These Truths Were Made for You and Me

In These Truths, Jill Lepore laments that while “the United States is founded on a set of ideas,” nonetheless “Americans have become so divided that they no longer agree, if they ever did, about what those ideas are, or were.” She undertakes to write “an American history from beginning to end across that divide.”

Presumably, Lepore’s hope was to help us bridge our divisions. If that was her goal, she has failed. Unfortunately, she does not seem to be capable of understanding the arguments across the aisle, preferring instead the Progressive conceit according to which one side represents reason and the other, well, something else.

Lepore is not as biased as are many others on the Left. She recognizes, for example, that Alger Hiss was, in fact a spy, although she does try to downplay his importance, and that the Tea Party protesters were not racist, nor were they simply paid Astroturfers. She does sometimes note misdeeds by Democrats such as Woodrow Wilson’s racist policies, and she laments Clinton’s character defects. Sometimes Lepore’s literary background serves her well. To describe republican politics, she pulls a Fisher Ames quote from Emerson: “a republic is like a raft, which would never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.”

These Truths often features vignettes, many of which are nicely done. I particularly like her account of Frederick Douglass. He split from Garrison after the Compromise of 1850 because “I am sick and tired of arguing on the slaveholders’ side.” Unlike Garrison, Douglass concluded that the Constitution, rightly understood, was anti-slavery. Yet Lepore does not realize how much use Conservatives like Harry Jaffa have made of that point, contrasting it with the common tendency on the Left to say that the Constitution, was pro-slavery. What would Douglass, or Jaffa, have made of the 1619 Project? Douglass’ virtual absence from the project speaks volumes.

Ironically, Lepore presents U.S. history from a perspective that resembles the one Douglass rejected. For example her third chapter covers the era from the French and Indian War to the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, Independence, to the Revolutionary War, and fully a third of this chapter focuses on matters of race or slavery. She claims, for example, that Lord Dunmore’s offer of liberty to slaves “tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” In his essay on the 1619 Project, Sean Wilentz has rebutted that claim quite effectively. Lepore’s focus, in other words, is not, as in Gordon Wood’s account, on the events of the Revolution, or on the ways American society grew more egalitarian after 1776, but instead on the failure of the republic to live up to the ideals of 1776, and even how 1776 was about defending slavery. That’s why it’s important to understand what Douglass meant when he said that Garrison took the “slaveholders’ side.” Garrison’s value judgment about slavery was the opposite of Calhoun’s. But his understanding of the Revolution was the same. Lepore seems not to have thought that through. A Progressive (in today’s lingo), Lepore takes it as given that early 20th Century Progressivism was building upon the work of Lincoln. That’s precisely what’s in dispute between Left and Right today, or, at least, it’s what separates many of the best thinkers on each side.

Failures of the Historian’s Craft

More largely, this book demonstrates the truth of Glenn Reynolds’ argument that today we face a crisis of expertise. Those who claim the right to run society are not nearly as knowledgeable or as skilled as they presume.

For starters, These Truths is probably the sloppiest published work of history I have read in quite some time. I don’t want to bore readers with a long list of the book’s errors, so I’ll just mention a few from the earlier parts of U.S. history. My first note will list more and, I hope, demonstrate that I am not cherry-picking.[1]

Some of Lepore’s errors reflect carelessness, some reflect haste, and some reflect I don’t know what. The most egregious mistake is probably this one: “In Norfolk, Virginia, four thousand slaves—who, living in a border state that was not part of the Confederacy, were not actually freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.” This would probably be news to Robert E. Lee. Lepore also seems not to grasp the basic story of the second party system. She writes that the debate over Texas, along with the election of 1836, “illustrated just how powerfully Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams shaped national politics, long after the end of their presidencies. Jackson held the strings of the Democratic Party, while Quincy Adams steered the erratic course of the Whig party.” While this was true for Jackson, it was not for Adams. Or one more basic mistake of fact: “The population of Massachusetts was greater than the population of Virginia.” Virginia was, of course, the largest state by a great deal, at least on the first census.

Even worse than these individual errors, sometimes Lepore gets the same story both right and wrong within a few pages. In the 1800 election, “Adams ran as a Federalist and Jefferson as a Republican . . . the two men received an equal number of votes in the Electoral College.” But see a few pages later, “the Jefferson-Burr tie was thrown to the House.” Perhaps that’s merely a sign that this book was sent to the publisher before it was ready. All books have errors. This review might have one or two, and when a single author tries to write a comprehensive history, one should be particularly indulgent of the occasional error. But the scope of mistakes in this book are well beyond that standard. Why should one put much faith in an historian who makes so many errors?

Lepore notes that a one-volume US history has to skip a great deal, but there should be a logic to what is in and what is out. If there is one in this book, I’m not sure what it is. Mentioning the story of Harry Washington, a slave who escaped from George Washington’s plantations adds richness to the history, but Lepore returns to him several times. His index entry is only a bit shorter than that of the Whig party, and that includes the mistaken reference to Milliard Fillmore as the Whig (as opposed to Know Nothing) candidate in 1856. So much is missing from the book that it would be irresponsible to assign it as a text in any class. It omits any mention of the Jay Treaty and skips over the role played by Booker T. Washington in race debates, which is quite surprising unless you consider how his life’s work might complicate her narrative. The first Gulf War appears in the context of a discussion of the evolution of the news business.

Even though I won’t ever assign it, I am, however, tempted to select a few passages and use them as an extra-credit question for my students at Cal State, San Bernardino: “The following are passages from the work of a major prize winning historian. Spot the mistakes.” My students, after all, do need to learn not to be blinded by credentials.

A Failure of Sympathy

If Lepore genuinely wished to “reach across the divide,” she ought to have done her homework better, and written much more carefully. That Lepore identifies FDR’s “Four Freedoms” with the “self-evident truths” of the founding demonstrates the problem, as this remains one of the key points of contention between Left and Right in the United States. In her view, the Declaration featured, “self-evident, secular truths,” an interpretation that remains very much open to debate.

Discussing Lochner v. New York, Lepore shows no awareness of the work of scholars like David Bernstein. Presenting the conventional Progressive line on the case is standard, but to present it as uncontested, in a book that seeks to reach across our political divide, is not. Similarly, Lepore associates free market ideas with Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinism.” That’s been the Progressive line since Richard Hofstadter, but not a view that reflects much reading or talking to actual proponents of free markets. In Spencer’s day, as Thomas Leonard notes, defenders of laissez-faire seldom referenced Darwin. In general, the argument for the market has often been more about morality than efficiency—think of R.H. Macy in Miracle on 34th Street rather than Michael Douglas in Wall Street. George Gilder, who Lepore mentions in passing later in the book, did not invent that argument.

In her account of the 20th Century, Lepore’s bias and her political agenda really get in the way of clarity about the past, and she regularly presents dubious editorializing as historical fact. According to Lepore, the sole purpose of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was to allow “the United States to engage in a ‘winnable’ nuclear war.” (In fact, Reagan, ever the optimist, wanted, ultimately, to make nuclear weapons obsolete, and “free the world from the threat of these deadly weapons.”) Discussing Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, she comments that, “Despite [Anita] Hill’s powerful damning testimony, the Senate confirmed Thomas.” Polling suggests that the majority of Americans thought Thomas was unjustly maligned. The majority might be wrong, but an historian ought to note that hers is a minority opinion. I’m not sure why academic training would give someone special insight into the truth of such questions.[2] Lepore’s account of the 2008 crash does not mention the perverse incentives created by the Community Reinvestment Act. And throughout her account of the 20th Century, Lepore cheerleads for nationalized health care in a manner that compromises her claims to be a disinterested student of history.

In These Truths Lepore denies that press bias is real, even as she demonstrates its historical equivalent. Lepore wants to conflate “Social Darwinism” with eugenics, and Darwin with science, reason, and good policy. Again, that’s a polemical take. These Truths does note how popular eugenics was in the early 20th century, and how influential it was among scientists, but it also speaks of “conservative eugenicists,” ignoring their numerous Progressive colleagues. She presents a more sympathetic portrait of William Jennings Bryan’s role in the Scopes Trial than many others, but claims that what he truly found offensive was “Social Darwinism.” A glance at the textbook at issue in the case (which outlines a hierarchy among the race of men, holding that there are races among men and they are similar, I suppose, to breeds among dogs) suggests it was the textbook’s eugenic biology that was the problem, not what some economists were saying at the time.

Lepore wants to distinguish Darwinianism from other, non-Darwinian brands of evolution, and associate the latter with racist theories. But that doesn’t, ultimately, hold water. There’s little room in this book for the reality that science itself sometimes runs off the rails. That would complicate the simplistic science vs. faith dichotomy, and the reason vs. unreason dichotomy that pervades the latter parts of the book.

As for eugenics, Lepore might have discussed how widely held such opinions were. One wonders what she might have made of W.E.B. DuBois’ comment: “The Negro has not been breeding for an object; therefore, he must begin to train and breed for brains, for efficiency, for beauty.” Presenting a more comprehensive picture would have added nuance and balance to her account. Such an account would reach across the divide much more effectively.

Fundamentalists, Originalists, and the Reality of the Past

This book shows that Lepore lacks either the critical distance or the historical imagination truly to understand the other side of our political divide. The signal example is Lepore’s account of originalism, a failure common to other left-leaning histories. Rather than explain its rationale, Lepore denigrates it, comparing originalism to religious fundamentalism. She then descends into confusion, writing that “Fundamentalists[‘] dissent from Protestantism had to do with the idea of truth.” Fundamentalists—that is, Protestants—dissent from Protestantism? Sloppy again.

Lepore belabors her talking points. Shortly after the comparison of originalists to fundamentalists noted above, she calls originalists “constitutional fundamentalist[s].” Later, she claims that the debate over the meaning of the Constitution “rested on different understandings of its nature, and extension of the debate over the literal truth of the Bible.” Note the analytic slippage, conflating Biblical literalism (which is what I gather she means by fundamentalism) with originalism, as if originalists believe there are no implied powers. In short, Lepore holds that originalism represents unthinking literalism, contrasting it with the government by “reflection and choice” that Publius endorses in the first number of The Federalist. Recall that Hamilton, who believed in implied powers, denied in his defense of the Bank of the United States, that there is a federal police power. Dear reader, ponder the fact that this is meant to be a fair account of people with whom she disagrees!

Wherefore originalism? As the constitution became the supreme law of the land when it was ratified by the people, asking what, exactly, was the meaning of the thing ratified was the common mode of interpretation for the century after the founding. After reflecting, what, exactly had the people chosen? When Akhil Amar, to cite someone on the legal Left, wrote in the late 1990s, regarding the Second Amendment “The amendment’s syntax seems odd only because modern readers persistently misread the words ‘militia’ and ‘people,’ imposing twentieth-century assumptions on an eighteenth-century text,” he was engaging in originalism, trying to understand the meaning of the language ratified by the people. Lepore wants to reduce originalism to something much less sophisticated.

Lepore spills a great deal of ink contending that the libertarian view of the 2nd Amendment is incorrect, a “fraud,” she quotes Warren Burger calling it, invented by right wingers. Yet many influential law professors on the Left, notably Lawrence Tribe and Sanford Levinson have themselves embraced the position she denigrates, although I suspect neither would extend the original individual right as far as, say, Randy Barnett. Similarly, Lepore seems not to recognize the question of selective incorporation. Perhaps Levinson and others are wrong. But are they unthinking fundamentalists?

Similarly, originalism is not, pace Lepore, a late invention. In his recent Self-Evident Truths, a book that is more scholarly than These Truths but which, as I read it, has the same political tilt as Lepore’s, Richard Brown quotes a state senator from the antebellum era who said he wanted to know “what was the intention of those who framed the constitution.” I believe he was discussing his state’s constitution, but the approach to interpretation was the same. That view was common, although perhaps more at the time, and since, would have asked about the intent of those who ratified the constitution. Lepore seems to be incapable of understanding the logic of that position, or how it has changed over time. In general, her intellectual history is too thin to describe the matters Americans have argued about and debated.

Ultimately, the reason why Lepore is unable to bridge our divides is that she wants constitutional, political, and policy debates to be more settled than they are or ever can be in a free republic. On one hand, she criticizes Progressives for not working harder to appeal to the people. On the other hand she demonstrates why they have failed to make such an appeal. Early in the book, she writes that after Magna Carta, judgment would be “not by God but by men, and not by a battle of swords but by a battle of facts.” Moreover, she continues in the next paragraph

this turn [to juries judging fact] marked the beginning of a new era in the history of knowledge: it required a new doctrine of evidence and new method of inquiry and eventually led to the idea that an observed or witnessed act or thing—the substance, the matter, of fact—is the basis of truth. A judge decided the law; a jury decided the facts. Mysteries were matters of faith, a different kind of truth, known only to God.

That’s much too simplistic. For starters, Deuteronomy called for at least two witnesses for conviction in many cases. Note also the Whiggish progress from superstition to reason. Yet Coke’s rationalism and his empiricism were very different from that of his sometime rival Francis Bacon, just as Booker T. Washington’s response to Jim Crow was very different than was DuBois’.

Dealing with Disagreement

In These Truths, Lepore seldom allows that reasonable people can truly and deeply disagree about anything so significant or fundamental. Truth, Lepore seems to think, happens to ideas as History moves (or is supposed to move) upward and onward, to new and better truths. History settles it. Elites have one job, telling the common citizen what the law is and other like things. The demos or jury has another, determining what the facts are. That’s “reason” to Lepore.

Brown quotes a judge in the 1830s instructing a jury that if they held the underlying “law was void for unconstitutionality” they should not convict. In general, America’s juries often ruled on both law and fact through much of the colonial era and into the early republic. In other words, the consensus view was that the law ruled. Authoritative constitutional opinion was not to be settled by experts, but rather by open contention in the political system. It allowed, and indeed expects, a great deal from the common citizen. America’s Tories, like their Progressive heirs, always were uncomfortable with that line of thought. Their model seems to resemble the one that William Penn borrowed from James Harrington—the upper chamber drafts laws and the lower merely gets to say “yay” or “nay.” The people of the colony rejected the model, and Penn prudently replaced it.

If Lepore has an intellectual point of departure, I suspect, it would be Pragmatism. To be sure, even though she laments the post-modern turn, she sometimes sounds post-modern. The Taino tribe of Haiti before Columbus, she notes, kept its history and laws in the tribe’s songs, and “in those songs, they told their truths.” Regarding the Declaration, Lepore quotes Jeremy Bentham’s description of it as “absurd and visionary.” On the contrary, she writes, “what Bentham found absurd and visionary represented the summation of centuries of political thought and political experimentation.” Truth, in other words, develops in time. This means that it is not, well, Truth in the classic sense, something, as it were, out there—discoverable by reason or experience. There is no room here for Lincoln’s view of the Declaration, “a truth applicable to all men at all times.”

In this Pragmatic world, things become true, and are contrasted with things that are irrationalities. Lepore is critical of the Post-Modern turn, but does not see how Pragmatism opens the door to it. [3] Intellectuals in the Pragmatic camp tend to contrast people who are “moderate” and “reasonable” with people who are “extreme” or “ideologues.” (Ironically, Pragmatists are the intellectual children of the original “ideologues” of the late French Enlightenment). But, given the (non) foundation, how can one tell who is “reasonable” and who is “extreme” or an “ideologue”? It’s sociological, and, perhaps determined by class or perspective. Pragmatic intellectuals have unthinking faith in what they (often mistakenly) regard as reason, taking solace in their “reasonable” community. If one rejects that, one is a “nihilist,” for rejecting the narrow definition of “reason” Pragmatists take for reason itself. The process resembles the one Rodney Dangerfield’s character endorses in his “Big and Fat” commercial in the film Back to School: “If you want to look thin, hang out with fat people.” The people one hangs out with are reasonable and moderate, and those outside are “ideologues” and “extremists.” [4]

To understand the distance between Lepore’s view and a more republican one, a perspective with more respect for political contention, consider another blunder: President “Jackson vetoed laws passed by Congress (becoming the first president to assume this power).” Washington was the first President to veto a law. Jackson was, arguably, the first to veto bills merely as matters of legislative preference, as opposed to on grounds of constitutionality. Lepore contends, mistakenly, that Jackson held that the power to determine what is constitutional “lay with the President alone.” According to Lepore, Calhoun thought states had that role, and Marshall thought the Supreme Court had it. Some might have held that one and only branch or institution had final say, but I don’t think that was the dominant view. In Lincoln’s view, for example, the Court had the right to settle the status (slave or free) of Dred Scott, but its decision was not the final word on the constitution’s meaning. When, in this perspective, is a constitutional issue “settled”? When there is consensus across institutions and among the people—contrast the overwhelming support for Brown v. Board across today’s political divide with our continued division over Roe v. Wade and one gets an idea. I suspect that’s what Ames had in mind when he said our feet will always be wet. Lepore wants her feet to be dry. Tories have never been comfortable with allowing so much play in our political system.

Ultimately, Lepore’s book reads like an effort to create a storyline that could help us to restore a lost world. Madison noted, in the Report of 1800, that a significant increase in federal power must, by political logic, lead to a great deal of governance by executive discretion, turning the president into something like an Emperor. In the early 20th Century, the social science PhD was new. Many had faith that we could create a neutral expert class to manage society in a fair, disinterested manner, delegating a great deal of law-writing and enforcement to a class of unbiased administrators—as if policy-making can be a form of engineering. If we delegated those extra federal tasks to this class, then the federal government could expand without producing the kind of executive Madison feared. Lepore is clinging to that vision. Most of us realize however, that what might have been a reasonable hope, or, at least, not an outlandish one, a century ago, no longer is. A century after Wilson’s Presidency, it is delusional to place so much faith in those who claim expertise. To be skeptical of social science is, after all, very different from doubting Galileo.

In my undergraduate days, my introductory economics class was assigned Paul Samuelson’s (no relation) microeconomics textbook. In the 1989 edition, he claimed that “the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Lepore notes that “by 1984, the Soviet economy had virtually collapsed.” True. Yet to have said that in 1984 was to be branded a free market ideologue—it’s anti-reason to denigrate the work of a Nobel-prize winning economist! Many leading economists and politicians, on both sides of the aisle, assured us there was no housing bubble in 2004. Is today’s consensus psychology of gender and gender dysphoria settled? Is it unreasonable to doubt that it is? If it’s unsettled, why make policy based upon it? Lepore herself seems to lament the influence the “psychology and popular culture of trauma.” Well. That’s what many experts believe. Others disagree, of course.

To which group should we listen, and why? Is there no role for common sense? Social science is not, and perhaps never will be, engineering. Hence the role of common sense in policy making must, for the foreseeable future, remain much greater. Keeping social science from getting ahead of its skis is reason, not anti-reason. But this more democratic view makes Lepore’s class, the class of people who write for and read, say, The New Yorker much less essential in our system. As that class believes it represents reason, this alternative, democratic-republicanism simply does not compute. It appears as un-reason, but that is itself merely a prejudice.

Today we seem to face, to modify Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s title, a “Crisis of the New Order.” The Progressives and their children reworked the American regime, replacing “Newtonian” checks-and-balances with, as Wilson put it, a “Darwinian structure,” and replacing a Constitution in which the legislative branch, Article I was the heart with one in which the administrative branch was the key. The “reason” which Lepore mistakes for reason itself, was a necessary bulwark of the new order. But fewer and fewer of us subscribe to this “reasonable” faith. Can we return to our founding principles, and the more robust understanding of reason upon which they were based, and find a way to meet today’s challenges in a manner consistent with the principles of 1776. The collapse of the Progressive and New Deal order is an opportunity for us to return to the principles, of founding, and restore the republic on more republican lines. Failing that, we will go the way of Rome.


[1] As promised above, what follows is a selection of some of her errors:

  • “American victory [at Saratoga] helped John Jay, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, serving as diplomats in France, to secure a vital treaty: in 1778” They were the team for the final peace with Britain, not the 1778 treaty.
  • New Hampshire “was the first state to submit its constitution to the people for ratification.” Massachusetts was. Lepore does not note this several pages later while discussing the ratification of the federal Constitution: “except for the Massachusetts Constitution, in 1780, and the second New Hampshire Constitution, in 1784, no constitution, no written system of government, had ever before been submitted to the people for their approval.”
  • “Germany entered the conflict by supplying paid soldiers called, by Americans, Hessians.” There was no “Germany” at the time of the Revolution. Prussia, the most powerful of the German States, and probably more powerful than the Holy Roman Empire by then, was neutral in the war. “Hessians,” to use the common term, were from a relative handful of smaller German principalities.
  • “Spain joined the French-American alliance in 1779.” Spain allied with France, but not with the U.S.
  • “Daniel Shays, protested the government . . . seizing a federal armory.” Shays and his men were stopped short of the armory.
  • “The population of Massachusetts was greater than the population of Virginia.” Virginia was the largest in the era. Lepore means “the free population.” She notes that “Virginia had 300,000 slaves and so got five more seats.” Even by that calculation Virginia was a larger in the first census.
  • Lepore mentions rumors that Washington drafted a statement declaring that he would emancipate his slaves before taking office. If so, she writes, perhaps “like Washington’s inaugural address, [it] had been written by Hamilton.” But how could this be true? At the start of Washington’s Presidency, Madison, not Hamilton, was drafting things for Washington.
  • According to Lepore, the Dinner Party bargain made famous by Hamilton’s “The Room Where It Happens” included consideration “in exchange for Madison’s support.” Madison released the votes in Congress he was holding back. But he did not vote for it himself.
  • “There were more than three hundred people enslaved at Mount Vernon; Washington owned 123; the rest were his wife’s.” Martha did not own them. They were owned, as Ron Chernow notes, by “the Custis estate,” which means they were held in trust for Martha’s children and grandchildren. Given the attention Lepore pays to women’s rights, and lack thereof, one would think she would mention coverture when it came into play.
  • She tells us that Jefferson and Adams died “ten minutes apart” on July 4, 1826. But in reality, it was several hours.
  • “In 1813 Britain captured the nation’s capital.” That actually happened the following year.
  • In his essay on the 1619 Project, Sean Wilentz notes the flaws in Lepore’s statement that what “tipped the scales in favor of American independence” was “Dunmore’s declaration” freeing slaves.

For those patient souls who have read this entire note, you should know that this sample does not in any way exhaust the list, either.

[2] 538 reminds us that Lepore’s view of the Thomas confirmation hearings is the minority opinion. After the hearings, CBS News/New York Times poll found that an even greater share doubted Hill’s accusations.”

[3] Thanks to her keen insight into History’s ends I suspect, Lepore thinks that if one opposes building new entitlements might be to oppose the New Deal—in this view the New Deal means, not the policies of Franklin Roosevelt, but a certain direction of policy-making. That’s probably what she means when she says Reagan opposed the New Deal. Recall Arthur Schlesinger’s statement that “There seems no inherent obstacle to the gradual advance of socialism in the United States through a series of New Deals.” Conservatives understand it differently. On a related note, given Franklin Roosevelt’s opposition to government unions, was Lyndon Johnson against the New Deal?

[4] Or consider Lepore’s account of the role of newspapers. Discussing colonial newspapers Lepore writes that “newspapers . . . established truth, as Franklin explained, by printing all sides, and letting them do battle.” Not exactly. Newspapers don’t establish truth. In a democratic-republic they print the relevant facts and interpretations and analyses from across the spectrum so as to allow the members of the political community to be informed so that they can think for themselves and have informed public discussion of the issues. Lepore’s tendency is to regard “truth” as something established by authority.