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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

James Madison explained Americans’ historical skepticism, this deep empiricism, this way: “Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or...

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James Madison explained Americans’ historical skepticism, this deep empiricism, this way: “Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?” Evidence, for Madison, was everything.

Here Lepore articulates what she believes to be a major pillar of the American experiment alongside the principle of legal equality, or being subject to the same laws. Scienza, or knowledge, in politics is or should be based on empirical evidence and practical experience. Lepore is right to put her finger on the tension between the principle of equality under law as understood by the founders and the high regard for science and practical knowledge. Can we have both? What if they conflict? Both, variously interpreted as core pillars of the American experimental republic, are also often at the source of the most bitter conflicts in American politics, not only today, but from the beginning of the republic.

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, of 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. Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other, lies an uneasy path

Here Lapore tries to chart a balanced path between the extremes of strident anti-American historiography and histories that are uncritical. The principles of the founding are to be dealt with, according to Lapore, neither by abject veneration nor by outright rejection. That would be too easy. It is much harder to take up the challenge of using our experience and reason to solve the problems of the present by political discourse. Of course, the problem with this is that thoughtful political discourse has almost been rendered impossible in America through the extreme hostility of the two opposing political camps, each of which regards the opposition as illegitimate and beneath contempt (just like it was in 1800 and 1850, by the way). By taking the long view, Lapore allows us to see that we have made it through these impasses in the past, and that this shared past gives us some much needed perspective.

“Know whence you came,” Baldwin told his nephew. 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.

Lapore is a history professor at Harvard and here lays down a warning that Americans should probably heed. Historical ignorance among the electorate seems to be an acute problem, with many Americans even priding themselves on knowing almost nothing about the past. Strident anti-American critical theory taught in schools can give impressionable students the idea that America's past is nothing but evil and is unworthy of serious consideration for political guidance about the future. Lapore rejects that extremism, just as she rejects a fawning, rigid adherence to a literal interpretation of the principles of the founding era. To Lahore, the only way out is by pushing through. To her, knowing American history and the history of American political principles is essential to a more fruitful public discourse and is a burden we should all gladly take up.

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