Writing about American history in its present state of political division is a daunting yet immensely important task, said Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer at the New Yorker, in a lecture promoting her upcoming book on Thursday.
“I don’t think we really have a good account of American history that spans the whole length of American history, but then also reaches across the political divide that is the chasm of our daily lives,” Lepore told the packed auditorium, explaining why she was drawn to the challenge.
Lepore is not one to shy away from challenges. Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz made this clear when he introduced her to the audience, noting that her work “defies easy categorization, in part because there's so much of it, and in part because it covers so much ground.” In fact, it is Lepore’s commitment to correcting what Wilentz calls “appalling civic illiteracy” that makes her an influential figure in her field.
Lepore prefaced her lecture by reading the introduction and epilogue of her upcoming book and closed with an interactive Q&A segment contemplated the question of whether she should end her historical narrative at the moment of Trump’s election.
Originally, Lepore said, she planned for her book to span from Columbus’s landing in America in 1492 to Obama’s inauguration in 2009. However, when Trump was elected in 2016, Lepore knew that she could not just ignore this period of history.
“It seemed to me a sort of professional negligence not to carry the story to Trump’s election,” Lepore admitted.
Reading from the introduction to her upcoming book, Lepore’s narrative traced the history of American republican ideals and moments in which they were challenged or, according to some accounts, abandoned. These truths, which Lepore called “reflection and choice,” guided the government in its dealings with the American people through the Constitution.
Lepore cited Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist Papers,” which referred to the U.S. government as an “experiment in the science of politics,” and tested whether or not reflection and choice could feasibly replace force, prejudice, and deceit in governance. She shared her belief that the conflict Hamilton examined has been a prevailing question underlying American politics ever since: whether a government grounded in reason, reflection, and choice can both function and preserve the equality and protection of its citizens.
Lepore cited political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people as the three main principles that define what it is to be an American.
“In the centuries since, these principles have been cherished, deprived, and tested, fought for, fought over, and fought against,” Lepore said. She cited the Civil War and the Cold War as just two examples.
Lepore also read from the epilogue to her book, one that is not blind to the worrisome tendencies of both the recent past and the present. She began reading about the U.S. liberal dilemma of recent decades, referring to the fact that liberals are not actively pursuing political positions and are instead relying on the Supreme Court to support their political leanings.
“Conservatives rested their claim to political power on winning elections, and perhaps above all on winning history,” Lepore said. According to Lepore, conservatives became intent on not only claiming history but on turning it back as well, degrading and belittling the American experiment, as well as creating an imagined past.
However, Lepore’s epilogue was by her account considerably optimistic.
Lepore mentioned former President Barack Obama’s plea to the people to “choose our better history.” Responding to Obama’s words, Lepore said that while a nation cannot choose its past, it can choose and influence its future. According to Lepore, while liberals suffered in recent election cycles and the Trump victory seriously challenged the ideals on which the country was born, hope lies in the future generation.
Lepore said with confidence that it is up to the next generation to rebuild the metaphorical ship of our nation’s social fabric.
Although Lepore was not able to give the audience “a recipe to restore reflection,” she said that she had both faith and history on her side when she claimed that it could be done.
The lecture, “American History from Beginning to End: The Challenge of Writing American History in a Time of Division,” was sponsored by the Spencer Trask Lecture Series and took place at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 30 in McCosh 50.