd parallel in his December, 1847 State of the Union. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/ind...

(I jumped back here after moving ahead to WWI, as she said little about Spanish settlement in today’s Southwest. She had little more on New Mexico of wartime Mexico’s possession.)

Even worse, on her Polk land-seeking claims, this heavily footnoted book had NO footnotes.

406: No, most the world did NOT support “free trade” before WWI.
408: No, the 1924 immigration bill did not make immigrant proportional to current (of that time) population. It went back to the ethnic numbers of the 1890 Census.
410: I see no need to put “illegal alien” in scare quotes after first reference.
450: Doesn’t mention FDR playing a behind-the-scenes role in the defeat of Upton Sinclair. Doesn’t even mention that he refused to publicly endorse him. Doesn’t mention that he tried to get Sinclair to drop out and that support was offered to GOP incumbent Merriam when he refused.
452: No, the American PR factory was not democracy’s answer to fascism. In the US, it goes back at least as far as Teddy Roosevelt. And LePore even mentions Emil Hurja’s pre-1933 work. David Greenberg has the correct answers on all of this in “Republic of Spin” as reviewed by me here. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
548: AFL-CIO (and big biz) opposed Truman’s national health care plan, not just AMA. The unions saw health insurance as a recruiting tool.
717: Given that Bush v Gore was the apotheosis of a further rightward shift of the Supreme Court, it gets short shrift.

Basically, after I got a little way into the book, I began wondering what her intended audience was, and what her angle was. I had in mind something like Howard Zinn’s book. Zinn had several errors of interpretation, but he had an interpretive focus.

With LePore, as noted, it seems to be no “there” there, per Gertrude Stein. Yes, she goes intellectual with the extended references to John Locke. Yes, she goes deep history with several pages about Magna Carta (without telling you it was honored by English kings more in the breach than the observance up to the time of Charles I).

Then I realized: Her target audience is readers of the New Yorker plus non-social science bachelor’s level Harvard grads or something like that. Socially liberal — the repeated las Casas references as an example — but not economically leftist or close.

Wikipedia says: She has said, "History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence".

I’m still not sure what argument she was trying to make in the whole book. I eventually grew tired of trying to figure it out.

I did learn tidbits and things, and learn enough about Lepore's writing, not to one-star it. Plus, I thought a two-star review would be less easily dismissed.


Note: Based on Amazon responses, where I still occasionally post a review, and where, for various reasons, I 1-starred it, I shouldn't have worried about the review getting noticed. From feedback there and elsewhere, as well as the absurdly high overall rating here, I have moved my review down to 1 star here. (Seriously, 4.4 overall? I smell tribalism.)
Profile Image for Michael Ferro.
Author 2 books214 followers
January 28, 2019
One of my favorite genres to read in nonfiction are broad, sweeping narratives of American history. Thus, when I heard about THESE TRUTHS last year, I couldn't pick up a copy fast enough. And folks, let me tell you: this one does not disappoint. Jill Lepore is an absolute phenom when it comes to historical context, adding new layers and elements to many of the most complicated eras in our short history. That said, Lepore does not shy away from some of the lesser-known aspects of our history (at least, lesser-known to me).

The early America coverage, including that of Columbus and the first settlers in Jamestown, is particularly interesting, though I only wish there had been more. It doesn't feel rushed, but Lepore certainly focuses her immense talents on the later 19th century and the monumental 20th century. Of particular note was Lepore's routine hearkening back to the framers of the constitution when looking at some of our more modern problems—putting them into historical context. And much of the darker side of American history, sorely lacking from many previous tomes in the past, is skillfully uncovered here.

All in all, THESE TRUTHS is a splendid and engrossing look at the history of the world's first dominant democracy, and the dangers that lie ahead if we continue to lose our way by disregarding the hard truths of our past.
Profile Image for Howard.
340 reviews244 followers
December 17, 2022
“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

What can one say about an ambitious one-volume American history (960 pages total, including 789 pages of text) that begins with Christopher Columbus and ends with Donald Trump?

Well, this:

* The first thing I can say for author Jill Lepore and the book’s readers, including me, is whew!

* The second thing is that it is the best one-volume history of America that I have ever read.

Lepore explains her view of history and the role historians play this way:

History isn’t only a subject; it’s also a method. My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves. I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.

No historian should be able to write that well – and few can.

“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.”

The title of the book comes from the second line of the Declaration of Independence, quoted above. It is that document, and the later U.S. Constitution, that act as a springboard for the underlying theme(s) that run through the book.

Time after time, Lepore returns to the issues of equality and justice, tracing the uneven, sometimes divided and rocky, path the country has followed in extending those unalienable rights, not just to the white males who were “created equal” and enjoyed the God given (or natural) rights such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” but also the rest of the population -- Native American men, African American men, all women, and others – who have had to engage in struggles right up to the present day to acquire those rights, struggles that will last beyond the foreseeable future.

“In 1972, political scientist Leo Bogart demonstrated that most of what polls do is manufacture opinion, given that a sizable portion of Americans know nothing or nearly nothing or else hold no opinion about the subjects and issues raised. 'The first question a pollster should ask,' Bogart wrote, is ‘Have you thought about this at all? Do you have an opinion?'” -- Jill Lepore

She really hits her stride when she finally gets to our own time, in which she criticizes political polling, political consulting, cable-TV news, the internet – all made possible by the computer – that have not advanced political discourse or intellectualism, but have exerted a detrimental influence on both, leading to an alienated electorate and a polarized and dysfunctional government, making it ever more difficult to just get things done.

"In modern American politics, there are no eternal winners—only two unpopular major parties that take turns losing." -- John Cassidy, The New Yorker

Lepore writes that “[u]nder these circumstances, it was difficult for either party to hold a majority for long. Democrats lost the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016.” Lepore’s book was published in 2018 so she was unable to see that the Republicans would lose the House later that year and the Senate and the White House two years later – though one dogged denier still maintains that the Republicans did not lose the White House that year.

The book ends in the first year of the Trump administration and Lepore overreaches in the epilogue with a clunky metaphor in which she describes America’s “tattered ship of state” lurching and reeling in a rising wind, with Liberals neglecting “to trim the ship’s sails,” while Conservatives, in their rage, were “smashing the ship’s very mast.”

It makes one wonder how she would have ended her book if she had waited until January 6, 2021 to finish it. If she had, would her “tattered ship of state” have become a “shattered ship of state?”

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that the awkward metaphor was only two paragraphs in an excellent 789 page study of American history.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books177 followers
January 22, 2022
A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal human rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation, born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight forever over the meaning of history. (p.786)

Harvard historian and New Yorker columnist, Jill Lepore, analyzes American history's contradictions in this provocative and beautifully written one-volume political history of the United States. Like Alexander Hamilton, she wonders if a people can govern themselves by "reflection and choice."
I read this book slowly and carefully during the last months of the Trump presidency, and it helped me see the patterns in our past that have led to our present debacle. Lepore does an excellent job of including the histories of previously marginalized Americans: Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, women, and gays. She also traces the history of populism and white nationalism and analyzes the shifts in technology and ideology that have undermined empirical truth.
I highly recommend it.

I read and reviewed this in January 2021, but the review disappeared from Goodreads. I am reposting it!
Profile Image for Theo Logos.
705 reviews113 followers
June 24, 2023
”We hold these truths to be self evident”...

”By 1926, a century and a half after the nation’s birth every word of its founding statement had been questioned. Who are we? What is True? What counts as evidence?”

Jill Lepore’s These Truths is a comprehensive history of America with a definite point of view. Of course, every history of America has a definite point of view — but we tend to use that phrase only when a history book varies from the view of history as we were originally taught. American History as it was taught to me in school in the 1970s glorified American exceptionalism and presented the mythic America of our national secular religion. It mostly ignored the perspective of the slave, minorities, women, immigrants, labor, or any American radicals, in favor of American triumphalism. That too, was a definite point of view. Lepore’s text is not that history.

What this history is, instead, is a warts and all examination of America’s history. The conflict that has been inherent from the very beginning is put back into the story, along with the point of view of the oppressed and disenfranchised. The title of the book, These Truths, is drawn from America’s founding document, and Lepore concentrated on examining the disagreements, debates, and battles that have raged over what these truth really mean, as well as the times that most Americans has simply ignored them. The fights over what America means and stand for is not new to our generation — it has been ongoing from the beginning, and Lepore’s history makes this evident.

What this book is not is a polemic. Polemics have their place as a corrective, but that isn’t what this author was doing. These Truth is not an angry reputation of America, but a clear and honest look at its history, an examination of what has been done and why, and the consequences that has had.

These Truths is massive (over 900 pages) but well written. It never bogs down or becomes unwieldy. It is an honest take on American history and what it means to all of us. In her afterwards, Lepore sums up what she has written in these words, that emphasize why reading this book is important:

”A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos...A nation born in contradiction, Liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight forever over the meaning of its history...A nation cannot choose its past. It can only choose its future.”
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews603 followers
December 24, 2020
[4+] A mammoth, sweeping, inclusive political history of the US from 1492-2016. Unlike school textbooks, our brutal history as a slave nation and the resulting racial inequalities runs through the entire volume and is not relegated to a chapter or two. Lepore covers all the usual white male leaders of our country but also highlights lesser known women and men. I started this not long after the 2020 election - and it brought home to me that our current intense polarization is not new. Not at all.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,639 reviews2,155 followers
September 16, 2019
I do not just casually read 900+ page history books. I don't read much history at all, to be honest. But I read Lepore's SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN and was constantly enthralled with everything I learned so I thought this was worth a try.

What Lepore does here is in some ways quite simple, but still astounding. She gives us a political history of the United States, much like the one you've learned already but different in a few key respects. Lepore is, above all, concerned with how our national ideals have played out. After all, it's baffling how our country is founded on documents insisting that everyone is equal, but actually it just means white men. While the major political players may be having one conversation, Lepore does not forget about all the people that conversation ignores.

Even at 933 pages, there is a lot Lepore has to leave out in a history that covers hundreds of years. But despite its length it moves along at a nice clip, never stalling for too long in one time or place. There are plenty of stops for anecdotes along the way to give color and depth and context.

Honestly the only real problem I have with this book is that once I reached the 20th century I was so depressed that I had to take a long break. I am not used to having such a clear-eyed view, we much prefer our national myths. But when you really look at it all straight on it can feel like we are a nation built not on equality, but on inequality. We are not built on justice but on suffering. And in 2019 that is a lot. Eventually I came back and got through just fine, but I have to admit that it was really hard. (Also probably didn't help that I went to see WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME right before, which is also wonderful and also deeply depressing in some similar ways.)

I did this on audio, I do not have the fortitude for most nonfiction in print. Lepore reads it and I find her very endearing, but I suspect many readers will not agree with me. I love the sing-song way she reads quotes, contrasted with her soft, straightforward tone the rest of the time. Definitely do a sample first to see how you feel about her.

Ultimately this book has had a significant impact on how I think about our national story, our mythology, and what it all means. It is powerful and terrible to see us portrayed in all our glory and all our cruelty.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
October 11, 2018
It's hard to write a history of the United States from the beginning to now. Lepore is perfectly suited for the task --she's a great historian and a great writer. The best thing about this American history is that it includes the women and the racial minorities that are usually left out. As such, it's a history of America--warts and all. With so much ground to cover, it would be easy to leave out the incidental players, but as Lepore shows brilliantly, it's impossible to understand America without showing the conflict between America in theory and America in practice.

There is no new history in here and for those who read a lot of history, much of this territory is known. What I thought was missing from the book is a sense of theme or even a few threads to follow. If there are any, perhaps it is communication technology and maybe race? I was hoping for more, which is why I was a bit disappointed by the book. But it is an excellent survey of American history--it's written well and to my ears at least, very fairly.
Profile Image for Tom.
199 reviews42 followers
April 6, 2022
These Truths is about as good as you could expect a one-volume history of the United States to be, given the impossibility of confining the nation's turbulent centuries to a single volume. Jill Lepore's fluid writing style helps immensely, of course, and she's probably at her best when deftly chronicling the transformation of the American media from the idealistic conception of newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries to the bitterly divided multimedia landscape of the present day. In fact, I'm probably in the minority in my preference for Lepore's coverage of the more recent decades, in which political discourse and conspiracy theory have become increasingly entwined, thanks in large part to the rise of right-wing radio and amoral grifters like Alex Jones. A more limited history, from the sixties to the present, would have been brilliant. As is, These Truths bites off a bit more than it can chew, having to give certain events short shrift and even including a few errors and anachronisms that other reviewers have pointed out. And in a book that derives its title from the sentence of the Declaration of Independence which asserts that "all men are created equal," I don't understand how Lepore can dedicate so many pages to slavery and all its associated ills only to essentially coast through the Civil War and Reconstruction. Anyway, I still enjoyed the book a lot despite its shortcomings.
Profile Image for Peter Tillman.
3,682 reviews347 followers
April 27, 2022
The good news: "only" 809 pp of actual text (hc ed). The bad news: she starts her History with Columbus's voyage of discovery. She starts in Haiti/Hispaniola, and uncritically quotes Bartolome de los Casas 16th C. guess that Hispaniola had a pre-Spanish population of about 3 million, which fifty years later had declined to 500 natives! My BS detector sounded, since this was uncited, and indeed per https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta%C3%A..., the max modern estimate for pre-Conquest Hispaniola is around 500,000. Whatever the number, within 30 years 80 to 90% had died of European diseases (which was horrible but typical throughout the New World after European contact), nor were they treated kindly by the Spanish. But I was taken aback that a historian of Lepore's standing would start her account with such an obvious blunder.

This is at p. xx + 20, so it will be awhile....

I have more notes to write up, but basically, she made factual errors that a professional historian shouldn't have. No fact checking? P.8, the pre-columbian natives raised pigs and chickens! Two old-world species, brought over with the Spanish. C'mon, Jill, how can we trust you on the stuff we don't know? Answer: we can't. Bah

I gave up. Abandoned for cause, for professional misconduct. Well-written but untrustworthy!

============== Earlier stuff =============
960 pages! Which gives one pause. But she is such a good writer....
The review at NYRB uncritically accepts her unchecked and unreliable guesstimate for the original population of the Americas. So take with salt!
"... at the time of Christopher Columbus’s voyage, Lepore notes, the Americas already contained more people than Europe. Three million Taíno lived on Hispaniola alone, as Columbus called the island where he first made landfall, believing he had found the edge of Asia and a trade route to the East. He wrote in his voyage diary of how easy it would be to enslave them, which Spain soon did to mine gold and grow sugar, and within fifty years, their population had dropped by more than 99.9 percent. ..."

The present-day population of Hispaniola is around 14 million. If the 3 million Taino is a reasonable guess, Hispaniola in 1491 was comparable to present-day Puerto Rico, with a 2017 population of about 3.3 million. Note that guesstimates of the preconquest population of Hispaniola (and all of the Americas) are very uncertain and controversial. And the 99.9% die-off is far worse than any other estimate I've seen for indigenous Americans. I'm dubious. [for good reason. See above. Bad, bad Jill!]

"In the century after Columbus landed, Europeans carried back nearly 200 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver ..." !!
Every generation “has to find a way to inherit the mantle of the American Revolution,” Lepore has argued, in this book and elsewhere. “We are a people that share an idea.” Could she be right? Either way, it’s a really good story. And boy, are there some rough spots....
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,814 reviews241 followers
June 23, 2023
Jill Lepore's History Of the United States

At almost 800 pages of text, Jill Lepore's book "These Truths: A History of the United States" (2018) is both forbiddingly long and yet also short for its ambitious scope. Lepore covers the United States's long past beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492 and concluding with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. It is a great deal to cover, and Lepore, a Professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker, is the first historian to undertake such a large project for many years.

In her Introduction, "The Question Stated", Lepore sets forth the purpose of her book. She begins with a question Alexander Hamilton posed in the "Federalist" about the American experiment in constitutional government and whether it would succeed. Hamilton had asked "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

Lepore proceeds to discuss how the American experiment rests on three political ideas stated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. Lepore wants to develop her American history to show the development and fate of these ideas over time: how these ideas have been understood and the extent to which the United States has been able to remain faithful to them. Lepore argues that, in its written constitution, the United States indeed brought something new into the world's political realm with the ideal of basing government on knowledge, facts, and truth rather than upon mystery or force. Her book reflects upon the success of this attempt. Lepore argues for the importance of a close study of history in understanding the United States and she also argues for the importance of civics -- Americans have forgotten the underlying principles of their government and need to recover and think about them. Her book makes an important and highly worthwhile effort in this direction.

It is important to keep Lepore's purpose in mind because it is easy to lose track of it in the course of her long, wandering book. Her book is not a traditional narrative history of dates, sequences of events and facts. Much that a reader might expect to see is not covered or covered only briefly while Lepore includes a great deal of detail and discussion not found in other histories. Throughout the work, Lepore juxtaposes ideals with realities. From the outset, she shows the incongruity between the American ideas of equality, natural rights, and sovereignty on the one hand and the institution of slavery on the other hand. The theme of slavery and discrimination against African Americans pervades her study. Her aim is to show that African Americans have been part of the American experience from the outset and that their story and role deserves to be studied.

Lepore gives similar attention to women. She argues that women were excluded from the compact made by the Constitution and she argues throughout the book for the attempts of women to find equality and their place in American political life from colonial times to current day feminism. Other groups treated as having their place in the American experience include immigrants and Native Americans. Throughout the book the stories of African Americans, women, immigrants, and Native Americans are threaded into the broader narrative.

Then too, there is a near-philosophical discussion of the nature of truth throughout the book. She begins with the Enlightenment and Locke and the world of knowledge, evidence and fact as central to the understanding of truth on which the American form of government was based. Throughout the book she discusses challenges to the Enlightenment idea of truth. Some of these challenges come from post-modernism and relativism. But what Lepore mostly has in mind is propaganda and challenges to finding truth in various forms from pollsters to advertising to the Internet. The book evidences a deep skepticism about how people may and have been led astray through media and have surrendered or been deprived of the opportunity to think things through rationally.

Lepore's book is in four large sections: "The Idea" covering 1492 -- 1799, "The People" covering 1800 -1865, "The State", covering 1866-1945, and "The Machine" covering 1946-2016. In terms of space, recent American history and current events probably receive the largest share of attention: Lepore's book is geared, for better or worse, to current issues. Figures and issues that will be familiar to most readers are included in each section together with individuals and themes that often are not addressed. For example, in the latter parts of the book, Lepore gives sustained attention to advertising agencies and to the roles they assumed in supporting candidates and issues. She discusses the role of advertising and marketeers in defeating Federal health care plans from the time of the presidency of Harry Truman.

The book shows the conflict that Americans have had with what Lincoln described in his First Inaugural Address as the "better angels of our nature". There is much to praise in Lepore's account but, alas, probably even more to criticize. Lepore makes no secret of her own liberal convictions, as liberalism developed in the century from the Civil War through the mid-1960s. She spends a great deal of time discussing the deterioration of the American experiment in subsequent years. She is critical of much in the rise of conservatism but she is critical as well of the rise of identity politics and ideological rigidity on the left. Overall, the book paints a bleak picture but one not without hope. The book shows how Americans have fought with each other and endured harsh times throughout their history. Situations that look difficult may be righted with time and effort.

There are many telling anecdotes and stories in Lepore's book that will speak to individual readers. Thus, in a discussion of the alleged conformity and tediousness of American business life in the 1950s, Lepore quotes the sociologist C. Wright Mills' book, "White Collar". Mills, in turn wrote, that the conformity of American life reminded him of a passage that Herman Melville wrote in 1855: "At rows if blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper." The quotation is from a little-read Melville story, "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids". It was effective to see Lepore make her point through C. Wright Mills and then back to Melville.

Lepore's history is a work of ideas more than a book of specific facts. Portions of the book tend to wander and to feel disjointed. I thought sometimes Lepore was too fast with her own judgments while at other times what she had to say was nuanced and thoughtful. I found myself irritated at times in reading this long book but just as often I found myself learning from what Lepore had to say. One of the lessons of the American experiment and of Lepore's book is that there is often much to be learned from positions with which one disagrees.

"These Truths" is an excellent broad-based look at the American experiment in terms of history, civics, and philosophy. It is worth the effort to read this book and to think through for oneself the issues Lepore raises.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Julie.
2,013 reviews38 followers
April 20, 2022
“The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.”

As you may imagine, this is a very long book, however, I was never bored, nor tempted to skip. Jill Lepore fascinated and engaged me. Her language is lyrical and thought provoking. It was interesting to listen to her tell the story of America in her own voice and with her own emphasis.

I read this book in two parts with a several weeks break in between to catch my breath and fit in some other reading and had no problem picking back up where I left off. By the time I was done I had created many, many bookmarks in the eAudiobook I had borrowed via Overdrive from my library. I had bookmarked every fascinating fact expressed in lyrical prose that caught my interest or tweaked my heartstrings in some particular way. I transcribed them all into a document and then, started to weed. I still had three pages of quotes left, after all, how do you summarize a book on the entire history of the U.S.? I will do my best here.

I found the following fascinating and it rang true for me: “The fiction that its people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face, they came from all over and having waged a war against England the very last thing they wanted to celebrate was their Englishness. In an attempt to solve this problem the earliest historians of the United States decided to begin their accounts with Columbus’ voyage stitching 1776 to 1492.”

Something to ponder: “Speech often has more weight and urgency than writing, but most words once spoken are forgotten while writing lasts.”

This is one of my favorite passages as I love the varying hues of skin color that exist in people all over the world. “In much of new Spain, the mixed-race children of Spanish men and Indian women, known as mestizos, outnumbered Indians; an intricate caste system marked gradations of skin color, mixtures of Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans, as if skin color were like dyes made of plants the yellow of sassafras, the red of beets, the black of carob.”

However, “Later, the English would recognize only black and white, a fantasy of stark and impossible difference, of nights without twilight and days without dawns. And yet both regimes of race, a culture of mixing or a culture of pretending not to mix, pressed upon the brows of every person of the least curiosity the question of common humanity: Are all people one?”

Which leads us into the unequal treatment of people whose skin is other than white and the brutal world of slavery, the most unequal of all. “Slavery wasn’t an aberration in an industrial economy, slavery was its engine. Factories had mechanical slaves, plantations had human slaves.”

“It was slaves and the descendants of slaves who by dissolving the bonds of tyranny helped to realize the promise of that union in bonds of equality. Those new bonds tied Americans to one another and to the world. Telegraph wires stretched across the Atlantic sunk to the ocean’s floor. Then came steamships, airplanes, supersonic jets, satellites, pollution, atomic bombs, the internet.” The most positive of these bring us closer together and help us explore and grow beyond our boundaries.

I was fascinated by the evolution of photography and what it meant to people. Before photographs, if people wanted a likeness of themselves or their family for remembrance while they are apart, they commissioned an artist to paint a portrait. However, the cost of a portrait was beyond the means of ordinary people. That all changed once photography was introduced. By being affordable and accessible to everyone, it “became a technology of democracy.”

I was surprised to learn that “[Frederick] Douglas became the most photographed man in nineteenth century America.” He was enthusiastic in posing for many photographs as “Douglas believed both that photography would set his people free by telling the truth about their humanity and that photography would help realize the promise of democracy by capturing rich and poor alike.”

“The growing economic inequality that became a feature of American life after 1970 meant that the economic benefits of newer inventions were disproportionately enjoyed by a very small segment of the population.”

“Beginning in 1973 and well into the 1990s real earnings for all but the very wealthiest Americans either remain flat or declined.” It became financially necessary for women to work outside the home, and they had to arrange for childcare for their children. “Soon three out of four women between twenty-five and fifty-four were working for pay.” Unfortunately, even though most women worked outside the home to support their family, “Americans family income did not rise as a result. Liberals blamed conservatives. Conservatives blamed liberals and [Phyllis] Schlafly convinced a lot of people to blame feminists.”

Another fact that both interested and surprised me was that the Republicans had a technological advantage over the Democrats for several years before the Democrats caught up. “The RNC acquired its first mainframe in 1977. The DNC didn’t get one of its own until the 1980s.” Access to technology was vital for getting their message out and winning votes.

Our trust in government eroded over time and “The most that many Americans began to expect congress to accomplish in any given session was possibly to avoid a shutdown and at best to agree to a budget. The government had been reduced to a shambles. Attempting to stage a coup d’état became an ordinary part of every American presidency. Opponents of each of the next 3 presidents, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J Trump would call them unconstitutional. Members of the House of Representatives would call for impeachment proceedings.”

Additionally, credible sources for news of our nation and the world beyond have become increasingly difficult to find and how do you discern what it truth and what is propaganda or outright lies? “New sources of news tended to be unedited, their facts unverified, their politics unhinged. Alternative political communities took the 1990s cultural wars online. Tumblr on the left and 4Chan on the right, trafficking in hysteria and irony, hatred and contempt.”


“Sixteenth century conquerors debated the nature of justice. Seventeenth dissenters hoped to find nearness to God. Eighteenth century rationalists cleaving themselves from the past, hoped to found a new beginning, a place out of time.”

“A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against forces of particularism. A nation that toppled hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders and a nation born in contradiction, liberty in the land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest will fight forever over the meaning of its history.”

“A nation cannot choose its past. It can only choose its future and in the twenty-first century it was no long clear that choice in the sense that Alexander Hamilton meant had much to do with the decisions made by an electorate that had been cast adrift on the ocean of the internet. Can a people govern themselves by reflection and choice, Hamilton had wanted to know, or are they fated to be ruled forever by accident and forced lashed by the violence of each wave of the surging sea.”

Profile Image for Raymond.
353 reviews257 followers
December 9, 2018
"To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present."

"The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden."

"To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind."
-Jill Lepore

History lovers will delight in this one volume political history of the United States. I enjoyed learning about facts, stories, and characters I was unaware of before. That famous quote that history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes, is so true. I saw so many echoes of the past in our present day as I read this book.
Profile Image for Rincey.
813 reviews4,587 followers
December 31, 2022
3.5 stars. I liked this book, I didn't love it. I got a little disappointed because the beginning of the book is so detailed and thorough and the latter goes by so quickly through time. The first section is dedicated to the 50 years of history while the last section goes through more than 100 years. That difference is felt while reading it, for sure. But I appreciate Lepore's commitment to highlight some of the hidden parts of history, or the stories that don't get highlighted.

Watch me discuss this in my November wrap up: https://youtu.be/X0GX5Du0e9I
Profile Image for Jerrie.
990 reviews130 followers
November 16, 2020
This is a good survey of US history from the time of Columbus to Trump. This is written in a narrative style and never gets dry or boring while still hitting the key events.
Profile Image for Ilana.
Author 4 books211 followers
August 19, 2018
Oof. This is a very, very good book. Difficult at times, depressing at others, always well-written, well-put together.
Profile Image for Claire Reads Books.
141 reviews1,390 followers
February 5, 2019
4.5 ⭐️ No "comprehensive" book of United States history will ever be just that—there is simply too much to fit into even 900+ pages. But in These Truths, Jill Lepore selects and synthesizes events, details, and documents that create a picture of the vast sweep of American history—in all its promises and exceptionalism and, of course, in all its failures and hypocrisies. Her prose is taut and fluid and even glimmers, at times, with beautiful metaphors, turns of phrase, and the occasional solemn reflection that seems to vibrate through the page. There is great value in examining the long arc of democratic experimentation that has led us to our current moment, and These Truths offers a relatively concise place to start considering this nation's complicated and often contradictory history—and to get a sense of where we may go from here. As Lepore notes in the book’s epilogue, “A nation cannot choose its past; it can only choose its future.”
7 reviews5 followers
September 17, 2018
A pessimistic history that runs close to 1000 pages. Of course America has committed sins, but are there any positives to be found? According to Lepore, very, very few.
Profile Image for Marta Book_with_benefits .
36 reviews30 followers
December 29, 2020
W swojej książce „My, Naród. Nowa historia Stanów Zjednoczonych” Jill Lepore dokonała czegoś niesamowitego – zamknęła całe dzieje USA, począwszy od wyprawy Kolumba, kończąc na wyborach z 2016 roku, w jednym tomie. Nie wyobrażam sobie, jak trudne musiało być decydowanie o skróceniu danych elementów historii, na rzecz tych jeszcze ważniejszych. Mimo ogromu wydarzeń, jakie musiały zostać opisane: począwszy od powstania Konstytucji, Karty Praw czy Deklaracji Niepodległości, poprzez Wojnę Secesyjną i zniesienie niewolnictwa, kończąc na przyznaniu praw kobietom, autorka nie miała problemu z płynnym i swobodnym przechodzeniem między tematami. Ani razu podczas lektury nie czułam, żeby zabrakło mi zagłębienia się w jakiś aspekt. Jill Lepore idealnie wyważyła, które z wydarzeń zasługują na głębszą analizę, a z których można zrezygnować.
„My, Naród” to nie tylko książka o historii, to także powieść o kształtowaniu się mentalności Amerykanów oraz tworzeniu się idei wolnej, suwerennej i równej Ameryki. To zbiór przyczyn i skutków, które doprowadziły ten kraj do jego aktualnej sytuacji. Autorka patrzy na historię USA pełnowymiarowo, obiektywnie i z różnych perspektyw, podejmuje z czytelnikiem dialog na tematy polityczne i socjologiczne. Jill Lepore nie boi się poruszać ciężkich tematów, opisuje zarówno czarne karty z historii Ameryki, jak i jej triumfy oraz zwycięstwa. Nie popada w skrajności, nie upadla Ameryki, ale też jej nie gloryfikuje. Pokazuje, że problemy, z jakimi zmaga się aktualny świat wcale nie pojawiły się teraz. Dezinformacja, kryzys demokracji, nierówności, czy niepraworządność istniały od zawsze, tylko pod innymi formami. Autorka opisując wzloty i upadki Ameryki zadaje czytelnikowi pytanie – jaką naukę możemy wyciągnąć z historii USA?
W książce nie znajdziemy suchych faktów, czy długich opisów bitew. Za to będziemy czytać o genezach i skutkach konkretnych wydarzeń. Zrozumiemy, dlaczego współczesna Ameryka wygląda tak, a nie inaczej i w jaki sposób zbudowała swoją wielkość.
Profile Image for Boudewijn.
680 reviews92 followers
September 26, 2021
The American experiment

When the founding fathers wrote their sacred American constitution, they did not know what and how long the American experiment would be successful. In the constitution on which the country is built, there were the following Thruths: equality, sovereignty and unity. However, these truths have been interpreted differently over time. Everyone has had their opinions and everyone has something to say: the truths that laid the foundation of the nation held a promise to be redeemed and this struggle has been going on for centuries and seemed, with the long struggle for civil rights finally brought to an end, finally settled. But, the American experiment is still not over. In fact, it is currently facing its greatest test: today the country has fallen apart again, between a conservative and liberal ideology in which the distance no longer seems to be bridgeable.

This is a story about well-known and unknown Americans, presidents and villains, rich and poor, scientists and artists. Jill Lepore succeeds to place the struggle with unity in a historical context which results in a compelling story.

Read in Dutch
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews35 followers
November 26, 2019
Ms. Lepore is very intelligent, a great editor of United States' history and a good writer. Deciding what to publish and how to frame it is an historian's art. Jill Lepore wrote a masterpiece for a one volume approach of over 245 years of troubled past. The last few pages are her diagnosis and prognosis, evoking serious consideration of the matters presented in the rest of this important take on our history. Her angles are well considered, refreshing and surprisingly objective. She is a true scholar worthy of anyone seriously interested in politics, economics, culture and how to consider history as a tool for navigating today. The footnotes are a phenomenal collection. The level of study and contemplation from authors like this deserves our attention.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book149 followers
August 13, 2023
“What, then, of the American past? There is, to be sure, a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy. No nation and no people are relieved of these. But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, invention and beauty. Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but. This book is neither kind. The truths on which the nation was founded are not mysteries, articles of faith, never to be questioned, as if the founding were an act of God, but neither are they lies, all facts fictions, as if nothing can be known, in a world without truth.”

This quote nicely summarizes Lepore's approach to a narrative history of the United States. Let me say up front: I've always loved her writing, and I think now she might be the most important historian in the United States. This book is super long but outstanding. Her approach to telling the story of the US makes a lot of sense in a few ways: 1. Don't write another textbook. DOn't try to be comprehensive and cover everything. There are enough books out there that try to do that. Instead, build characters and develop themes, and be honest about what you are leaving out (which she is). 2. Tell a story in which everyone can see themselves but avoid the academic fad of pluralizing everything and obsessing over pulling apart any grand or coherent narrative (feminisms, anti-fascisms, etc). 3. Pick up themes in American history and trace them through to the present in ways that illuminate what is going on today. That isn't "presentism," it is relevance.

The core of Lepore's narrative is the idea of America as an experiment in self-government, in rational thinking, in countering our selfish and tribal instincts, and, of course, in constantly rethinking the nature and terms of this experiment. She shows that key figures in US history have thought of the US in this way. Can a country be ruled by reason, enlightenment, justice, and equality (these truths) rather than mysticism, the iron will of a leader, and ideas of the blood and soil nation? Furthermore, can it live up to the high-minded ideas of its founding documents and other key interventions along the way? That has been the great test that is the United States, and Lepore tells this story beautifully. She shows how new challenges have emerged over time to this experiment. One of the most compelling is her discussion of the belief that technology will unite the nation and erase the need for divisive politics or ideology. From the newspaper to the telegraph to the phone to radio to TV to the internet to social media, this fallacy has existed, and people have fallen into it. Each of these innovations was "improved means to an unimproved end," in Thoreau's words, as technologies cannot be better than the people who use them. Her final chapter shows how the Internet has been a disaster for democracy.

Speaking of this, one of Lepore's most interesting themes is the problem of knowledge in a democratic society. Just how far can that democratic principle go? Can the people determine what is true if they are to determine what powers the government will have? This democratization of knowledge has always been a strength and weakness of American democracy. On one hand, Americans are independently-minded; they often embrace the idea that citizens must think things through for themselves. On the other hand, there's a tendency towards bullshit, chicanery, conspiracy, manipulation, and false prophets. Lepore shows how technology has intervened to worsen this problem, discussing the history of public relations firms, polling, conspiracy theories, and social media. Her conclusion, subtly infused into the narrative, is that the United States needs a new structure to manage and channel the forces unleashed by the Internet and globalization, just as the Progressives, the labor movement, and the New Dealers created a structure for industrialization and urbanization's upheavals.

I'd like to pre-empt some of Lepore's critics (or post-empt, maybe). This is a political history. She is up front about that. Certain stories are minimized to keep the thing within 1k pages. Lepore points to way to other resources on this front. Don't criticize a book for what it didn't do, especially when there are other excellent books that do what Lepore downplayed. Native Americans, for example, aren't featured prominently in 20th and 21st century sections of this book because, sadly, they do not figure prominently in that history, being a tiny and impoverished minority. It made more sense for Lepore to focus in on strains and trends that better help us understand the present, especially the interaction of democracy and technological innovation. There's such a tendency today to chop up US history into ethnic/racial/gender threads, and I'm glad that historians like Lepore or Dan Immerwahr are pushing against that trend and giving us a sense of the whole and of the currents that run through the entire story.

This is obviously a beast of a book, so I won't recommend it unless you really want to spend time thinking about the longue duree of US history. If you are down for that, I'd say start here. The book perfectly balances political relevance with attention to context and contingency and character. It is written in elegant, inspiring, but still simple terms. If it ever came out in a divided volume (ie pre and post 1900 or something), I would assign it to a college course. I will definitely reference it over and over, especially because I think Lepore and I are so similar on how we think about history, contemporary politics, and the relations between those things.
Profile Image for Nadine in NY Jones.
2,811 reviews227 followers
December 18, 2018
I'm reading this in four parts (because I can't handle 900+ pages in one go). I'm treating each part as a "book" for the purposes of my GR reviews (so that this book isn't lingering on my "Currently Reading" shelf for 12 months or so).

Book One "The Idea" 1492 - 1799
(read from 12/4/18-12/16/18) - finished!

3.5 stars

This is very interesting, and readable, with fascinating details (the first British colonists turned to cannibalism!), but maybe Lepore has attempted too much. Of course in a brief history you can't cover everything, but this feels unfocused at times; names will be suddenly mentioned out of the blue and some needed details are left out. For example, I had to google to find out why Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned and later executed, this text just mentioned that he was in prison,

Overall, this suffered from a lack of focus, with much confusing jumping back and forth from person to person and from year to year. I realize it's impossible to avoid some of that, but I wished for a bit less than we got.

I recently finished the excellent Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and I thought it was interesting that Kendi showed evidence that one of the causes of the American Revolution was to maintain slavery, but in this book Lepore implies that the those in favor of abolition of slavery were the same people in favor of Revolution. She also points out that the Caribbean colonies of Jamaica and Barbados did not participate in the Revolution because they feared additional slave rebellions, thus slavery was a reason they did not want Revolution.

There's been a lot of "the Founding Fathers intended ..." talk in this country recently, so I was especially interested to read the details of how they first set up the USA government, and what their hopes and plans were.

A democracy, in which the people “assemble and administer the government in person,” will always be subject to endless “turbulence and contention,” [Madison] argued, but a republic, in which the people elect representatives to do the work of governing, can steer clear of that fate by electing men who will always put the public good before narrow or partisan interests, the good of all above the good of any part or party.

That's not working out so well, though. And Madison himself began to see the weaknesses...
Madison argued that it could only work if a republic were large, for two reasons. First, in a large republic, there would be more men to choose from, and so a better chance, purely as a matter of numbers, for the people to elect men who will guard the public interest. Second, in a large republic, candidates for office, in order to be known and to appeal to so large a number of voters, would need to be both notable and worthy.

... as early as 1791, Madison had begun to revise his thinking. ... “The larger a country, the less easy for its real opinion to be ascertained,” he explained.

Yeah, I'd say he was right about that.

The "Founding Fathers" (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, et al) were really worried about holding the new country together. But the USA is such a mess right now, I wish they had just let it naturally fall apart after the Revolution. I think we'd be better off today as a group of separate but cooperative countries. I'm feeling really hopeless about the current Administration.

(Of course, I live in NY, and POTUS is from NY, so maybe I'd still be stuck with him in my alternate reality.)

Book Two "The People" 1800 - 1865

Book Three "The State" 1866 - 1945

Book Four "The Machine" 1946 - 2016
Profile Image for Hayley.
201 reviews50 followers
July 9, 2019
Interesting, sad, and profound political history of America. I think it would do this country wonders if more people read it.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,658 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.