“Between those happenings that prefigure it / And those that happen in its anamnesis / Occurs the Event, but that no human wit / Can recognize until all happening ceases,” W.H. Auden wrote in considering the selective set of remembrances and interpretations we call history. The trouble with the universe, of course, is that happening never ceases — at least not until the final whimper. In the meantime, we are left to fathom and figure the ongoingness of events, situating ourselves between a nebulous past and an uncertain future. “We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum,” Susan Sontag observed in the same bygone slice of ongoingness that Auden inhabited. “Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future.”
We try to render our existence a little less precarious and a little more relevant by mooring ourselves to the truth of what happened, what matters, and why, only ever attaining a makeshift understanding of that truth. And though it may be that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance — or perhaps precisely because it is so — a robust understanding of history, with its truths and its biases, is central to our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. It is also imperative for a future that mends the mistakes of the past — for, as James Baldwin so memorably observed, “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”
Such a transformative understanding is what historian Jill Lepore furnishes in These Truths: A History of the United States (public library) — a masterwork of poetic scholarship that stands as one of the most compelling and captivating books I have ever read.
With uncommon intellectual elegance, Lepore explores the intertwined sinews of democracy’s making and unmaking: technology as a tool that encodes both the ideals and the biases of its society; the heroisms of thought and action that chipped away at the monolith of injustice upon which the nation was founded; the market manipulations and professionalized preying on the human animal’s weaknesses that gave rise to consumerism and public relations and “fake news” and the NRA. Emanating from these pages is a reminder that the history of the United States is a history of bias and brutality and hubris, but it is also a history of idealism and hard work and soaring optimism. What emerges is an invitation to regard these tessellated truths and conflicting motive forces with an equanimous understanding that can inform a juster, more beautiful, and less conflicted future.
Lepore writes in the preface:
The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. This was all true until one day, Tuesday, October 30, 1787, when readers of a newspaper called the New-York Packet found on the front page an advertisement for an almanac that came bound with tables predicting the “Rising and Setting of the Sun,” the “Judgment of the Weather,” the “Length of Days and Nights,” and, as a bonus, something entirely new: the Constitution of the United States, forty-four hundred words that attempted to chart the motions of the branches of government and the separation of their powers as if these were matters of physics, like the transit of the sun and moon and the comings and goings of the tides. It was meant to mark the start of a new era, in which the course of history might be made predictable and a government established that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice. The origins of that idea, and its fate, are the story of American history.
The Constitution entailed both toil and argument. Knee-breeched, sweat-drenched delegates to the constitutional convention had met all summer in Philadelphia in a swelter of secrecy, the windows of their debating hall nailed shut against eavesdroppers. By the middle of September, they’d drafted a proposal written on four pages of parchment. They sent that draft to printers who set the type of its soaring preamble with a giant W, as sharp as a bird’s claw.
Radiating from the four pages that begin with “We the people” are eternal, elemental questions about how our noblest aspirations measure up against the limitations of human nature and its social scaffolding:
Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government — any constitution — by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury?
These questions could only be answered empirically, in the grand experiment of American democracy, in a laboratory operated by “the people.” A century into the experiment, with the beaker of conscientious citizenship in hand, Walt Whitman would contemplate his country’s “democratic vistas” and issue a prescient admonition: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.” Lepore considers the foundational hedge against downfall and ruin, encoded in the country’s birth and its ancient heritage stretching back to bygone civilizations whose failed experiments fertilized the soil of the New World:
The American experiment rests on three political ideas — “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” Jefferson wrote in 1776, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Half a century after the brilliant mathematician Lillian Lieber bridged Euclidean geometry and the American Constitution to extract a set of postulates of democracy, Lepore adds:
The roots of these ideas are as ancient as Aristotle and as old as Genesis and their branches spread as wide as the limbs of an oak. But they are this nation’s founding principles: it was by declaring them that the nation came to be. In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, decried, and contested, fought for, fought over, and fought against. After Benjamin Franklin read Jefferson’s draft, he picked up his quill, scratched out the words “sacred & undeniable,” and suggested that “these truths” were, instead, “self-evident.” This was more than a quibble. Truths that are sacred and undeniable are God-given and divine, the stuff of religion. Truths that are self-evident are laws of nature, empirical and observable, the stuff of science. This divide has nearly rent the Republic apart.
Central to this new way of apprehending truth was a shift in the understanding of the past — a shift away from unexamined mythology and toward the reasoned probing of collective memory we call history; a shift from mysticism to critical thinking. Lepore writes:
Understanding history as a form of inquiry — not as something easy or comforting but as something demanding and exhausting — was central to the nation’s founding… Only by fits and starts did history become not merely a form of memory but also a form of investigation, to be disputed, like philosophy, its premises questioned, its evidence examined, its arguments countered.[…]
This new understanding of the past attempted to divide history from faith. The books of world religions — the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran — are pregnant with mysteries, truths known only by God, taken on faith. In the new history books, historians aimed to solve mysteries and to discover their own truths. The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them — with evidence.
Arising from this notion is a reminder that all cultural history is inevitably a history of science, which is the history of human thought and the mind’s insatiable hunger to know reality. “We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us,” Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer — wrote a century after her country’s founding as she contemplated our abiding search for truth, “and the more we gain, the more is our desire.” In consonance with Carl Sagan insisted that science is a tool of democracy that “provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes,” Lepore considers the crucial role of the scientific mindset in the origins of American democracy:
Declaring independence was itself an argument about the relationship between the present and the past, an argument that required evidence of a very particular kind: historical evidence. That’s why most of the Declaration of Independence is a list of historical claims. “To prove this,” Jefferson wrote, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Facts, knowledge, experience, proof. These words come from the law. Around the seventeenth century, they moved into what was then called “natural history”: astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology. By the eighteenth century they were applied to history and to politics, too. These truths: this was the language of reason, of enlightenment, of inquiry, and of history. In 1787, then, when Alexander Hamilton 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,” that was the kind of question a scientist asks before beginning an experiment. Time alone would tell. But time has passed. The beginning has come to an end. What, then, is the verdict of history?
The verdict hinges on complex calculus, with variables yet to be weighed and factors yet to be computed. One thing is certain — the future may be unknown, but the past is at last partly knowable, and there is a moral imperative to its knowledge that must be embraced with full responsibility if we are to meet the future with more than mere hope. Lepore writes:
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. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path, away from false pieties and petty triumphs over people who lived and died and committed both their acts of courage and their sins and errors long before we committed ours. “We cannot hallow this ground,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We are obliged, instead, to walk this ground, dedicating ourselves to both the living and the dead.[…]
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.
Lepore examines the myriad elements of this ongoing experiment in the remainder of These Truths — one of those rare books that crown the explainer-elucidator-enchanter hierarchy of nonfiction, a book revelatory and replete with insight even for those of us who are not American. Complement it with Walt Whitman — the poet laureate of democracy — on optimism as a force of resistance and Hannah Arendt on action and the pursuit of happiness.