The book was supposed to end with the inauguration of Barack Obama. That was Jill Lepore’s plan when she began work in 2015 on her new history of America, These Truths (W.W. Norton). She had arrived at the Civil War when Donald J. Trump was elected. Not to alter the ending, she has said, would have felt like “a dereliction of duty as a historian.”
These Truths clocks in at 789 pages (nearly 1,000 if you include the notes and index). It begins with Christopher Columbus and concludes with you-know-who. But the book isn’t a compendium; it’s an argument. The American Revolution, Lepore shows, was also an epistemological revolution. The country was built on truths that are self-evident and empirical, not sacred and God-given. “Let facts be submitted to a candid world,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. Now, it seems, our faith in facts has been shaken. These Truths traces how we got here.
Lepore occupies a rarefied perch in American letters. She is a professor at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has written books about King Philip’s War, Wonder Woman, and Jane Franklin, sister of Benjamin Franklin. She even co-wrote an entire novel in mock 18th-century prose. The Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has said of Lepore: “More successfully than any other American historian of her generation, she has gained a wide general readership without compromising her academic standing.”