How Do We Tell the American Story? A Conversation with Historian Jill Lepore

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper professor of American history at Harvard University and staff writer for the New Yorker. A prize winning professor, she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American History. Her books include the Name of War which won the Bancroft prize, New York Burning, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award. Her latest book, These Truths: the History of the United States, came out just a few weeks ago and is the topic of our conversation today.

Professor Lepore, welcome to Thinking in Public. Professor Lepore, when you wrote this book, this massive one volume history, a narrative of the United States in one volume, wouldn’t you say that’s kind of an audacious project in the year 2018 when the book was released?

Jill Lepore:            Sure. I guess in the best sense, I would hope that it was an ambitious project to take on and I think also an urgent one.

Albert Mohler:   Yes. Someone’s going to tell this story. I have to tell yah, I so thoroughly enjoyed the book. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation because it takes a remarkable historical ability to be able to sustain a narrative for several hundred pages, not to mention covering several centuries, and you accomplished that but of course that’s in the background of the fact that to write about any era of American history, not to mention the entire span of American history, is downright controversial in our age.

Jill Lepore:            It is. It really has become so and I think for understandable reasons and then for some more dubious reason. It used to be the case that it was really the capstone of a career for, I don’t know, a certain sort of historian, distinguished historian that at a certain point in one’s career one would attempt to offer to the public one’s vantage of the whole of the American story, the American epic and that was seen as a kind of public service and something that somebody devoted a lifetime to setting the path to do really as a matter of civic duty I guess. And this was fashionable for different reasons at different points and had different ends but the practice became, I think, more or less untenable in the 1960s. Up until the 1960s every generation had its version of this book. If not, kind of many competing versions of the book which is all to the good, right? There is no last word on American history. We need to retell the story and new evidence comes to light and new interpretations, new methods of interpretation are available. It’s just a kind of a necessary thing.

Jill Lepore:            In the 1960s when the historical profession just really exploded with the kind of revolution of new research, partly because the Academy opened up and women and people of color got PhDs and entered the Academy and historical profession became much more capacious and that generation of younger scholars was trying to blow up what had previously been known as the consensus interpretation of American history which is kind of the 1950s version and did an incredible archival of research to recover the stories of particular groups. Ethnic groups, religious groups, racial groups, and talked a lot about conflict and had a kind of conflict in group driven account of American history that involved a lot of fracturing and to even, I guess, aspire to write a national history was seen, I think as a betrayal of that new scholarship, a kind of flattening out of difference. Something that was essentially a nationalist project I think and so there was, by the time I was in college in the 1980s, there really wasn’t that book anymore. That sort of one big book that you would read to kind of get a first acquaintance with the big swooping story.

Jill Lepore:            And then my decades of a historian, it’s not that there aren’t wonderful books written about all kinds of things but it just doesn’t happen that often anymore, as you say. It’s not a commonplace activity.

Albert Mohler:   Well and you indeed, and I’ve read just about everything you’ve written, you have yourself kind of demonstrated that attention to those who receive very little attention. The Jane Franklins of this world and frankly, even to popular culture with Wonder Woman. Those are historical interests that certainly didn’t mark someone who would hold an endowed chair at Harvard University a generation ago.

Jill Lepore:            That’s true. That’s absolutely the case and most of my work comes out of my commitment as someone who was trained in a moment when it was really clear what had been lost by not paying attention to so many different people’s lives and allowing the story of a nation to be the story of the succession of its presidents and that’s not that the march of the presidents isn’t important, it’s incredibly important in political history, but I was trained and became a historian because I really cared about recovering the stories and the lives of peoples whose footprint in the historical record was maybe a little shallower and their lives are a little bit to tease out. I’m really interested in issues of inequality, as of course many people are, but the way those manifest themselves in the historical record is through the asymmetry of evidence.

Jill Lepore:            So in the case of Jane Franklin, a woman I just so deeply love and admire, we know that Franklin of course was an incredibly brilliant man and prolific correspondent. Wrote hundreds of thousands of letters on top of being an essayist and a printer and a philosopher and a politician and a philanthropist. He leaves an extraordinary paper trail and there was a project at Yale that’s been editing Franklin’s papers and publishing them in multiple volumes, they started in 1958 and they’re not done yet. I mean it’s just this incredible volume of evidence in his own words about his life and his sister Jane, who’s the person he’s closest to his entire life, could not have been more different in how her life turned out but also the trail of paper that she leaves behind. My commitment as a historian is we will know more about ourselves and treat one another more humanely if we know more about people we come from and we need to know about the lives of ordinary women like Jane Franklin. Married very young, had 12 children, cared for them, cared for her children, raised her great-grandchildren when her granddaughter’s died, lived a life of great tribulation, had a very different position on religion from her brother but tells us a lot about inequality in the 18th century and forms of inequality that persist to this day and also form of attachment and love and compassion and generosity.

Albert Mohler:   Well looking at how history has been done, especially in the late 20th and early 21st century, looking at the impact of the French Annales School and the small histories, the petite histories, you’ve really given a lot of attention to that and developed a certain narrative skill, I would argue, in doing that. Also by your writing for the New Yorker. It’s a different project to be able to sustain that over the course of American history and over hundreds of pages but I say this as a word of tribute, I really do think you have sustained a narrative and it is a page turner which isn’t always said about works of American history.

Jill Lepore:            Well it’s very kind of you to say. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I really want people to read it as a kind of from front to back like as a book that kind of has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Obviously the story continues but I wanted it to have that feeling of momentum. I think the past has that for me and I don’t know, I worked really hard at that so that’s gratifying to hear where that worked. I did write fairly quickly, partly with that in mind. I love writing essays, I love the evanescence of an essay, I love kind of immersing myself in something for six weeks and then never thinking about it again and I kind of treated the book that way. I wrote it from beginning to end, I wrote it chronologically, rigidly chronologically, I read stuff for one chapter and wrote the chapter and then moved right on to read stuff for the next chapter and I was hoping that some sense of the frenetic pace with which I attacked the project would bring energy to the prose because I guess there’s not a historian who doesn’t think this but I do think that the long view is really important as a perspective that gives us the gift of humility and it’s hard to take the time to get the long view so I wanted people to feel almost rushed through it.

Albert Mohler:   I really appreciate the attention to ideas and then the very beginning of the book you say the American experiment rests on three political ideas, identified by Thomas Jefferson as these truths, thus the title of your book. And those three political ideas being political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people and at least as I understand your project here, you’ve tried to demonstrate how those three ideals or ideas, truths, really became the American experiment but not exactly as anyone might be able to predict at the beginning or even explain at the end.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah so there’s two pieces of work that I was trying to do here. One was to explain where those ideas came from and why and exactly when. It’s not every nation that’s founded on a set of ideas as opposed to common language or shared ancestry or particular attachment to a place. The United States really is founded on these ideas and it only kind of continues to exist and to be nourished so long as we hold these ideas. So the first piece of work was sort of where do these ideas come from and really ponder that. There’s a whole lot of chapters before we get to those ideas being declared by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

Jill Lepore:            And then the second piece of business piece of business is to sort of say well what happens with them? Like what is that sort of experiment underway and that’s certainly how the framers, as they say, talked about the founding of the country and especially about the constitution as an experiment, a political experiment. To see if it’s possible to be able to live in accordance with these ideas and, you know, Hamilton, the book sort of frames the question around Alexander Hamilton’s question first to the Federalist Papers in which he said, you look through history, all other governments have fallen to the forces of violence and prejudice and really accident and we’re going to make an experiment here, we’re going to write a constitution and ask people to ratify it and then we’re going to see if it’s possible for people to devise a system of government that won’t end in violence, or conquest, or defeat or empirical overreach or corruption or demagoguery or prejudice and oppression and we’ll see how that goes.

Jill Lepore:            So the second piece of business of the book, then, is to sort of look at how that goes. To do that work. How is the experiment going?

Albert Mohler:   Well as you tell the story, let me back up a minute. Let’s say that we are just talking on the average American elite college or university campus and we’re raising those three ideas of political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people and then we ask the question, how’s that worked out for the nation? I think there are two massive narratives. One of them is, well here’s how it worked out, eventually the logic of those ideas drove through American civilization in such a way that confronted with the horrible contradiction of slavery, eventually those ideals won out, violently, and yet inexorably and so the America we know today is the product of those ideals working themselves out in logic.

Albert Mohler:   The other counter-narrative would be, this is all just a ruse by the founders. Language they’re using that they didn’t actually believe, it’s just another for of aristocracy protecting itself and projecting itself into the future and of course, embracing this kind of contradiction that has led to continual national frustration and you’re really taking neither of those two narratives as your story but they’re there in the background.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah. That’s very aptly put and I think that one of the troubles with those two narratives, or the narrative and the counter-narrative as you described them, is that they map on precisely two sort of partisan preferences and so, even our understanding of the past at this point in our highly hyper polarized political world, kind of conforms to this partisan divide and I wrote the book with an attempt to really to reject that division and to ask people to kind of move outside that division and one way that my story differs from, trying to kind of break out of that divide is by exploring pretty carefully in the early chapters of the book, how those ideas, those two that are actually forged in a crucible of violence and that it’s not sort of then slavery is a challenge to these ideas.

Jill Lepore:            It is actually, and this is certainly not my original work as a historian, this relies on decades of really wonderful historical scholarship by most of all the work of the great Yale historian Edmund Morgan, thinking about how it is actually, as horrible as this is to confront, it is the experience of slave holding that casts liberty into sharp relief for, say, those 17th and 18th century Virginians who are really very carefully advancing ideas about liberty in the 17th and the 18th century at the time that they are devising codes of laws that give them utter arbitrary authority over other human beings.

Jill Lepore:            And what they become very sophisticated in understanding was the nature of tyranny and for an historian like Morgan who wrote this brilliant book in 1975, American Slavery and American Freedom, ’cause those are the central paradox of American history, according to Morgan, that the world’s first modern democracy is the product of kind of the last basting of slavery in the modern world and that that, the failure to confront that, deprives us all of a shared past so that’s, I guess, so part of my move is there about breaking out of that is, you know, it’s not really like there was this great set of ideas or there was this disingenuous set of ideas and then sort of other things happened but these ideas come out of this extraordinary crucible.

Jill Lepore:            The claims of the sovereignty of the people, claims about natural rights, these immerge from, as much from the excruciating knowledge gained by slaveholders as, and especially from the every day revolts of enslaved people. They’re running away, speeches that they make, protests that they make, petitions that they file, that we see when we, this is the great gain of those decades of work that have been done since the 1960s by people under the historical profession and did this archival work to recover other people’s lives but there is this century long howl of protest by people whose land is being taken and whose lives are being taken and as I say in the book, a lot of these protests are often made first at the pulpit. We know that in the 19th century, abolitionism is very wound up with the Second Great Awakening. I begin that, you know, with Spanish priests who protest the conquest, who protest the enslavement of native people, who 16th century, who are amplifying the voices of native people. Who insist generation after generation, by what right do you do this?

Jill Lepore:            And the Europeans have to say by this right and they’re right. There’s this conversation that these truths come out of. So it’s then a century’s long struggle and that the moment at which Jefferson is making those declarations is a crucial turn but it doesn’t stand outside that history.

Albert Mohler:   The idea that history can be done, that books of history can be written without judgment is implausible and one of the most important questions a reader should ask when reading this kind of book, certainly a book of the stature and scope as Jill Lepore’s New History of the United States, is what kind of judgment is being made here? Judgments going to be made in the micro level, dealing with incidents and events in American history but judgment is also going to be made at the macro level, in the great narrative, the overarching story that is being told in, what amounts to, a volume history of America.

Albert Mohler:   I want to ask a pointed question because at one crucial turn early here in the American narrative, you argue that those who began this experiment citing those three ideals, they had to come up with something in order to intellectually defend slavery and you say that they came up with the idea of race.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah. What happened, as I see it, and again, like every other piece of my argument, this is my argument but it also draws on the work of many historians, David Brion Davis wrote these incredible series of books, starting in the 1960s on Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution or the work of the great Winthrop Jordan, White over Black on the history of ideas about race, all this really kind of pivotal work that’s from the 60s and 70s that looked at the kind of shifting ground by which Europeans justified enslaving Africans and that narrows in, in the American experiment to the Dutch and the English. We’re talking about [crosstalk 00:19:46] there. ‘Cause the Portuguese and the Spanish have different justification. Well we’re thinking about the Dutch and the English and then finally about the English.

Jill Lepore:            Unsurprisingly, there really is, for the English colonists in the 17th century, there’s nothing in English law that sanctions enslaving people and so they’re constantly having to sort of invent some rationale for how can I, or I have enslaved this person and I came up with the rationale because really this person can be understood essentially as a prisoner or war, we can then be understood as at war. Well then that doesn’t work so well because then that person has a child and then, under English law, the father here was the owner of a woman and the two of them had a child together, under English law the child would inherit the status of the father, well we’re going to go back to Roman law. We have a different Roman law we’re going to use and we’re going to say that children inherit the status of the mother. Oh, well now actually, that doesn’t always work either so what we’re going to say is that it’s actually if you’re a colored person, then you’re a slave. Like it’s always a shifting argument and it’s fluid for quite a long time.

Albert Mohler:   I think that’s an important point to make and I think it’s also important to understand that many of the central figures of the Enlightenment were trying to make similar arguments, if not about slavery, then about their understanding of the superiority of European civilization. Even someone like Immanuel Kant, I mean frankly I was surprised later in my life to discover the extensive kinds of racialist arguments that many of the leading figures of the Enlightenment were making and that has to be in the background as well.

Jill Lepore:            Absolutely, yeah. And these things, they have a long tale. They stick around for a really long time. The incredible thing to me, I mean I spent a lot of time trying to reckon with that and but the way that I, again as you say, the book is very much about ideas and so I want to introduce those ideas to people and acquaint them with but I tried to deliver ideas in the form of people so the book is structured really around, as much around characters as anything else, sort of well chosen characters, or at least I hope they’re well chosen, who were chosen to help the reader kind of put a face to a set of ideas.

Albert Mohler:   Right.

Jill Lepore:            So, I talk about George Washington and Harry Washington. Harry’s a man born in Gambia that Washington family purchases from a slave trader and who later runs away and seeks his freedom and ends up returning to Africa eventually so that it isn’t sort of we were contemplating the ideas of the Enlightenment but we’re actually looking at people, African men and women or an African-born man like Harry Washington who confronts the ideas of Enlightenment as insane or also, agrees with some of them like actually under these rules I am a free man and I will leave because I have a natural born right to my freedom.

Jill Lepore:            So I think it’s important to, ’cause the move of the kind of counter-narrative that you described earlier is to just say well, we should just throw away George Washington. These people are unredeemable. They have a taint. There’s stains of the original sin of slavery and then not wrestle with their ideas and not wrestle with the legacy of their own contradictions for us. My move is always different. My move is always to sort of put them in the company of the people that they were, in the company within their lives. So when James Madison is buying a parcel of books to read political theory because he’s hoping to revise the Articles of Confederation and he wants to buy a copy of Hobbes’ Leviathan and he writes to his father for a loan and says, I might have to sell my man in order to buy these books. That’s actually, for me, that’s kind of the moment I fall out of my chair over what I’m reading. What does it mean to be Madison and imagining like selling a man, a person, in order to buy a copy of Hobbes’ Leviathan. How can you be in that head, you know?

Albert Mohler:   Right.

Jill Lepore:            And to try and have the reader be in that head a little bit and the, ideally, maybe hear from that man. His name was William Gardner, have him be a person on the page who the reader can see and hear from.

Albert Mohler:   Well that’s the part of what I think makes These Truths, your new book so powerful is because you actually do that and I appreciate how you give voice to people who had previously not given voice and how you see the irony. You have an incredible ability to see and detect and reveal irony. You also have a way of making huge arguments in ways that the reader could easily miss, at least I think many readers might miss. And, for instance, about 200 pages into your book you write, the United States was born as a republic and grew into a democracy and as it did it split in two, unable to reconcile its system of government with the institution of slavery.

Albert Mohler:   I want to look at those first words. That’s quite an argument actually, that America was born as a republic and grew into a democracy. That’s a certain kind of narrative.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah. There’s a lot of sort of end caps to elections.

Albert Mohler:   That’s like a bomb, that right there.

Jill Lepore:            Something that I hope people can receive, maybe pause over a little bit. I can’t remember exactly where that is in the book but the democratization of American politics that we see beginning in 1810s but especially in the 1820s and 1830s, is an extraordinary transformation of the system of government and I think that most Americans kind of collapse the whole thing into one. That is to say, the founding of the Confederated United States with the First Articles of Confederation, the Constitution itself, and the new federal, really national system of government and then this very different animal which is fully a different kind of notion of suffrage and notion of majority rule that begins with Andrew Jackson.

Jill Lepore:            So, I myself, I’d just tell stories all day unless the stories deliver the argument but I pause often to sort of try to deliver kind of a big sweeping claim that people can see and wrestle with and maybe dispute. I mean, again, I’m not trying to write the final word on American history. One of the commitments I have as a historian, as a historian of this particular American experiment is the United States is an experiment in self government in which we dedicate ourselves to inquiring and participating in the experiment then. We have to constantly be open to scrutiny and willing to participate in debate and be open minded about where the experiments stand and fair minded.

Albert Mohler:   Well and I appreciate an argument actually made, as a cultural and political, theological conservative reading the book, there were times in which my own diacritical marks that I’ve used for all my adult life, there were times in which I registered some pretty tart disagreement with some of your arguments but none the less, you make arguments and I greatly appreciate that.

Albert Mohler:   And, then again, you back it up as a part of your narrative and that’s a part of what makes the book so interesting. I don’t want to do what I think so many do with American history and that’s just skip over from the founding to the contemporary, although in the book you actually kind of say you began with the beginning and the end and then worked in the middle which I do understand but you are really writing as a progressive historian, your own political background abundantly clear in your writings in the New Yorker and elsewhere, it drives you to a certain telling of the story.

Albert Mohler:   I think it’s remarkably honestly told but when you look at how American history’s been told in the past and compare it with the way you’re telling it, one of the things you do is to give voice to women and recognize the role of women throughout the American experiment, not just Jane Franklin in the beginning but Phyllis Schlafly, more recently. That’s just really interesting to me and by the way, I knew Phyllis Schlafly and gave a key note address at one of her conventions one time for the Eagle Forum, and she was just as formidable as you indicate in this book but it’s interesting that even when conservatives tell the story of America, they generally don’t acknowledge the fact. You make the argument that modern American conservatism really has more to do with the role of women than men.

Jill Lepore:            Well I think, I guess I would say a few things here. One of the reasons that women are not at the center of American political history is that we define politics as electoral politics and for much of American history, of course, at the federal level, until 1920 women don’t have any guarantee to the right to vote although women vote in state quite a bit earlier than that. So if we’re going to think about voting and elections is what politics consist in, then it makes sense for women to not be at the center of that story but of course women operate outside of politics, in that sense, but do political work and the foreman which women’s political activity in the American history has largely taken is the moral crusade because absent the right to vote, women sort of left with trying to persuade men to do what they think should be done and beginning in the 19th century, the way women did that just lined up culturally with ideas about the differences between men and women and also with women’s greater rate of church membership and greater participation in the Second Great Awakening, which to say, women are more moral than men so you should listen to us when we tell you this is wrong and this is wrong, this is how we get prohibition, say.

Jill Lepore:            But that sort of pleading with moral authority and using moral dissuasion to alter the course of politics, is historically a thing that women had to do. They had no choice. If they wanted to exert themselves politically this was the mode that was available to them and that carries down all the way to the present. You can think about the Me Too Movement as a moral crusade. At a time even when women have other forms of political powers and ways to express political power. Whether you agree with it or disagree with it, I think it takes that kind of a form and Schlafly I think, I’ll be curious to know if you disagree, I think she’s an extraordinarily formidable woman and I think that liberal historians leave the history of conservatism out of their histories and conservatives leave the history of women out of their histories so my history just has both of those sides so I spent a lot of time trying to write about the history of conservatism ’cause I think it doesn’t get enough attention. I think American religious history doesn’t get enough attention in most academic scholarships.

Jill Lepore:            So, the history of women and a lot of other things I put in this book that I don’t think get enough attention. The history of law, the history of technology, there’s a lot that I try to add back in but I think it’s gotten kicked out for one reason or another. But in my mind, Schlafly is just really an incredibly foundational figure in 20th century American political history and I do think is, this is maybe a tough call to make but I do think on the whole, women’s political activity has tended to be more conservative than not. Taken on the whole in American political history which I think is interesting and worth thinking about and maybe helpful to think about in terms of people who want to try to asses where the country is going now or what’s going on with the current gender gap.

Jill Lepore:            I have no answers to any of that, I’m a historian, but I do think a fuller, richer sense of the history puts this present moment in a partly different light.

Albert Mohler:   Well I would simply add something and you document what I think many American conservatives would not know and that’s the role that Phyllis Schlafly played, for instance, in the gold water campaign in 1964 and the movement but I will add something to what you wrote and I’ll simply say, knowing her and observing her, it became very clear to me that it was people like Phyllis Schlafly, women like Phyllis Schlafly who in many ways held conservative men accountable to conservative ideas. She was far less willing to compromise, at least by my experience, than many of the men and she was backed up by an army and you do reflect this in the book, she was backed up by an army of women who shared her worldview and her convictions and that made a big difference. I appreciate the way you give attention to that.

Albert Mohler:   I also want to go back earlier where there isn’t a conservative movement in America. Where, and for instance as you document in 1949, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Could simply say that liberalism has no opposition. As he said, in the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition and that, by the way, was actually Lionel Trilling following in the argument of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Why did it not stay that way?

Jill Lepore:            Well I think, they were wrong at the time, right? They weren’t accurately describing the state of affairs. I think they were, to a great degree, dismissing what that opposition was, right? By saying it didn’t even exist they were looking at it and saying this doesn’t count and that doesn’t count and this doesn’t count. And some of those things count so I think they underestimated the opposition and I think a lot of historians would quibble with that.

Albert Mohler:   They miss, for example, or gave no attention to the entire Southern Agrarian tradition, an ongoing conservative tradition that I guess Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Didn’t need to even think about.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah and it’s actually part of, you know I was saying earlier the kind of consensus school of American history that gets blown up in the 1960s, largely from the left. It’s people like Schlesinger that they’re, you know and Hofstadter and these kind of big lions of the 1960, 1950s historiography that are being challenged by liberals and leftists in the academy but they are equally being challenged by conservatives. I mean, I think Buckley’s going to come in and say, what are you talking about? Like this is conservatism, here’s what it is, here’s our agenda.

Jill Lepore:            So it’s absolutely a transformation that happens in the 1950s and that’s where Schlafly enters the scene as well and with these Republican suburban women who become the foot soldiers of the party. They become the foot soldiers of the conservatives within the party. They really just kind of in terms of doing the work, like precinct to precinct, stuffing the envelopes, doing that work. That’s not the case with the Democrats in the 1950s. The Democrats don’t have this huge giant staff of women who are doing that labor, that party labor so something really does change in the 1950s. It’s not that, you know, Schlesinger and Trilling are like 100% wrong but they’ve clearly underestimated what’s going on. There’s a lot that’s not visible to them and one of the traditions of, I mean this especially comes through with Hofstadter, writing more in the 1940s. I think, I can’t remember what year he writes the Age of Reform but Hofstadter and these other mid-century liberal historians are defending the New Deal as a matter of historical interpretation and they’re defending the Progressive agenda as a matter of historical interpretation.

Jill Lepore:            And they’re also rejecting populism. So the conservative tradition in the late 19th century really is populism, agrarian populism but kind of populism of the Kansas farmers and William Jennings Bryan and the sort of New Dealers and the Progressives think that’s localism. They find it vulgar. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in this populous tradition, there’s a lot of racism and nativism in that populous tradition, there’s a lot more than those things but that tradition, it’s not that it’s erased by early 20th century liberal historians but it’s pretty well wrapped up in a box and labeled discredited and set to one side. So that’s why I think and one of the reasons for that underestimation.

Albert Mohler:   Yeah and I appreciate that. The frustration that comes to me is in understanding that it’s not so much that the critique of populism was wrong but that those, especially in the academic elites, they failed to acknowledge that there was as much anti-Semitism in those ranks, almost everything they criticize morally speaking of the populous, was pretty much institutional policy in the Ivy league for a very, very long time.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah. No, I think that’s right. And it really produces a kind of blindness. There’s this great essay Alan Brinkley wrote, well maybe in the 80s called the Problem of Conservatism in American History which just blew people away when he wrote it. He’s at Columbia and he said you know, here’s the problem of conservatism in American history. Most Americans are liberals and they pay no attention to the history of conservatism, they don’t know anything about it! And it’s as if it never happened and now the country’s conservative and historians are surprised. And there’s this group of people like if you want to understand what’s going on, you actually have to study this history and it produced a whole lot of scholarship since then, since Brinkley wrote this kind predictor, like within this problem. This is bad history. This is bad scholarship. Just ’cause you don’t agree with it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, right?

Jill Lepore:            So that actually was a really important turn in the historical scholarship but no, I agree with you there and when you look at what Brinkley’s call has done is that it’s elicited, I think, some really tremendous work. I mean for me, I went back and revisited the work of William Jennings Bryan, who this is a really important figure and also so fun to write about and completely fascinating and I will say, my knowledge of Bryan really came from watching Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracey and Fredric March and like, it’s about the Scopes Trial from 1925 and I knew very little of Bryan and I went and read a new biography of him my Michael Kazin, who’s the co-editor of Dissent called the Godly Hero. It’s just quite sympathetic and I think really, really interesting new biographical wrestling with Bryan and his legacy and really changed my mind about a thousand things that I thought about Bryan that I did not know. They were just kind of things rolling around in my head. They were not actually bits of knowledge but were assumptions here and there.

Albert Mohler:   Well that’s a part, again, of what makes this work so interesting and as a conservative, I was very, very please and appreciated your attention to American conservatism. I was a bit surprised, honestly, about your analysis of American liberalism or progressivism, especially in more recent decades. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, I guess I’m about to, but it seemed to me that you were demonstrating a great deal of frustration from the left about the left and that’s incredibly interesting too. I mean frankly, any conservative who wants a judgment on the Clintons, can find nothing that lands stronger blows than your work. Tell me about American liberalism in the early 21st century. What does that look like now?

Jill Lepore:            Yeah, it’s one of those things where, again, I was trying very hard not to write a partisan account and to not write with some political agenda of my own but to do my best to, I think, really cross a partisan bridge and I’ll stand on that bridge and I’ll buy some space on that bridge, invite people to join me on the bridge and kind of look at either side of the river and sort of see things clearly so I’m pleased that there were parts of the book that you agreed with and also pleased there were parts of the book you didn’t agree with because I’m quite sure liberals feel the same way and that’s fine, right? I’m not writing to please a political persuasion. I’m writing to document and offer an argument that comes to me from my reading of the evidence and engage in debate about it. I was speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy last year, maybe the year before and I was delivering the George Bancroft Memorial lecture. Bancroft is an American historian and has been secretary of the Navy and, or actually secretary of war, anyways there’s this annual lecture and it’s a great honor to go to the Naval Academy. It’s a beautiful place and the lecture was, it was beautiful historic hall and the midshipmen come in and their blues, they’re required to come and everybody comes and they just look completely sharp. They were fantastic.

Jill Lepore:            And I gave a lecture that was essentially reading the introduction to this book and then, and that just takes a few minutes but then I said, I want to talk about American history comprising ten big debates and here are what I think the big debates are, I showed five. This debate, and this debate, and this debate. And I asked them, so now it comes to the discussion portion of the evening, what do you think the election of 2016 if we would say that 2016 was mostly, was the 11th debate of these big epic kind of turns in American history. What was the debate about? Who was the question being debated? And we had a great conversation.

Jill Lepore:            And afterwards, various midshipmen came up to talk to me and afterwards filing out of the room and one young man came up and said I mean this as a compliment, been in this room for two hours with you and I just got to say, I have no idea what your politics are and I hope you’ll tell me but I just wanted to say that because it just doesn’t happen very often. And it was about the sweetest thing anyone has ever said. It was so gracious of him to point that out. That is the commitment that I made in undertaking this project. This is supposed to be a history that, you know they say it about Bancroft’s original History of the United States that it voted for Jackson on every page so Bancroft himself was quite a partisan as a historian.

Jill Lepore:            I think this was a long evasive answer to your question of the state of American liberalism. I think American liberalism is in a pretty significant crisis, I mean so is conservatism, I don’t think-

Albert Mohler:   Yes.

Jill Lepore:            -either of these political purgations is in good healthy shape. I think people like the parties, the description, I forget whose this is but both are hollowed out. They’re quite hard on the outside and quite empty on the inside. I think describes both the Republican and the Democratic party at this moment and also conservatism and liberalism. And the process by which that happened interests me as a historian. How to fix it completely alludes me as a citizen.

Albert Mohler:   Well it was just very interesting to me to see and I’ve read so much, I read you in the New Yorker, I’ve read your other works, so I had some context in which I was reading these things. I want to tell you my biggest surprise in the book is your convincing argument which shows up all the way in the beginning when you talk about king numbers all the way through the book. Well you go at public opinion and the measuring of public opinion and the manipulation of public opinion, politics by the numbers, as such a gray political and moral threat. I’m thoroughly convinced by the time I reach the end of your book.

Jill Lepore:            I guess I do, I’m worried that I get a little overheated about that but I find that awfully troubling. I mean I tried not to cast my contemporary concern back too far onto the past but it was fascinating to see where that comes from and the leaps forward that it makes but I mean even if you just think about this all, I remember during the Brett Kavanaugh, the second round of hearings with the Christine Blasey Ford testimony. The people would keep saying well Twitter saw it. You know, and the numbers of Senate Judiciary were consulting Twitter all the time to decide, to take a pulse of the country or something and first of all, Twitter is no measure of anybody’s public opinion. It’s probably the worst possible measure I could think of as a proxy for the American electorate. It completely disenfranchises the 84% of Americans who don’t have Twitter accounts and never will, because it’s completely uninteresting to them. So there’s all kinds of problems with that.

Jill Lepore:            But then, the Constitution doesn’t subject the nomination of Supreme Court Justices to public opinion. That’s just actually unconstitutional like the Senate Judiciary Committee’s supposed to make a decision. The Supreme Court, they’re just not answerable to public opinion. That’s part of the separation of powers. So, even if Twitter were a proxy for the electorate, we don’t have a plebiscite and we don’t even have an election nor do we elect our judge. The series of assumptions that lie behind, like the reporter writing the story who says, well, this person on the Senate Judiciary Committee thinks that Twitter, is being moved because of Twitter. Somehow, has swallowed some idea that everything is reducible to some kind of a metric and in the end it’s like a likeability factor. I find that quite frightening because I am a constitutionalists at the end of the day and there’s a lot that is protected by way of abuses of authority and the stepping of one branch of government on another.

Jill Lepore:            So it just seems, maybe a strange example to give, but that just seemed to me so, I think frankly shocking that anyone would say we’re choosing our Supreme Court Justices by Twitter now? And not put a question mark at the end of that sentence.

Albert Mohler:   Well I don’t think anyone had done what you did in this book and really kind of driving that question through so much of American history. Even the arrival of the machine age and the ability to count and to tabulate and of course the ability to measure all these things. Walter Lippmann, Lews, Time Magazine, you go through the whole thing and before you know it this mass opinion becomes itself a machine and at the end of the book you actually use some of the most horrifying language I’ve read in a long time, the nation had lost its way in the politics of mutually assured epistemological destruction. Now that’s the kind of phrase only a theologian could love but that’s exactly right. It’s that mutually assured epistemological destruction. If there is something to fear in our contemporary political scene, it certainly must be that.

Jill Lepore:            Yeah. I think it’s a very reasonable fear to hold.

Albert Mohler:   So where do you take the story from here? Obviously you had to finish the book, you turned it in, and that means over a year ago, in all likelihood, and so the way history is moving these days, it doesn’t wait for anyone. So if you were to give us as a final word some idea of where you think the American experiment is headed, what would you think?

Jill Lepore:            I do think the tricky part right now is that the partisan divisions that are crippling good government or rendering good government essentially impossible to conduct. Were built manually, by hand, by specific people with specific political hopes and aspirations and even commitments and ideas, who hope to gain adherence and worked hard to build lists, mailing lists and precinct lists and so made a decision to use highly emotional issues to get out voters to vote to win elections and I think that happens on both the left and the right in the 1970s and 1980s, that’s part of the book I call battle lines. Those really hard lines over what I think or most Americans, whichever side of partisan divide you fall on, feel like urgent life and death issues. That divide though, built by hand is now done automatically by machine. That sort of giant polarization machine that the internet has become, kind of been jerry-rigged into.

Jill Lepore:            So now we have a kind of automated political divide and I think real change, a kind of renewal of liberalism, a reform of conservatism, those changes I think need to happen to kind of shake loose from the machine. That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of people working with good will toward one another. Some good faith in the system of government.

Albert Mohler:   We can certainly agree that we should hope for that and in that sense I certainly share that hope with you. And I have to tell you that I am a bit envious of the students in your classroom there at Harvard. If you can write like this and talk as you do, you’ve got to be a magnificent classroom teacher so I just want to say that with respect as a teacher and an institutional president, I just really admire what you’ve done here. I really appreciate the fact that you deal with ideas and I want to thank you especially today for joining me for Thinking in Public.

Jill Lepore:            Well thanks so much for having me, it’s been a real treat.

Albert Mohler:   It probably says more about me than anything when I tell you that even as a young boy I voraciously read history at the expense of almost everything else. As a teenager I came across the three volume History of the United States by Daniel Boorstin who later became the Librarian of Congress and I have been reading ever since I was very young, history after history. The one volume histories or the multi-volume single author works of American history are increasingly rare. Jill Lepore in this book tells us why. It is because there’s been a push back against the very idea of telling a story that way. A push back against the idea that a seasoned historian at the end of his or her career would write such a history and, frankly, there’s a push against the very idea of a consensus narrative about American history.

Jill Lepore, the historian before this book, is an illustration of giving attention to the smaller stories. The big ideas, but still, the higher stories. The untold stories. The voices yet unheard. The aspects of popular culture that have not been taken with adequate seriousness but in this new book, These Truths, Jill Lepore steps back and as historian and professor, looks at those three ideas that she says were at the very beginning of the American experiment and by the time she finishes, several hundred pages later, she has followed through the logic of those ideas. The ideas of political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people are not just words, they’re not just philosophical concepts, they become at one point or another, more haltingly in some places, more rapidly in other, inconsistently here, more consistently there, they become the defining issues of the American experiment that by the time you come to the end of the book, the question is, where do we go now? The right kind of history is the unfolding story that finally gets to us and then puts upon us the burden of what happens from this point onward.

Professor Lepore’s previous works and her writing for the New Yorker demonstrate the fact that she knows a good story when she sees one and of course as you’re looking at this book, one of the achievements is there are really hundreds of smaller stories within the overarching big story. That makes the book a page turner. It really makes you want to go from one story to the next and these stories are not just anecdotal, they serve the purposes of her narrative. They give voice. They help to articulate, flesh out, by metaphor and illustration, by anecdote, by the right quotation. They give flesh and voice to the story of the American experiment.

In an interview she gave about five years ago, Jill Lepore spoke of the historian’s challenge in speaking of the decision of what gets saved and what gets lost. Now just think about that for a moment. What gets saved and what gets lost. Well, it’s simply true. Profoundly true. Irrefutably true to say that most of human experience throughout most of human history is lost. Certainly lost to the historian, lost in this sense to subsequent generations. Just walk through a cemetery, any cemetery, unless it’s in the smallest of places in which you are most at home, you are going to realize there are untold stories that will never now be told. Not with human breath anyway.

The historical verdict changes over time. Which stories should be saved, which stories should be lost. The explanation of what gets saved and what gets lost, well that’s at least partly ideological and as we’ve also come to understand it’s partly economic. It’s irrefutably political and it’s very important that when Jill Lepore writes this new one volume history of the United States, very much in the background, if not in the foreground is the fact that all of this is an ongoing dispute. It’s an ongoing historical argument and this is where Christians understand the importance of this argument even beyond a secular understanding. It’s because history is not just unfolding events. It is not just a human story. Christians have to place our understanding of history within the accountability of the entirety of the Christian worldview and we come to understand that the historicity of the Christian, the historicity of Biblical faith is indeed an indication of just how seriously we have to take history.

That also means that we understand that history can never be read without a moral lens, as we are moral creatures. We’re going to be encountering, considering, evaluating everything through a moral frame work. There’s a moral framework in this book. Jill Lepore in her previous writings, and in her ongoing writing for the New Yorker is very clear about her own moral judgments and she identifies very clearly with a very progressive understanding of morality in 21st century America but she gives credit, she gives voice, she gives story to those who would disagree with her. Even in moral and contemporary political conservatism in America. She also understands that there is a threat to the very idea of America when she thinks about those three founding ideas and then the contemporary expression of those ideas, there’s a great threat in what she calls this mutually assured epistemological destruction. I think there is no doubt that as much as liberals and conservatives would disagree with one another about so many of the events, issues, personages, interpretations, even the meta narrative of this book, we both have a deep investment in avoiding that mutually assured epistemological destruction. The destruction of the very idea of truth, the destruction of the very understanding of meaning, the destruction of the ability to tell a story that is true or false even within the context of all the postmodern concerns.

Well that mutually assured epistemological destruction is the destruction of more than epistemology. The understanding of truth. It is the obliteration and obscuring of the human story.

As I said to Professor Lepore at the end of our conversation, I think she is probably just about incapable of an uninteresting thought and thankfully, that comes through her pen in this book, it comes through her voice in this conversation and I really appreciate the generosity of her spirit when she says that she hopes this starts a conversation that continues, both in agreement and in disagreement and in that massive terrain between both agreement and disagreement.

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and many thanks to my guest, Professor Jill Lepore of Harvard University for thinking with me today. I just want to remind you that archived at under Thinking in Public, is an entire bank account of previous conversations. If you found this one interesting, I can guarantee it, you’re going to find others interesting as well. Again, that’s at right under Thinking in Public.

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Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.