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Last Updated on May 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

These Truths is Jill Lepore’s account of how the United States came to be the way it is today. Framed as an investigation of whether the US can fulfill the promises of its founding principles, the book ultimately functions as an explanation for a state of political affairs that Lepore...

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These Truths is Jill Lepore’s account of how the United States came to be the way it is today. Framed as an investigation of whether the US can fulfill the promises of its founding principles, the book ultimately functions as an explanation for a state of political affairs that Lepore finds appalling. She argues that the enshrining of slavery in the Constitution and the exclusion of women from its pages created a republic that, though founded on a principle of equality, had inequality in its very fabric.

In the book’s early portions, Lepore outlines how the presidency, legislature, and Supreme Court assumed the form and functions we know them in today. She also analyzes the progress of technology, particularly communications technology, and how it shaped the functioning of American society. Introducing the reader to historical figures familiar and new, Lepore chooses specific people to illustrate ideas and movements that shaped American history. She makes it clear that the American political landscape has taken many different shapes over its history, with new parties and movements emerging, converging, and dispersing.

Many times in the book, Lepore points out how issues that are contentious today arose from decisions and compromises made in the heat of the historical moment. When the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters used the word “persons” when describing the entities that have natural rights, they were trying to avoid explicitly including or excluding women, but that term ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court’s upholding corporations as people who can donate freely to political parties. In the labor movement, women were able to win protections for themselves by citing their supposedly weaker constitution, but a desire to keep those protections later held back women’s rights in the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Conservatives created an association between national healthcare and creeping socialism to prevent Truman from passing it and winning the next election, but that association continues today.

As Lepore examines the twentieth century, she draws a persistent contrast between the American attempt to spread the democratic values of its founding in the world at large and the failure to realize those values in domestic policy. Abroad, the US took it upon itself to spread democracy. Fighting totalitarianism in a series of wars, first to rid Europe of Hitler and then to keep Southeast Asian countries from becoming communist, the nation tried to spread its form of government. But it was all too easy for others to see that the US was not delivering on its own national promises: they simply had to look at the state of civil rights at home. Indeed, Lepore shows that the passage of domestic civil rights legislation in the US was partly motivated by how bad it looked for a country to be claiming to spread democracy and freedom while denying equal rights to its own citizens.

The book grows increasingly less restrained as it nears the present day. Lepore’s horror at the US in 2018 is obvious, and the rhetoric surrounding the immediate contributing factors is correspondingly heightened. Her account of how the parties became increasingly polarized is fraught with a sense that it could have been otherwise, and her anger at those who allowed it to happen or promoted it is clear. She speaks contemptuously of those who sought a deregulated internet, dismisses “culture warriors” of both the left and right as intolerant, and condemns the media and tech companies for allowing the election of 2016 to turn out as it did.

The book does not explicitly answer the question Lepore declared at the beginning: can a free people govern itself? Can a nation founded on the US’s founding principles succeed in fulfilling them? Perhaps the question is unanswerable, since the American experiment is not over yet, and “a nation born in contradiction . . . will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.” Her concluding epilogue implies, however, that at present, America has failed to live up to its founding principles, despite a century of valiant struggle for civil rights, because it has become fundamentally divided over questions of rights once more. She does, however, seem to believe that fulfilling the promise is still possible. In the final paragraphs of the epilogue, Lepore implicitly calls for a new generation to realize the promise of America’s founding principles, but closing the book without resolving the extended “ship of state” metaphor allows her to avoid one question: how?

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