THE WANT, WILL AND HOPES OF THE PEOPLE. Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, as well as a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the host of the podcast “The Last Archive”.
Professor Lepore’s recent book “These Truths: A History of the United States” traces histories of American politics, law, society, and technology from the Age of Discovery to the present day. With this monumental picture of men and women, ideas and illusions, lies and truths, Jill Lepore created the first great history of the United States of America for the 21st century. Her book’s title is taken from the following words of Thomas Jefferson, draftsman of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), which defined from the outset in the eyes of the world the unique characteristics of the “American experiment”:-
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Professor Lepore, why did you feel the urge to write your book “These Truths” on the history of the United States seen from your point of view?
I’ve been asked to write this book many times over the years and I finally decided to say yes.
Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that it is “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.” Has this been betrayed?
That claim has been both expanded, to include many more people than Jefferson intended, and also, as you say, betrayed.
“The real divisions are between the rich and the poor.”
On July 4th 2020 President Trump made a speech at Mt. Rushmore to celebrate Independence Day in which he paid tribute to “the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.”
Jill Lepore, despite the many qualities of America, including diversity and democracy, it is a country full of contradictions. Are you shocked by the fact that up to now no administration has been able to stop the violence brought about by there being guns everywhere, and by the fact that when the pandemic started people started buying guns?
In the book, I write a lot about the history of gun ownership and the gun debate. Am I shocked that the US has not addressed this issue? No. Am I saddened? Yes.
Is America now more than before divided into people who are for peace and human rights, and bible bashers who buy guns for self-defense?
That is not a fair characterization of what divides Americans. Trump, for instance, would agree with the way your question divides Americans, between, somehow, good people and bad people. I don’t agree with that, not at all. The real divisions are between the rich and the poor.
Do you think that due to the immense power and influence of technology, artificial intelligence and new unpredictable discoveries, that huge inequalities will increase or decrease in the world?
In the U.S., income inequality has been on the rise since about 1968, when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society began to fall apart, and conservatives found new success in dismantling Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Technology doesn’t drive politics. Politics drives politics. Technological utopians who argued, in the 1990s, that the Internet would solve everything, end all divisions, and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, had no understanding either of history or of politics.
The U.S. federal government is broken. It is hardly functioning. One of the many things it has failed to do is to regulate companies that do business in Silicon Valley. But that doesn’t mean Silicon Valley has more power, in any structural or constitutional sense. Its reign will end.
Does it shock you that President Trump is trying to withdraw America from globalisation and its traditional alliances, building walls and putting tariffs on foreign goods?
It does not shock me, since this is what he pledged to do. Is it bad? Yes. It is terrible.
Do you predict the possibility of a war between American and China? And what kind of war?
I don’t make predictions. Historians don’t know much, but we know this much: never trust a person who makes predictions for a living.
“I am cautiously optimistic about the energy of this moment.”
Jill Lepore, America may be full of contradictions, but it is a strong and lively country whose very advanced medical facilities are the envy of the world. Yet it was unprepared and has not handled the pandemia better than any other country. How do you explain this?
You’re right. But my answer is the same: the U.S. federal government is barely functioning.
Do the majority of Americans think that China was responsible for the pandemia?
Responsible how? In the sense that the virus emerged there? Yes. Responsible in the sense of some sinister conspiracy? No. Americans don’t think that.
As a university professor do you believe that as we got more used to study, work and interface through Zoom, Instagram, Facetime etc. that the role of universities and libraries is going to become very different, and how?
I think online learning is, for the most part, a disaster. It’s far worse, though, for school children and high schoolers than it is for college students.
There is a high level of internet availability in the USA, but still very few people achieve a very high education. Is the American dream real?
Very few Americans achieve a very high education? I disagree with that statement.
Is it right that in your book you underlined that the chaos of recent years in the US started after the September 11 attacks in 2001?
The final chapter of my book, which is called “America, Disrupted” begins on September 11, 2001, and ends on November 9, 2016, election day. It traces the destabilization of American life and of the U.S.’s place in the world, beginning with the 9/11 attacks and ending with Trump’s election to the presidency.
What do you think about the interventions of every living former President – Barack Obama, George W Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton – that has never happened before, and all of which have diverged significantly from President Trump’s widely criticized responses to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police?
The people to listen to, in the United States, about racial justice, are the people protesting on the streets, not American presidents.
“The people to listen to, in the United States, about racial justice, are the people protesting on the streets, not American presidents.”
Jill Lepore, in 2016 the Republicans had numerous other candidates, yet they chose Donald Trump and the Democrats chose Hillary Clinton. Why is it that political parties in America have such importance but apparently are not able to provide good quality candidates?
That is an excellent question. Political scientists have argued that the American party system has become “hollowed out”. The parties are all external features, and empty on the inside. I agree with that assessment.
At four months from the November elections, do you think that Trump is still a strong candidate for the republicans, and Joe Biden for the democrats?
No, they are both weak candidates.
American history shows that since slavery in the time of Jefferson, African-American people made significant progress, including 8 years of the Barack Obama presidency. However, racial tensions and strong racist movements don’t seem to go away. Is this is going to be an endless tragedy for your country?
I sure hope it isn’t endless. I am cautiously optimistic about the energy of this moment.
From the Soviet Empire being the enemy number one, America went against China, and now the cold war has switched from Russia to China. Is this just as dangerous for peace in the world?
I think that, quite possibly, American isolationism is more dangerous.
For one reason or another there have been many economic crises in the history of your country. How will the poverty resulting from the pandemia be handled? After September 11 American people seemed to overcome their differences. Will this divided country come out even more divided by the corona virus, dramatic unemployment and the Black Lives Matter riots?
The idea that 9/11 unified Americans is an illusion, as I write in the book. Political polarization in the United States has always tracked with income inequality. So long as income inequality is so high, political polarization will be high.
Are the Jeffersonian values still the American values of today?
In the U.S., Jeffersonianism means agrarian republicanism, a commitment to liberty and rural life. I think you mean something else by your question? You must mean American civic ideals of liberty, equality, natural rights, and popular sovereignty. Yes, those remain core American values, but I would add a lot of other things to that list, including equal justice under the law.
Portrait of Jill Lepore by Dari Pillsbury.
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