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This America: The Case for the Nation

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At a time of much despair over the future of liberal democracy, Jill Lepore makes a stirring case for the nation in This America, a follow-up to her much-celebrated history of the United States, These Truths.

With dangerous forms of nationalism on the rise, Lepore, a Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, repudiates nationalism here by explaining its long history—and the history of the idea of the nation itself—while calling for a “new Americanism”: a generous patriotism that requires an honest reckoning with America’s past.

Lepore begins her argument with a primer on the origins of nations, explaining how liberalism, the nation-state, and liberal nationalism, developed together. Illiberal nationalism, however, emerged in the United States after the Civil War—resulting in the failure of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the restriction of immigration. Much of American history, Lepore argues, has been a battle between these two forms of nationalism, liberal and illiberal, all the way down to the nation’s latest, bitter struggles over immigration.

Defending liberalism, as This America demonstrates, requires making the case for the nation. But American historians largely abandoned that defense in the 1960s when they stopped writing national history. By the 1980s they’d stopped studying the nation-state altogether and embraced globalism instead. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation,” Lepore tellingly writes, “nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.” But liberalism is still in there, Lepore affirms, and This America is an attempt to pull it out. “In a world made up of nations, there is no more powerful way to fight the forces of prejudice, intolerance, and injustice than by a dedication to equality, citizenship, and equal rights, as guaranteed by a nation of laws.”

A manifesto for a better nation, and a call for a “new Americanism,” This America reclaims the nation’s future by reclaiming its past.

160 pages, Hardcover

First published May 1, 2019

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About the author

Jill Lepore

45 books1,132 followers
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best non-fiction book on race, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War (Knopf, 1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize, and the Berkshire Prize and a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Award.

A co-founder of the magazine Common-place, Lepore’s essays and reviews have also appeared in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, the Journal of American History and American Quarterly. Her research has been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Pew Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, the Charles Warren Center, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. She has served as a consultant for the National Park Service and currently serves on the boards of the National Portrait Gallery and the Society of American Historians.
Jill lives in Cambridge,Massachusetts.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 270 reviews
Profile Image for Marks54.
1,319 reviews1,152 followers
June 16, 2019
Jill Lepore has written a new book arguing for an American “nationalism”. The book is short and more like an extended essay than a full book. That is OK. “This America” is an excellent book and a quick and enjoyable read.

The book examines two senses of nationalism. One an exclusive nationalism, based on language, religion, race, or some other catchall category. The other is an inclusive nationalism, associated by some with liberal democracy, which argues for a broad national membership that asks citizens to share the core beliefs of a country, irrespective of their demographic, class, or historical origins. The idea of nationalism is a recent one and over the past two centuries or so, exclusive nationalisms have played a large role in wars, oppression, enslavement, colonialism, and other ills of the modern world. Inclusive nationalism and liberal democracy, Lepore suggests, do not have these associations. The trouble is that US history has had more than its share of both types of nationalism and that the America of “e pluribus unum” is a close neighbor to the American of Manifest Destiny and slavery.

A critical argument of the book is that with the end of the Cold War and other developments, there has been a tendency among historians and other scholars to take the case for liberal inclusive nationalism as given and to assume that exclusive aggressive nationalism is now defunct. The problem is that the other nationalism never went away and in recent years has returned with a vengeance into US political life as well as in Europe and Russia. As a result, the case must again be made for an inclusive American nationalism and against a darker nationalist argument. These arguments are not new with Lepore’s new book but have been around for a while. It is refreshing to have them argued so powerfully by Professor Lepore.

The immediate impetus for the book appears to have been an appearance in October 2018 by the current President in which he claimed that he was now a nationalist and urged his supporters to use that word, clearly a reference to exclusive nationalism. If this is so, then it suggests that in spite of himself the President may eventually help enrich our intellectual life by attracting other thinkers to enter the fray and write in response to his rhetoric. I look forward to that.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,778 reviews211 followers
October 27, 2020
Jill Lepore's Case For The Nation

The renowned historian Jill Lepore's 2018 book "These Truths" was the first single volume history in decades of the United States from Christopher Columbus' voyage in 1492 to the election to the presidency of Donald Trump in 2016. Lepore has followed-up her history with a much shorter but equally ambitious work "This America: The Case for the Nation" (2019) in which she argues for the importance of writing a broad-based national history of the type she wrote in "These Truths".

It is important to understand how Lepore's question arises. As she explains, American historians had essentially abandoned the project of writing a national history, turning instead to larger globally-based histories or to smaller-based histories of particular groups or narrower issues. Among the reasons for this shift was a strong distrust for the concept of nationalism. Historians came to distrust nationalism due to the terrible wars and hatreds with a nationalistic source in the 20th century. With historians moving away from thinking about the United States as a nation, Lepore argues, the way was cleared for less scholarly and thoughtful writers to appropriate a nationalistic theme for themselves. For Lepore, this result has in fact happened with unfortunate results. In "This America", more an expanded essay and a meditation than a full development of an idea, argues for the importance of thinking and writing about American nationhood.

"This America" is a fascinating, thoughtful book and a worthy successor to Lepore's "These Truths". But the book is also cluttered. It constitutes in part a short history of its own from the United States from the early days to the present focusing on the different ways Americans have understood nationhood. The book is also a historiography -- a history of the ways of writing history -- in the way American historians have approached their task beginning with George Bancroft's history written during the time of Andrew Jackson. Lepore's scope and erudition are inspiring. The treatment of many figures in the book were rushed, however, to get to a point. I wanted to hear more about some of the ideas of the people Lepore describes before moving on. This is another way of saying that there may be more nuances to the concept of the American nation and in writing about the American nation than are explored in this short essay. And the history, historiography, and discussion of nations and states and their relationship is difficult to integrate in the brevity of the book.

Lepore finds a uniqueness and a value to the United States in the way it moved from thirteen virtually separate colonies through the formation of a confederation to the formation of a nation. She sees an America founded on Enlightenment ideals with free individuals endowed with rights irrespective of race, creed, sex or national background. America was a beacon to individuals sharing these ideals and wanting to live by them rather than a nation defined by particular religion or ethnicity and, especially, defined by the hatred of others. From the beginning, however, America fell short in many ways in living up to its commitments in its treatment of slaves, native Americans, and prospective immigrants, among other peoples. Lepore wants Americans to think of themselves as a nation and to see how we have fallen short in realizing the ideals we have professed and to work towards doing better.

As I understand her, Lepore argues for a renewed appreciation of love of country and patriotism than has been common in recent years. In short, patriotism should not be left only to the political right. Patriotism and a sense of nationhood should be based, in Lepore's account, on an understanding of the values on which the country was founded and, especially, on the ways in which the country has historically fallen well short of realizing these values. I was reminded of the philosopher Richard Rorty who made a similar point in his book "Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America." Rorty's politics may have been of a more left-leaning cast than Lepore's, but they share a commitment to the importance of country and patriotism.

Without taking away from Lepore's emphasis on the way the United States has fallen short of realizing its ideals, I found more important Lepore's emphasis on love of country and on the importance of studying the United States as a nation. These insights are vital and too often ignored or deprecated. Lepore's book sometimes is too dogmatic and brisk in taking specific policy positions with which, as she says at one point, reasonable persons may disagree. Still at its most valuable level, Lepore's book teaches the importance of Americans loving and respecting their country while working to correct its flaws and injustices.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for CoachJim.
157 reviews88 followers
January 21, 2021
At a campaign rally in the fall of 2018 Donald Trump said

“You know what a globalist is, right? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that. You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned— it’s called a ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really, we’re not suppose to use that word. You know what I am?” He poked his chest. “I’m a nationalist, okay?”

This was during a time when his campaign was constantly touting building a wall to stop immigrants from entering the country.

Jill LePore in this short book outlines the history of the word “nationalist”. Originally the word was sometimes used to mean patriotism, but in the early part of the twentieth century with the rise of fascism it began to mean

“less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and a hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial, or religious majority.”

In the sixties after decades of white liberals failure to confront racism, black nationalism surged. In 1964 Malcolm X said:

“If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they’re already Americans: Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren’t Americans yet.”

Histories recently have not been about the United States but merely in the United States. An example given are the books by Fox News’s Bill Reilly starting with Killing Lincoln.

The history of the United States requires a reckoning of its sorrows and it glories. It must tell the truth about the “hideous mistakes, the frightful wrongs, and the great and beautiful things” that make up this country. It requires that we look both backwards and forward. If people care about this country they must start asking and answering the questions that matter. Otherwise the Donald Trumps will

declare America a carnage. They’ll call immigrants “animals” and other countries “shitholes”. They call themselves “nationalists.” They’ll say they can make America great again.

This book is very short and a fast read. The author does skim over lightly some of the points. I would have liked a little more analysis and explanation of some points. I understand it is a book that was expanded from a lecture. Nevertheless it is an interesting perspective on the current writing of American History.
Profile Image for Ryan Boissonneault.
185 reviews1,970 followers
May 31, 2019
In 2018, Jill Lepore wrote what I would consider to be the best single-volume history of the United States, titled These Truths. The theme was clear, that the US, despite its messy history, was founded on admirable principles that it has slowly and arduously fought to live up to—and continues to do so. The result was an objective history, one that didn’t hide from the atrocities or ignore the positives, centered around a unifying and inspiring theme.

It is in comparison to this 789-page masterpiece that makes it difficult to fairly judge Lepore’s latest book, This America: The Case for the Nation. At a short 138 pages, This America is more a long-form essay than a book, as the author acknowledges. It also, in what is both a positive and a negative, repeats much of the content and underlying themes from These Truths.

On its own merits, though, as a short book, This America is an exceptional work. Lepore has become one of my favorite authors, and in this book she packs a lot of scholarship in a limited number of pages, presenting a concise history of US nationalism and a strong case for a new Americanism.

The book begins with a warning delivered in 1986 by Stanford historian Carl N. Degler, who said, “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job.”

The problem is that serious historians, put off by twentieth-century ethnic nationalism, had stopped writing national histories, opting instead to write either global histories or else focus narrowly on racial or class-based histories. As Lepore wrote:

“Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will….When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”

One of the consequences of this is that nationalism and patriotism have been conflated. The terms used to mean the same thing, but as Lepore wrote, with the rise of fascism in the early twentieth century, “nationalism had come to mean something different from patriotism, something fierce, something violent; less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and a hatred of people within your own country who don’t belong to an ethnic, racial, or religious majority.”

Patriotism has been co-opted by ethnic nationalists who create the impression that they are the only ones who truly care about their country. And those who seek a unified national narrative have no alternative liberal view, as the intellectual left has given up on the project.

This is part of the reason I hold These Truths in such high regard; it provides this national narrative in the liberal tradition from a serious scholar. And like I mentioned above, it doesn’t hide from the atrocities America has committed, but it doesn’t focus on them at the exclusion of the better story: America living up to its founding ideals. As Lepore wrote:

“A nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and offering asylum to anyone suffering from persecution is a beacon to the world. This is America at its best: a nation that welcomes dissent, protects free speech, nurtures invention, and makes possible almost unbelievable growth and prosperity. But a nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy at every turn.”

Nations get things wrong—as any account of US history can attest to—and we’re probably getting plenty of things wrong now. But as long as the rights of free speech and press are protected, those wrongs can be challenged and corrected. The history of the nation IS that struggle for continual correction and moral progress. Instead of looking back at contempt for the injustices that plague our history, we can in equal measure celebrate the progress we’ve made based on our constitutional and moral identity.

Rather than making America great again, the goal is to make it better than before, through constant vigilance in ensuring that the founding principles are not violated and that we strive to get closer to the founding ideals of equality, equal treatment under the law, and judgment on the basis of character alone.

The demonizing rhetoric of the ethnic nationalist, full of hatred and fear and contempt and irrationality—rhetoric that could not be more different from the language of the founders—must be countered with the opposite: reason and hope. The country was founded, and has made great progress, on a “deeply moral commitment to equality and dignity.” As Lepore wrote, “the United States holds to these truths: all of us are equal, we are equal as citizens, and we are equal under the law...anyone who affirms these truths and believes that we should govern our common life together belongs in this country. This is America’s best idea.”
Profile Image for Raymond.
330 reviews238 followers
October 26, 2019
"To love this particular nation is to love the world."

"This America is a community of belonging and commitment, held together by the strength of our ideas and by the force of our disagreements."

Nationalism has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years especially with the rise of Donald Trump and far right populist figures in Europe. If you are like me then you probably think the word nationalism brings with it a negative connotation, you and I are partly right. Lepore argues in this little book that there are two nationalisms: the illiberal, ethnic version that we all know too well and the more positive liberal, civic nationalism. She chronicles the history of these two nationalisms and the struggle that historians have in studying it. This is a great follow up to her book These Truths: A History of the United States. Lepore is a great historian because she knows how to place our current moment in the grand timeline of United States' history.

Read more of my reviews on Ballasts for the Mind: https://medium.com/ballasts-for-the-mind
Profile Image for Dana Stabenow.
Author 96 books1,884 followers
April 28, 2021
A dense piece of longform journalism between hardcovers. Lepore makes a persuasive case for a return to liberalism by writing (and thereby teaching) a more inclusive history of the United States to reflect the entire American experience, not just the White one. She begins and ends with the 1987 speech Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered to the American Historical Association

...Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation.

The fascism, communism and totalitarianism that gave rise to World War II had so horrified historians that they had left writing about the formation of individual nations (nations being a relatively recent construct in the history of humankind, she points out) to concentrate on globalism. In the meantime, nationalism, or tribalism, was left to flourish unobserved, resulting in where we are today. She concludes

...if people who care about the nation's past and future and the endurance of liberal democratic nations don't start asking and answering those sorts of question, [Degler] warned, other people will. The'll declare America a carnage. They'll call immigrants "animals" and other countries "shitholes." They call themselves "nationlists." They'll say they can make America great again. Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.

I don't know that writing history as a true reflection of who we are is a cure-all for what ails us, and Lepore doesn't say it is. But it would be a start.
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews34 followers
August 19, 2019
A very erudite and thorough analysis of Nationalism, the American Dream and the history behind it. Oddly there was no mention of Howard Zinn's history. This is an honest expose' on some of the worst trends in governance. Ms. Lepore is a very important historian with a conscience who has done the work to back up her point of view. Her argument is undeniable for anyone who chooses to read books like this. The real problem is brought to the fore because those who need to read such books do not.
Profile Image for nmshafie.
178 reviews29 followers
June 15, 2021
You are not the only person who loves America... that's all she wants us to know. Loved this book.
Profile Image for Ryan Darnell.
97 reviews
June 19, 2019
Jill Lepore’s “This America” caught my eye as a quick read in my recent trip to Seattle. However, when I began reading, I realized that I’d need to read it with a more critical eye, as there are many sleights of hand that she uses to stultify the reader.

Lepore’s fault is not in her scholarship (historical research), it is in her philosophical approach, namely the use of logical fallacies. These intellectual shortcuts are innately flabby, and cursory digging will reveal that the emperor wears no clothes. Lepore depends mostly on appeals to emotion, capitalizing on the polarizing figure that is President Trump. She uses the abhorrence that her liberal readers have for him to connect him to fascism, without any evidence that he has done anything remotely comparable. This is categorically fear-mongering.

She also relies on the black/white fallacy by separating her historical persons into 1 of 2 camps, with no room for gray areas. She treats each of these individuals as bellwethers for her topic du jour. For example, on issues of race, she relies on the testimony of Martin Luther King Jr., but never mentions the fact that he was a Republican, and that the majority of racists he was battling were Democrats. She relies heavily on Frederick Douglass, but never mentions that he never saw himself as a victim due to his race. In fact, Douglass is ever ebullient to the power of the national story to awaken slaves from their slumber and take responsibility for their actions.

Without entering into spoilers, her argument largely hinges on her desire to end nationalism altogether, but she never provides reasonable alternatives that are attuned to how humans really behave. For such a scholar of her bonafides, she ignores the importance of a national story in compelling others to care for the other. Social science has largely verified that humans are incapable of caring for more than, roughly, 150 individuals (see Dunbar’s number). It seems to me that many of the radical left are satisfied with destroying statues and histories, but never recommend anything to supplant the national story. There can be no alternative, as long as humans continue to be fallible. We are left with no heroes and no story.

Oblivion is not the answer. If we are to be unmoored from everything that unifies us, then we are just lost in the void. This is an ultimately unhopeful, untimely place for all mankind.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
November 7, 2019
I’m not sure why this book was necessary. I read these truths, which was good and super long. This seems like maybe it was a cut chapter or 3 from the book that justifies grand histories. I really didn’t learn all that much—it was too short for a stand-alone book and too long for an epilogue
444 reviews115 followers
July 10, 2019
A sombre, clear-eyed examination of the development of the modern idea of a "Nation" and how that idea has changed overtime in America. Lepore quickly covers the varying and frequently contradictory ways in which Americans have defined themselves as a nation: including, on one hand, such articulations as Lincoln's Gettysburg formulation of the U.S. as "a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," and on the other hand, the more nativist, "white nationalist" exclusivism that has characterized much of the country's history.

Lepore's purpose here is not simply to provide an overview of an idea but to argue for its critical importance. How did we get from Lincoln's definition to Trump's "You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word."? The inflection point, such as it is, can be identified. In particular, Lepore takes to task liberal historians who, beginning in the 70s and 80s, stopped thinking and writing about the American Nation. Believing "nationalism" to be a dead or dying idea and "globalism" to be irresistably ascendant, they focused instead on identity history, regional history, and so on: all worthy endeavors, to be sure, but narrow (and narrowing) in their scope.

Late in the book she quotes historian Michael Kazin: "Having abandoned patriotism, the left lost the ability to pose convincing alternatives for the nation as a whole." To this Lepore offers as succinct a summary of the book's argument as one could hope for: Appeals to nationalism are dangerous. But not thinking about the nation, and not learning from how all of the people in the United States have thought about the nation, is more dangerous. Writing national history creates plenty of problems. But not writing national history creates more problems, and those problems are worse.

"This America" is really an extended essay -- there are only 138 pages of text -- but it is a learned, passionate, and necessary argument in favor of a new, more honest, inclusive, and liberal (in the classical sense) American nationalism. As the bestselling proliferation in recent decades of fallacious, incomplete, and biased "histories" (e.g., Bill O'Reilly's Killing series), as well as the political and cultural trends that led to the election of Trump, have shown, people still think of themselves in national terms. They still hunger for a vision of the American Nation they can embrace and under which they might be brought together. When serious historians, particulary liberals, stopped talking about the Nation, they left a vaccuum that illiberal commentators and poilticians were happy to fill with myths about the country's past, hate-filled, divisive, and counterfactual messages about the present, and self-serving depictions of The Dangers from which the nation needs defending.

It's past time that a contervailing narrative be created on the left.
Profile Image for Michael Kress.
Author 1 book11 followers
August 3, 2019
This is another short book I just sat in Books-A-Million and read, because its a cool environment with good coffee, and I didn't have to pay the steep price for a brand new book. It's about the historical differences between patriotism and nationalism. Before reading this, I didn't see much of a difference between the two. After reading it, I am more aware of the historical significance of both concepts. The book is packed with historical facts about America, its people, and the role many public figures played in social progress; it all follows the common theme of nationalism or the lack thereof, and how its history led up to current events. Although I was bombarded with a lot of information that I could use in political or historical debates or conversations, I don't feel my worldview was changed or enhanced in a major way. We should do our civic duty towards or country and care about the effect it has on the rest of the world; I consider myself a global citizen. I agree with what Doug Stanhope says in this video about nationalism:
So yeah, patriotism is cool but nationalism sucks.
422 reviews6 followers
August 18, 2019
An interesting little book, which is more of a very long essay, dealing with the orgins of nations and nationalism. The book references other authors that have told the story of American history down through the ages. (These are helpfully all listed in the reference section.) The main point that Ms. Lepore makes is that when the country breaks down into the tribalism of nationalism then the ideals on which a country is founded - equality, citizenship and equal rights disappear. It does not matter if the country is Germany, Rowanda, or the United States, when these principals disappear a tribal nationalism takes hold which results in inequality, loss of rights and death. The book is short and thus easily read in a day or two, but it left we wanting more than this small book offers. My ending thought is to be passionate about your liberty, don't sit on the sideline, do something to preserve the nations founding principals.

A friend loaned me this book.
Profile Image for Henri.
107 reviews
November 18, 2019
Lepore has a great understanding of what USA is and always meant to become. In this short essay she outlines the history of nationalism as a term and as a policy both worldwide and in the United States of America. He chronologically looks at the rise and development of the idea in the country and it's influence on USA in the last 300 years. It's a fantastic short read and is a decent primer on where the strongly nationalist ideas in the contemporary American political scene come from.

Would highly recommend it to everyone, it is short and sweet. This is a defence of history as I love it and I was always going to love this book. I might purchase Lepore's recent "These Truths" now that I really enjoyed this little taster.
Profile Image for Rick.
19 reviews1 follower
August 18, 2019
A brief but very important book that I believe should be read and pondered by every American.
Profile Image for Marvin.
1,886 reviews56 followers
January 25, 2021
I am a huge fan of Jill Lapore's work, based on her brilliant essays in The New Yorker and her magnificent 900+-page survey of American history, These Truths. This little book, an extended essay, really (138 pages), is good, but somehow not as good as I would have expected. I don't really have any bone to pick with it, but it's often just not that interesting, even to this sometime student of nationalism; it often (but not consistently) seems to be addressed primarily to professional historians; and it shows signs of haste in production, with perhaps a lack of revision and editing. But it's still worth the few hours required to read it, even though professional reviewers have been no kinder in their assessments than I have been (see https://bookmarks.reviews/reviews/all...).
Profile Image for Eliot.
80 reviews4 followers
April 12, 2020
A convincing and wide-ranging meta-history of how historians and writers have built up the idea of America over time. It reads a bit like staring at a giant tapestry woven in pictograms, in a way that reveals the weaver's underlying pattern. What is a nation? What is liberalism? Progressivism? Nationalism? Where has America succeeded and failed at living out its lofty ideals? Lots of what the book presents is not entirely new to me, but the way Lepore compressed and connects concepts is a joy to watch. Not to mention her flair for dropping in really fun historical facts for context.

This book is, above all, a call to take responsibility for the narrative of America, repudiating the imperfections and grave mistakes in our history, but also reclaiming a new Americanism that works for the needs of the 21st century, to keep the experiment going for another few generations.
Profile Image for Guy.
679 reviews31 followers
March 1, 2021
Boeiende, goed geschreven geschiedenis van invullingen die het begrip nationalisme de voorbije 250 jaar kreeg in de VS. De natie was altijd al een vat vol tegenstrijdigheden, met grote morele ambities ("We hold these truths to be self-evident,...") die sterk contrasteerden met de turbulente werkelijke situatie. Enkel het slotpleidooi voor een nieuw Amerikaans patriottisme blijft na al het voorgaande dan frustrerend vaag.
Profile Image for Steve Greenleaf.
221 reviews67 followers
July 4, 2019
I don't know if American historian Jill Lepore had her book in mind as a perfect read to help us celebrate Independence Day (aka The 4th). I consider the 4th a lovely (or more likely, hot and muggy) day to sit and read a thoughtful reflection about our nation, an appropriate way to celebrate the holiday--at least until later in the day, when it's time for some barbeque and fireworks.

This short work allowed me to finish my American history reading project early. At 138 pages of text, it's a brief read. But don't let its brevity fool you: it packs an essential and well-considered argument into a small space. As I write this on July 4th, I realize that it provides a perfect reflection and celebration and accounting of America's virtues and vices. I'll quote liberally from her text because it provides a pithy consideration of our nation's history. (And quite a significant word this is--nation.)

Lepore defines her undertaking as “ three outsize tasks, things I haven't done much lately, things that seemed to me in need of doing. It explains the origins of nations. It offers a brief history of American nationalism. And it makes the case for the nation, and the enduring importance of the United States and of American civic ideals, but arguing against nationalism, and for liberalism." (Preface). We realize with her opening that Lepore isn't reluctant to jump into to the fray, especially given the willingness of some now in power to celebrate nationalism. She goes on to describe her project as "at once an argument and a plea, a reckoning with American history, the nation at its worst, and a call for a new Americanism, as tough-minded and openhearted as the nation at its best." [Preface].

Lepore opens her argument by considering the history of nationalism, which doesn't come into use at all until the late 18th-century and that doesn't come into everyday use until well into the 19th-century, and then mostly in Europe. This is the era in which the nation-state--the idea of a political entity defined by a particular people--came into fruition. Before this, religions and dynastic families established larger political entities (i.e., holdings of great families like Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and (until the French Revolution), the Bourbons, for instance). Lapore is quick to note that this enthusiasm for the nation-state and its attendant nationalism became entangled with the idea of patriotism. But Lapore acts quickly to separate these two. She writes:

[S]ometimes people confuse nationalism with patriotism. There is nothing wrong and all kinds of things right with loving the place where you live and the people you live with and wanting that place and those people to thrive so it's easy to confuse nationalism and patriotism, especially because they once meant more or less the same thing. But in the early decades of the 20th century, with the rise of fascism in Europe, nationalism has come to mean something different from patriotism something fierce something violent: less a love of your own country than a hatred of other countries and their people and hatred of people within your own country who don't belong to an ethnic, racial, or religious majority. 22- 23.
This assessment is if anything too weak. I prefer the more focused contrast drawn by John Lukacs:

Patriotism is defensive; nationalism is aggressive. Patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a “people”, justifying many things, a political and ideological substitute for religion. Patriotism is old-fashioned (and, at time and in some places, aristocratic); nationalism is modern and populist. In one sense patriotic and national consciousness may be similar; but in anther sense, more and more apparent after 1870, national consciousness began to affect more and more people who, generally, had been immune to that before—as, for example, many people within the multinational empire of Austria-Hungary. It went deeper than class consciousness. Here and there it superseded religious affiliations, too. John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, 36.

But however carefully one parses the distinction between nationalism and patriotism, there's no doubt that nationalism became the dominant trend. Lepore describes the creation of the nation-state as the attempt to create a common people (by ties of language and history) and to graft a state upon such a people. The problem, however, is that there are no "pure" peoples. Languages, cultures, religions, and were diverse throughout Europe and in the Americas as well (and everywhere else as the idea of the nation-state spread throughout the world). As Lepore aptly describes the process, "Histories of nation-states are stories that hide the seems that stitched the nation to the state." 26-27.

The history of the United States of America provides an exemplary case in point. As Lepore notes,
"The American Revolution was an extraordinary turning point in the history of the world, a new beginning. But had but it had little to do with the idea of an American nation. . . . 'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; That among these are life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness .' for all its soaring, hallowed pros, the Declaration of Independence never described the United States as a nation and it invoked not national but universal ideas.” 29.

Much of early American history, up through the time of the Civil War, can be seen as the effort (of some) to transform These United States of America into The United States of America. The struggles were political and cultural--the cultural side was undertaken by historians, lexicographers (Webster), writers, and artists. The effort was to create a consciousness among the people that they were a part of a single nation. Lepore, however, also notes that some were not eager to join the national bandwagon, including some provincials (here and in Europe), and many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, some of whom, such as the Iroquois, had their own sense of nationhood.

Lepore shifts her focus to introduce "liberalism" into the equation. Such a fraught word demands an definition and justification, and she provides both:

Liberalism is the belief that people are good and should be free, and the people erect governments in order to guarantee that freedom. Nineteenth-century nationalism and modern liberalism were formed out of the same clay. Nations are collectives and liberalism concerns individuals; liberal nations are collections of individuals whose rights as citizens are guaranteed by the nation. Liberal governments require a popular mandate to rule: Liberal nations are self-governed. Their rise marked the end of monarchical rule. 40

But if formed out of the same client, nationalism and liberalism were molded into different shapes. Liberalism embraced a set of aspirations about liberty and democracy believed to be universal. . . But nationalism promotes attachment to a particular place, by insisting on national distinctions. How can a set of ideas believed to be universal undergird a national identity? Only if the people who subscribe to that setup ideas believe that, sooner or later, they will be everywhere adopted. 41

Thus, with the introduction of the inherent tension between liberalism and nationalism, between the universal and the particular, we have the conflict that will drive much of the narrative of American history and Lepore's work here. High ideals and realities of human finitude do not readily mix, and the nation has both. Idealists and strivers ready to exploit the vast resources that the land provides--later translated into immense technical achievements--mark one side of the American story, sometimes with nefarious ends. Lepore sums the problem up neatly:

A nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights and offering asylum to anyone suffering from persecution is a beacon to the world. This is America at its best: a nation that welcomes dissent, protects free speech, nurtures invention, and makes possible an almost unbelievable growth and prosperity. But a nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself to charges of hypocrisy at every turn . These charges did not lie outside the plot of the story of America, or underneath it. They are its plot, the history on which any twenty-first-century case for the American nation has to rest, a history of struggle and agony and courage and promise. 45-46.

This conflict between universal ideas and realities of particular groups and places found its bloodiest and most dramatic clash in the Civil War. Lepore has a somewhat different take on the secession by the Southern states, often described as "sectionalism." Lepore describes the situation as "The outbreak of the civil war led to charges of sectionalism against the rebellious South, but Lepore has a different take: "Southerners were nationalist, too. It's just that their nationalism, at the time, was what would now be termed illiberal, or ethnic, as against another liberal, or civic, nationalism. ” 57. And as Lepore goes on to document, this illiberal strain continues with Jim Crow laws and other forms of racism, the eugenics movement, and anti-immigration laws and movements.

Lepore briefly considers the historians of the early Cold War period (roughly from 1945 to about 1970), where men [sic] such as Arthur Schlesinger, Lionel Trilling (literary critic) Louis Hartz, and Richard Hofstadter set much of the tone of national debate. Lepore quotes from the Hofstadter review of Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.” 102. But as Lepore notes, these leading figures--all liberal in the sense that she defines--became overly optimistic about the decline of nationalism and illiberalism and the end of ideology (Daniel Bell) that they foresaw. Some today argue that liberalism and nationalism can thrive together. Israeli political philosopher and former cabinet member Yael Tamir, writing in his book, Liberal Nationalism, that “the liberal tradition, with its respect for personal autonomy, reflection, and choice, and the national tradition, with its emphasis on belonging, loyalty, and solidarity, although generally seen as mutually exclusive, can indeed accommodate one another.” 130. But the likes of Judith Shklar, Martha Nussbaum, and Tony Judt hold positions to the contrary. Lepore notes Judt’s conclusion that liberal nationalism is “nothing more than a thought experiment,” but still, she argues, the nation-state (or state-nation in the case of the U.S.), isn’t likely to disappear. The two ideals may find an uneasy truce. Lepore argues the in American history, “liberals have failed., time and again, to defeat illiberalism accept by making appeals to national aims and ends.” [131] In short, Lepore seems to accept that this troubles marriage must continue.

I'll end my review with an extended quote of Lepore from her peroration in the section she entitles "The New Americanism." Once you read it, consider its value and implications.

The United States is a nation founded on a revolutionary, generous, and deeply moral commitment to human equality and dignity. In the very struggles that constitute this nation’s history, in the very struggles that lie ahead, the United States holds to these truths: all of us are equal, we are equal as citizens, and we’re equal under the law. For all the agony of the nation’s past, these truths remain. Anyone who affirms these truths and believes that we should govern our common life together belongs in this country. This is America’s best idea. 135.
Frederick Douglass once offered his understanding of this nation: “A Government founded on justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for its existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and biggoted people among themselves.” [136]

In a world made up of nations, there is no more powerful way to fight the forces of prejudice, intolerance, and injustice then by a dedication to equality, citizenship, and equal rights, as guaranteed by a nation of laws. A new Americanism would mean a devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness, along with a commitment to national prosperity inseparable from an unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over. It would require a clear line reckoning with American history, it’s sorrows no less than its glories. A lie stands on one foot as Ben Franklin like to say, but truth stands upon two. A new Americanism would rest on a history that tells the truth, as best it can, about what W. E. B. DuBois called the hideous mistakes, the frightful wrongs, and the great and beautiful things that nations do. It would foster a spirit of citizenship and environmental stewardship and a set of civic ideals, and a love for one another, marked by benevalence and hope and a dedication to community and honesty. Working both backward and forward, it would know that right wrongs no man. [137]

Can you think of a better manifesto with which to mark Independence Day this July 4, 2019? I can't. Professor Lepore has provided us with a powerful beacon, and I hope we follow it.
Profile Image for Steve Scott.
910 reviews50 followers
July 19, 2022
I write this admitting this is the very first of Lepore's books I've ever read in it's entirety. That will change.

The book is short and small, at 150 pages, and perhaps a two and a half hour read at most. It is really just a long, but very meaty essay. In it she discusses definitions of nationalism and America's embrace of it in the 19th century to 2019.

America's great sin, it's mistreatment of aspirational citizens and citizens of color, figures heavily into her analysis. She gave me new insights into the country's history of racism and injustice, and I couldn't help notice the stark similarities between America today and America of roughly a hundred years ago. White supremacy receded a bit in the 1920's, only to resurge in the first and second decades of this century.

Clearly this book was a warning to all of us of the excesses of the last administration, but where it differs from others is that hers is a work drawing upon history, and it's a work to pick away at the national conscience...if there is one.

Today, 7/19/22, I finished a second reading of this work. I can count on two hands the number of books I've read twice in the last fifty years. My plan was to read it and then donate it to our local library. It ended up going back on my shelf. I'm not ready to let it go.

Note to audiobook listeners: I tried listening to her audiobook, "These Truths", but her style of audiobook narrating leaves much to be desired. She can't regulate her volume, and after reading loudly and clearly, she feels the need to drop down to almost a whisper at the end of a final sentence in a paragraph, apparently in order to lend some sort of emotional or dramatic emphasis to what she's reading.

As a result, her voice will go up to a respectable volume...then down...and it's an unremitting roller coaster. I'm old, and have the typical hearing loss attendant to people my age. When she'd drop her voice I'd simply lose everything she said. I can't fiddle with the volume when driving...and shouldn't have to.

I recommend you avoid the audiobooks if you have a hearing deficit.
Profile Image for Kim Williams.
196 reviews2 followers
August 29, 2019
Nationalism, for good or ill, has always been a part of our history. Often it has lead to the exclusion of those deemed to be "the other" in the name of protecting the sanctity of the nation. Jill Lepore takes us through the darkest moments of our history and how nationalism played a part in shaping those events. She also offers a revised definition of what American nationalism could and should be. A great read. Highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Joshua Greer.
195 reviews3 followers
June 15, 2019
Lepore does explains much in this short. I appreciate that there is hope in the end; much needed after the history of nationalism that unfolds. A worthy read to understanding some of the issues the country is facing today.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book127 followers
January 11, 2020
A compelling long essay (hardly a book, as Lepore concedes) that follows up on Lepore's masterful volume These Truths. I'd have to say that Lepore is probably my favorite present-day historian for her range, her creativity, and her urgent but responsible linking of the historian's task to contemporary politics.

This book is largely an extension of her recent Foreign Affairs essay, so if you have read that you probably have the gist of this. Lepore's argument is that historians have retreated so far from telling the history of the nation that the people who are now giving coherence and meaning to US history are charlatans, amateurs, and, most vexingly, nationalists. Lepore contends that historians are so skeptical of nationalism that they have now become fixated on transcending the nation in their own work: history is identity-based, transnational, global, local, but it rarely takes on the nation-state as its main object of study (there are of course, exceptions, but this is about the center of gravity in the field).

When you add in the increasingly garbled jargon of much history writing, the growing influence of theory, and the tendency toward deconstruction of things like the nation, you get a field that has lost its ability to communicate with the public, which very much still takes the nation-state as a meaningful concept for their lives, something not "constructed" but real (a good side note for historians: I don't think people care much if something is constructed). Her most important point is that if responsible historians refuse to write about the nation, or national history, then that task will be dominated by those hostile to liberalism. I think we can see that happening today on a large scale; if anyone defines the national narrative at the moment, it is neither liberals nor historians; it would either be the chauvinistic, America-first nationalism of Trump or the "Amerikkka" the sinful and evil narrative of the Left (especially the academic Left).

Lepore's broader project seems to be to reconcile liberals to the nation. She shows that much of early nationalism, from places like the US to Italy, was pioneered by liberal nationalists, who simultaneously believed in the universality of human rights and democracy while believing that those goals were most effectively and meaningfully pursued within the context of a nation. Lepore portrays liberalism and the nation as in tension, but not a full contradiction. LIberal goals and values can be pursued within a national framework if the nation is defined as open, tolerant, forward-thinking, justice-oriented. I thought she put this particularly well in saying: "To love this particular nation is to love the world. This paradox lies within all forms of liberal nationalism. A liberal nation is a nation in which anyone who affirms its civic ideals belongs."

Lepore puts into words a view of US history and modern politics that I have long struggled to articulate. Regardless of whether you agree with her, I think she's a model of how to communicate with a larger society that increasingly looks at academia as partisan, aloof, judgmental, and hostile to mainstream values. Historians cannot allow themselves to be mere scolds, nor can they simply resign themselves to "deconstruct" the nation and other concepts that give meaning and structure to the world. When people hear that the nation is a construct, most of what they think is "ok, yeah I get that, but so what? It is something I believe in, something I was raised in, I operate within a number of constructs, how else can a person live and function in a society." Lepore's greatest contribution is to show that the political question for the time being is not the nation v. no-nation, but what kind of nation shall we be. One other way to put it: the nation is the only game in town, you either play that game or you win. This doesn't mean that historians can't be critical or puncture mythologies or highlight wrongdoing (Lepore is all of these things in "These Truths). It means they should be more willing to write with the nation-state as a major interest and topic.
Profile Image for Heather.
352 reviews7 followers
December 31, 2019
I really enjoyed this short volume by Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, in which Lepore “explains the origins of nations...offers a brief history of nationalism...[and]...makes the case for the nation, and for the enduring importance of the United States and of American civic ideals, by arguing against nationalism, and for liberalism.”

Lepore also discusses the shift of American historical scholarship away from the telling of one national story, in hope of discouraging the nationalism that was so catastrophic in the years leading up to WWII. “But,” she argues, “when scholars stopped writing national history, other less scrupulous people stepped in,” rendering us vulnerable to demagogues.

The differences between nationalism and patriotism are explained, as are those between federalism and sectionalism and between liberalism and illiberalism. Through a series of accessible references to characters throughout our multidimensional history, it becomes apparent how the United States of America as a nation-state has always struggled between the two ends of each pair. Indeed, Lepore asserts, the idea and story of America IS this struggle.

Somehow, by describing how disappointingly far from the national promise of America we have always been, and by highlighting the dangers with which we are currently faced, Lepore manages to suggest that only a “clear-eyed reckoning” of history will allow us to live into our ideals of “equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness, along with a commitment to national prosperity inseparable from an unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over.”

Highly recommend for any student of American history and current events.

218 reviews11 followers
April 27, 2020
If you are depressed after 2016, This America by Jill Lepore tries to make you feel a little better:

• This book reminds, such hatred has been going on much longer than we remember. The optimistic wave from 1990s to early 2010s was more a blip than the normality. You’d read how people in the past could fight on and progress out of the long history of darkness, and think surely we could stop pitying ourselves and do our part.

• The optimistic wave from 1990s to early 2010s touted the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of **ism. Who are the most optimistic believers? People working in the Internet industry who saw people are connected together by liberal ideals. Interestingly, it is this same industry that connected people opposing these optimistic ideals.

• Don’t leave the field to people who insists on their lies as “alternative facts”. The optimistic wave from 1990s to early 2010s, wanted to believe in liberal world order would overcome national divisions, and decided to stop talking about country/culture from the point of a national story. (Missing the history that progressive ideals were also touted as a national story.) Unfortunately, the empty field let the “alternative facts” group to loudly define national story. Don’t surrender the important historic discussion to them.

Interesting writes in the book:
-- ' “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers … are to heroin-addicts.”… But you can also pick poppies for flowers, and make them into memorials for fallen soldiers. '
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for B. Rule.
796 reviews21 followers
December 17, 2021
This short work is a kind of throwback to an older model: the polemical pamphlet. Too short to provide more than a schematic account of history, too long to fit on a bumper sticker, Lepore's project is to reclaim the writing of national history from those who would use it to further parochial, racist, or otherwise illiberal ends.

It's a nice companion piece to These Truths; where that book's subject was history, this one's is historiography. She does a speed-run through American history to point out how historians and thinkers of each period conceived of the United States and the category of "the nation" or "nationalism." Clear trends emerge, chief among them the cyclicality of these arguments. We've gone through periods of liberalism and illiberalism since our founding, and there's no end in sight.

Lepore makes no bones about her allegiance, and her appeal to the left to use the category of nationalism to its ends rather than cede the ground to the enemy is an interesting one. It's also not clear it can really succeed, given the internationalist tendencies of most rights-based liberal thinking. However, at least it's a view, and worthy of debate. This isn't essential reading, but it can be inspiring and it's short enough that you've lost little to read it. I'll take any tool in the quiver to avert the authoritarian nightmare looming for us, so more power to Lepore for fighting for a better future, even if I personally believe this will be insufficient to save us.
Profile Image for Caitlin Heston.
44 reviews1 follower
January 18, 2021
I am not someone who reads history books. My husband convinced me to read this because he promised it was short and spoke to the current moment (the deadly attack on the Capitol had just taken place).

I’m extremely glad I read this book. It remained accessible while introducing many new (to me) ideas, definitions, and arguments—In less than 140 pages!

Over the past four years of Trump’s presidency, I have been reacting to American nationalism by becoming less patriotic. (I never knew the difference between to two, to be honest.)

Jill Lepore uses this book to make a very convincing case of fighting for the liberal patriotism that has always existed in our country. It existed in Lincoln and Douglas and MLK and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many, many others who have carried out the ideals of equality and justice. And yes, these people and their actions have always lived and worked and fought alongside our nation’s hatred of non-whites and non-Christians and non-English speakers. Talking about and understanding our history of unjustness is incredibly important- as is remembering the vein of liberal patriots that run through our American Story.

Arguments for globalism may be valid and worth having, but for now nations exist and will continue to exist. Thank you, Jill Lepore, for convincing me that the American ideal of “freedom and justice for all” is still well worth lifting up and fighting for.
Profile Image for Lizanne.
362 reviews5 followers
May 6, 2020
American History professor Jill LePore gallivants from America’s origins to a few hours ago in this brief but amazingly comprehensive long essay/short book. Her focus is on nationalism, from its early days as a liberal construct to its current state. She clarifies early on that she is presenting a position, not an objective history.

When countries began to consider themselves individual nations w their own languages, customs, and cultures, they wanted to be distinctive. LePore gives the example of Daniel Webster altering Anglo-Saxon spelling to give American English its own brand—colour to color, for instance. To have nation pride was aligned w liberal values of inclusion: if you come to America and make a home, you belong.

Nationalism appears to wane for much of the 20th century but when it re-emerges, it has changed character, more akin to the conservative definition that now holds sway. The KKK, America First, isolationism—all new types of nationalism.

One of the running distinctions LePore makes is nationalism v patriotism. As a liberal, I found this very appealing. To be patriotic is to love your country —way oversimplified—without the racist, exclusionary nationalist sentiments.

Because of the book’s brevity, LePore often devotes a few paragraphs to each specific movement or person in her study. It’s a great primer for those of us who haven’t revisited American history in this way to see the roots of nationalism and how it has changed over time.

Profile Image for Matt.
160 reviews
March 12, 2022
In this short book, Lepore advocates for a liberal nationalism that aims to bring out the best of the American ideals of equality and freedom, all the while warning against the illiberal nationalism that continues to mar society with all manner of prejudices and injustices. That much can be gathered by reading the blurb on the cover, but what surprised me a bit was how, in such a succinct work, Lepore manages to give a solid overview of the history of the idea of the nation and the various forms of nationalisms that have emerged over its nearly quarter-millennium of history. There's nothing much new under the American sun, as adherents of both liberal and illiberal strains of American ideals have plenty of historical antecedents. Perhaps most people with even a cursory knowledge of the history of the United States will be aware of the centuries-long struggle between the good and bad in the nation's past, but Lepore's concern is that liberal-minded people might ignore this history entirely, whereas illiberal nationalists proudly take up the mantle of some of the more shameful parts of the past. Lepore contends that the antidote to such disastrous nationalism is not found in giving up on the idea of the nation altogether, but rather in following in the footsteps of the liberal-minded voices throughout American history who have coaxed the nation to live up to its potential.
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