Reclaiming History from the Bigots: Jill Lepore’s This America

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America got it backward. As Jill Lepore explains in her provocative little book This America: The Case for the Nation, the usual sequence in the formation of a nation is that first, a group of people with shared interests and background (say, an ethnic or racial group) come together. Then, over time, that nation of people develops its core principles. The United States reversed the order. The principles were present at the start. Through its founding documents and the sentiments of the Revolution, the US formed around notions of equality, sanctuary, tolerance, the freedoms of the press and religion, and the commitment to make the union more and more perfect.

It is of course also strikingly true that this nation was born, and has continued along, in horrible violation of these founding principles. “A nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself to charges of hypocrisy at every turn,” Lepore writes. “Those charges do not lie outside the plot of the story of America, or underneath it. They are its plot.” The US was founded at once as a land of equality and tolerance, and at the same time, it was built on slavery, genocide, and discrimination. Lepore catalogs these horrors, injustices, and bigotries, tracing them through to the country’s history. And she outlines the battle against them that has traveled from the founding, through a procession of important figures and movements, including Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and many others. “In the United States,” she claims, “the nation is that battle.”

Lepore’s sketch of this history is the body of This America’s central argument: that it is crucial for us to develop a progressive conception of the United States of America as a nation. If we don’t, then this void will continue to be filled by “demagogues.” She notes that “when scholars stopped writing national history, other, less scrupulous people stepped in.”

Here in the fourth year of the Trump presidency, questions of what it means to be an American, and how these questions relate to this country’s history, are at the forefront of current events. Massive antiracist protests have been taking place across the country. Thousands of people have filled the streets for nights on end in objection to police violence. Among other accomplishments, they have led to a series of public-space statues—especially those of Confederate figures—to be brought down, sometimes removed through official means, and other times toppled outright. The president has responded by mocking governors for failing to “dominate” protestors. These battles resonate sadly with the tone set by the last four years. Trump administration policies have pursued a specific vision for what America should represent, from the Muslim ban to the attempts at a erecting border wall to the dismantling of the asylum system to the sudden withdrawal from one international agreement after another. This America helps to identify just what kind of history is being invoked by these actions—and, it points to the history we should be invoking instead.

Lepore’s concern is over what she refers to as an illiberal nationalism. Earlier in history, the term “nationalism” was roughly synonymous with patriotism, or the love of your country. That’s fine. However, around the time of the World Wars, the term nationalism took on hideous connotations. Lepore writes that nationalism came to mean “less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and a hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial, or religious majority.” She notes that disagreeing about immigration policy is a normal thing for citizens to do. Nationalism is instead the vilification of immigrants or marginalized groups or foreigners, and the treatment of them as less than human. Lepore warns that “the endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never a shortage of fiends and frauds willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence.” She recalls that during a rally before the 2018 midterms, President Trump explained:

“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned—it’s called ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am?” He poked his chest. “I’m a nationalist, okay?” The crowd roared. “I’m a nationalist!” His voice rose. “Use that word! Use that word!

After the rally, he claimed to reporters to be ignorant of any history associated with the term. “He said with a shrug, ‘I think it should be brought back.’” Lepore adds, “It should not.”

After the rise of fascism in the first part of the twentieth century, Lepore claims that most historians turned away from the project of accounting for the US as a nation. Nationalism was taken to be the source of many of the worst aspects of the world, including the rise of Nazism in Germany, as well as many of the worst aspects of America at the time, including Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act, immigration quotas, Japanese internment, and domestic terror campaigns against Black people and Jews. According to Lepore, in place of accounts of the nation, historians have turned to international affairs, and to the histories of particular populations within the US, especially those whose histories had been traditionally neglected. However, the abandonment of the study of the United States as a nation did not lead to a withering of nationalism. Neither did any of the other things that some had pinned their hopes on. “The Cold War didn’t kill nationalism,” she writes. “Global trade didn’t kill nationalism. Immigration reform didn’t kill nationalism. The internet didn’t kill nationalism. Instead, arguably, all of these developments only stoked nationalism.”

If the negative claim of the book is that we should reject nationalism, then the positive argument is that we can draw a liberal account of America from the historical strands of resistance to oppression and bigotry. This positive argument is necessarily messier, as it pulls together a variety of threads, and includes by necessity a critical and honest recognition of the cruelties and inequalities of the country’s past and present. The book runs through the efforts of numerous inspiring movements and figures, including Pequot writer William Apess, W. E. B. Du Bois, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Church Terrell, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, a selection of suffragists, and many others. Frederick Douglass, appropriately, emerges as a particular star. This America covers a lot and quickly, and it’s not always clear what it should all amount to. History itself is not so conveniently tidy, and neither is this book.

It can be noted that This America appears in the tailwinds of a book Lepore published the year before, a single-volume history of the United States entitled These Truths. These Truths is a modern masterwork. Despite its having more than nine-hundred pages, I still find myself returning to it, underlining things constantly. These Truths is crisp, well-organized, and large. In comparison, This America is punchy, shaggy, and pocket-sized. In some ways, This America can be read as a comment on the need for more books like These Truths, and what we should be doing with them.

When we tell the story of the United States of America, which America should we describe? The tacky red hat slogan “Make American Great Again” is itself a succinct story of the nation. Resisting this shallow and specious catchphrase, and the bigoted nationalism that accompanies it, requires the establishment of an alternative story. As Lepore says, “It requires grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guarded by a nation of laws.” It requires the articulation of America as a “composite nation,” in Douglass’s phrase, where immigrants are welcomed and not scapegoated, and where Black lives matter.

Robert Rosenberger is an associate professor of philosophy at Georgia Tech. He studies the philosophy of technology, and is the author of Callous Objects: Designs Against the Homeless. His popular writing has appeared in Slate and the Atlantic. More from this author →