These Truths Themes

The main themes in These Truths include equality, natural rights, and democracy.

  • Equality: Lepore explores whether the United States, having been founded on inequality, can ever fulfill the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Natural rights: While the government had promised in the Declaration of Independence to protect citizens’ natural rights, it failed to do so in the case of women and Black people.
  • Democracy: The United States was founded on the principle of democracy and the consent of the governed, but Lepore questions the nation's ability to successfully govern itself.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 13, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

Equality

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Equality of all people under the law is one of the three central “truths” of the title. Lepore explores whether America has ever delivered on the promise of equality, given its status as a nation founded on slavery and the complete exclusion of women from the country’s governance. She frames the history of the nation in the context of the contrast between the equality it promised and the inequality it produced. Though the Declaration of Independence stated it as a “self-evident” truth that all men were created equal, that definition of men excluded Black people, and it definitely excluded women. They did not have equal protection under the law. The Fourteenth Amendment extended equal protection to Black men, at least in theory, though Jim Crow and lynching made the idea a mockery. But the amendment did not include women. Thus, both women and Black people continued to be treated unequally. Even in the 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment failed, and even in the contemporary era, police officers continue to shoot unarmed Black men on the streets. For Lepore, it is still unclear whether American government can ever really treat every human being as equal. The question of whether a government founded on the principle of equality can ever truly follow through on that principle, particularly when founded on a basis of a fundamentally unequal institution like slavery, remains unanswered in the book.

Natural Rights

One of the “these truths” that the Declaration of Independence held to be “self-evident” was that “all men” had certain natural rights, given to them by God. Government was to protect those rights and never to infringe them. Lepore asks whether the American government ever delivered or ever can deliver on the promise of giving human beings their natural rights. Those rights, according to the Declaration, are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Enslaved people were deprived of their liberty and often of their lives as well. Pursuing happiness was out of the question. Women were also not free to pursue their happiness as they liked, especially if their happiness included voting. Even after the Civil War, Black people continued to be deprived of their rights. Lynching of Black people was widespread during Jim Crow, a regime that also took away Black people’s voting rights among many others.

Democracy

Lepore asks whether a people can govern itself. Can a nation found on the principle of consent of the governed—government by the people, for the people, by the people—actually survive and rule itself as promised? In order to do so, it would have to give a political voice to every person under its government. Women and Black people fought for their rights for centuries before the people who ruled the United States gave them any real voice in choosing how they would be governed. Black men were granted nominal voting rights but often deprived of them, whether by threat of murder or by policies like literacy tests that discriminated against Black people while pretending to exist for another reason. Women fought for the right to vote for decades before finally achieving it and gaining their voice. And even then, the “of the people” became part of the question: are people of color and women really self-governed if they are not represented in the people who do the governing?

Technology and Communication

In addition to tracing the three fundamental truths, the book examines the development of technology over the course of American history, particularly technologies of communication. Lepore is interested in how technologies like the telegraph, photography, the radio, television, cable television, and the internet affected the development of society. She uncovers a consistent pattern of people being excessively optimistic about the power of new communications technology to bring the people together. This finds particular irony late in the book, when she examines how political strategists used the technologies of radio, television, and ultimately the internet to divide the electorate and make politics increasingly polarized. This bitter irony is oncoming throughout the book, as generation after generation assumes that a new technology will unify the country, or even the world, and it does not. The internet, in particular, did quite the opposite, as Lepore bitterly chronicles.

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