Comments about These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. © 2018.
In The Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton asked:
It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
And rewording his question, Dr. Lepore asks:
Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit? Is there any arrangement of government – any constitution – by which it’s possible for a people to rule themselves, justly and fairly, and as equals, through the exercise of judgment and care? Or are their efforts, no matter their constitutions, fated to be corrupted, their judgment muddled by demagoguery, their reason abandoned for fury? (page xiv)
The “truths” of the Declaration of Independence and of Lepore’s title are:
three political ideas - “these truths,” Thomas Jefferson called them – political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. (page xiv)
Lepore asks: “Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?” (page xiv)
The main points I took from this book are:
a) White supremacy screwed up our nation from the beginning. Even though slavery “officially” was ended, the effects are with us still. White supremacy works directly counter to those three political ideas referenced in the Declaration of Independence, and it remains to be seen if this nation can overcome it.
b) It’s the fault of greedy folks and the competent lobbyists they hired that we didn’t get universal health care in the 20th century.
c) As I suspected, income inequality and wealth inequality are a huge threat to democracy.
d) Political polling is bad for us.
e) The internet has made our inequality worse.
Here’s the end of Lepore's epilogue, written after the 2016 election of Pres. Donald Trump, but, notably, before the 2020 election.
… Can a people govern themselves by reflection and choice? [Alexander] Hamilton had wanted to know, or are they fated to be ruled, forever, by accident and force, lashed by the violence of each wave of a surging sea?
The ship of state lurched and reeled. Liberals, blown down by the slightest breeze, had neglected to trim the ship’s sails, leaving the canvas to flap and tear in a rising wind, the rigging flailing. Huddled belowdecks, they had failed to plot a course, having lost sight of the horizon and their grasp on any compass. On deck, conservatives had pulled up the ship’s planking to make bonfires of rage: they had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship’s very mast.
It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea. If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky. With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true. They would need to drive home nails with the untiring swing of might arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble finders, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill. Knowing that heat and sparks and hammers and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals. And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars. (pp 786-787)
I think we have yet to find out if the ship of state will be repaired. Certainly in Pennsylvania the fate of democracy is still threatened, as Republican legislators will seek to gerrymander judicial districts early in 2021; as Republican Congressional leaders from PA question the outcome of the very election they just won; as PA state Republican legislators signal that they wish to remove the recently-won ability for us to vote by mail, which they themselves voted for overwhelmingly.
I am the first to say that in a two-party system, we need both parties to be viable and ultimately focused on good governance, rather than party power. In our history, the Democratic Party is not faultless in veering away from good governance. But right now, the threat that I see in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania comes from the Republican Party seeking, in the face of an inability to win elections based on policy ideas and fine candidates, to hold onto power by whatever means they find, including destruction of democracy.
Pennsylvanians, pay close and special attention to this coming attempt to form judicial districts for state-wide judgeships. Judges are not meant to have constituents. This is an attempt by the Republican-heavy legislature (accomplished through gerrymandering) to seize more power for their party and take it away from citizens. It’s going to be hard to fight this one and win, but I feel it is worthwhile to fight it.
What will we choose for our future? Can we choose for our future, or is it too late?