The American Past: A History of Contradictions

Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times:

It isn’t until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment. “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore — a professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker — is a one-volume history of the United States, constructed around a traditional narrative, that takes you from the 16th to the 21st century. It tries to take in almost everything, an impossible task, but I’d be hard-pressed to think she could have crammed more into these 932 highly readable pages. It covers the history of political thought, the fabric of American social life over the centuries, classic “great man” accounts of contingencies, surprises, decisions, ironies and character, and the vivid experiences of those previously marginalized: women, African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals. It encompasses interesting takes on democracy and technology, shifts in demographics, revolutions in economics and the very nature of modernity. It’s a big sweeping book, a way for us to take stock at this point in the journey, to look back, to remind us who we are and to point to where we’re headed.

This is not an account of relentless progress. It’s much subtler and darker than that. It reminds us of some simple facts so much in the foreground that we must revisit them: “Between 1500 and 1800, roughly two and a half million Europeans moved to the Americas; they carried 12 million Africans there by force; and as many as 50 million Native Americans died, chiefly of disease. … Taking possession of the Americas gave Europeans a surplus of land; it ended famine and led to four centuries of economic growth.” Nothing like this had ever happened in world history; and nothing like it is possible again. The land was instantly a refuge for religious dissenters, a new adventure in what we now understand as liberalism and a brutal exercise in slave labor and tyranny. It was a vast, exhilarating frontier and a giant, torturing gulag at the same time. Over the centuries, in Lepore’s insightful telling, it represented a giant leap in productivity for humankind: “Slavery was one kind of experiment, designed to save the cost of labor by turning human beings into machines. Another kind of experiment was the invention of machines powered by steam.” It was an experiment in the pursuit of happiness, but it was in effect the pursuit of previously unimaginable affluence.

More here.