David Woods Kemper ‘41 Professor of American History, Harvard University; Staff Writer, New Yorker; Author, These Truths: A History of the United States; 2019 Arthur Ross Book Award Gold Medalist
Peter G. Peterson Chair and Editor, Foreign Affairs; Chair, Arthur Ross Book Award Jury
Presider Gideon Rose celebrates the winners of this year’s Arthur Ross Book Award: Jill Lepore, Andrew Roberts, and Max Hastings. Gold medalist Jill Lepore discusses why the United States needs a national history.
Gold Medal: Jill Lepore for These Truths: A History of the United States
Silver Medal: Andrew Roberts for Churchill: Walking With Destiny
Bronze Medal: Max Hastings for Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975
ROSE: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome. I’m Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs. And it’s my distinct pleasure to welcome all of you tonight to the Seventeenth Annual Arthur Ross Book Award Ceremony. Arthur Ross and Janet—where’s Janet? Janet’s here. They established this award to honor books about foreign policy and international relations that added to our store of knowledge, that makes an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the field. The books that this prize had been given to have merited special attention for bringing forth new information that changes our understanding of events and problems, developing analytical approaches that offer insight into critical issues, or introducing ideas that help resolve foreign policy problems.
These are difficult and dark times, and the books that the Arthur Ross Book Award finalists constitute are very large, heavy books, usually. (Laughter.) And yet, the process makes me feel lighter each year. And it’s kind of weird, because you’re reading these doorstops about death, and destruction, and war, and slavery, and all the horrible things that man has inflicted on his and her fellow man. And yet there’s something comforting about the exercise, because you’re doing so in the presence of genius. There are people who essentially have as a role in life processing the world for the rest of us, helping us understand it, helping us make sense of it, interpreting the blooming, buzzing confusion of the chaos of the world into something we can understand and relate to. And the greatest of authors can pull this off in ways that just seem magical.
There are lots of different kinds of history. And we often seem to get a lot of books about history, and a lot of history books in the Arthur Ross Book Award. And this year three of the different specialties of history—narrative, writing about events, biography often of great men and women, and deep thematic interpretation of long periods of time and things. All these different strands of historical profession are represented this year at their peak professional exemplar level. And to be able to be—to have to read through those things, and to realize that these people are pulling it off, and that you’re learning, and you’re liking it, and you don’t say, gee, I have to read all these books but, no, can I keep reading more—that is a level of privilege that all of us on the jury have been able to find and, each year, come back to.
And I think that there are some jury members here who know exactly what I’m saying. And it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. And I wanted to star that off because here we have tonight—we had six books for the finalist batch. Michael Beschloss, Presidents of War, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times, Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, and Max Hastings’ Vietnam, Andrew Roberts’ Churchill, and Jill Lepore’s These Truths. These are all excellent books and I recommend all of them to you. The committee rewarded three of them with special mention.
Max Hastings’ Vietnam, you’d think: What do we need another Vietnam history for? What do we need another chronicle for? Why I need this now? A well-written, graceful account of a war half a century ago that everybody has known so much about? And the answer is you read the darn thing and it’s so good. It’s so beautiful. It’s so comprehensive. It’s so fast-paced. It works. And you say, that’s why I’m reading it, because this is now what I have to read. And this is—tells me what happened. It’s a beautiful work of narrative history.
And we are absolutely delighted to be able to give it the Bronze award, and a prize for several thousand dollars—$5,000—to Max Hastings’ Vietnam. And I don’t think he’s here, but is there a representative from his publisher to be able to give it? No. So let it be known that if you have any interest in not just American military history by twentieth century history, if you like a great, fast-paced read, if you want to refresh what happened and understand what happened with things, this is a superb, superb book. And people who are very progressive, non-military historian types on the jury were like, I can’t believe I really liked this this much. It’s great. (Laughter.) OK.
Which brings us to the Silver award winner, Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking With Destiny. If there’s one thing that’s less fashionable than Vietnam in American military history—(laughter)—it’s dead white men, formerly considered great. (Laughter.) And the measure of this and why this is getting a prize tonight, it’s such a spectacular book. Literally, there were more people—even more people who said: I cannot believe I am giving another book on Churchill a prize. Why didn’t—I don’t think we needed one. I didn’t think this was necessary, but now that I’ve read it I know why it was. And this is great. There were people who basically hated Churchill who still voted for the book because it was so damn good that they said, I couldn’t put it down. And Andrew Roberts, as well as Max, is keeping up a tradition of British writing about public affairs that is so lucid, so clear, so intelligent that you don’t even realize you’re being educated because you’re just having so much fun and grace in following the history and the biography of the person.
So with that, let me bring Andrew Roberts up to get the Silver prize for Churchill. (Applause.) Would you say just a few words?
ROBERTS: Yes, absolutely. How about that. (Laughter.) Thank you. Oh, you can actually physically wear it. Right, OK. I will be wearing this.
ROSE: Oh let me.
ROBERTS: Yes, thank you very much. (Applause.)
ROSE: He’s British.
ROBERTS: You’re not going to kiss me on both cheeks, like Charles de Gaulle?
ROSE: So we thought about making you a knight of something, but this is America, so we just gave you the award.
ROBERTS: No, this is a night to remember. (Laughter.) And also it’s my birthday, ladies and gentlemen. How lovely is that? (Laughter, applause.)
AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Happy birthday!
ROBERTS: Thank you. Thank you. Great honor. I know this is the moment where I’m supposed to burst into tears and thank everybody I’ve ever met but being British of course I don’t do that kind of thing. But I would like to thank two remarkable women. The first is her majesty the queen, who allowed me to use her father’s diaries. The first Churchill biographer to be able to use her father’s diaries. And Churchill, of course, trusted the king with all of the great secrets of the Second World War, and he wrote everything down, thank God.
And also my wife, who tells me that it’s actually—it doesn’t sound like it’s very romantic to be married to a military historian, not least because on the day I got engaged to her I took her to Lake Como, which she thought was very romantic, until I told her it was because Mussolini was shot there. (Laughter.) But—and at the end of our honeymoon, where I’d taken her to the Museum of American Aggression in Hanoi—(laughter)—and she stood in front of a two-headed babies fetus in formaldehyde, the result of Agent Orange. And she said, darling, are we going to go to a beach at all on this honeymoon? And I don’t mean Utah or Omaha. (Laughter.)
Thank you so much for this magnificent. I’m so thrilled to have it. Bye-bye. (Applause.)
ROSE: By this point in the process is was starting to feel like Ryder Cup or a Davis Cup match in which the Americans couldn’t do anything right. And finally we were able to say that we do have a Gold Medal winner from this country. Jill Lepore’s These Truths, this year’s Arthur Ross Book Award Gold Medal winner, is a masterwork by a master author that is rather puzzling, in the sense that there was an old Woody Allen movie called The Front a while back, in which Woody Allen played the guy who basically took all the blacklisted writers’ works and kept submitting them as scripts. And he was an amazing prolific guy because he was basically fronting for all of them. I sometimes think there must be an entire community of people feeding Jill Lepore manuscripts—(laughter)—because she keeps popping out books and articles that are extraordinary, and yet they’re all done amazing. In the time between this book coming out and getting the award, she wrote an article for Foreign Affairs which she turned into another book, and it’s also excellent.
So some have asked, why the history of America is getting an award for insight into foreign policy, international relations, the world around us. Nobody on the jury had any doubts about this because what Jill Lepore set out to do in In These Truths is do nothing less than tell America who we are, trace where we have come from, and forecast where we might be going. It is nothing less than a full-scale reinterpretation of the American national experiment, which puts the political history of the country in context, integrates all the new historiography that has added to our understanding and incorporates it in a single narrative, in a way that should not be possible.
Those of us who write for a living are very jealous at the people who are much better than we are at the same darn things. And there have been very prominent writers who responded to the announcement of this prize by emailing me and saying: Fabulous choice. I am so jealous of her. That book was so fabulous. I could never have written that. And the fact that, like, her peers—and I’m not sure, frankly, we have peers of Jill Lepore—but the authors who write books like this bow down and say, we are not worthy, to your accomplishment, in managing to encompass American history in a single volume.
And, Jill, with that, I’d like to come up and have you accept the award and then have a discussion about your work and what it means. (Applause.) So let me present you.
LEPORE: I love the ceremony. We’ve gone very royal.
ROSE: We are. Well, you know, now that they’re coming over here, we need to up our game. (Laughter.)
LEPORE: That’s right, yeah. I’m going to resign my position as a senior member of the royalty of American historians. (Laughter.) Thanks very much for the prize. I’m deeply honored. And really honored to be int eh company of the finalists as well, and especially of the past winners. So I just want to thank the Ross family for the prize, for honoring this kind of work. It means a lot.
ROSE: Great. Let’s go over here. (Applause.) OK.
So, Jill, let’s put it this way. What—where—who are we? Where have we come from? And where are we going? (Laughter.)
LEPORE: (Laughs.) You know, I sometimes—I was struck by your remarks about the jury’s assessment of the pool of finalists for this prize, that so many books that caught your attention were books that you didn’t know where needed. I don’t think that was the case with this book. I think this book felt, to—a book like this—felt to me and to a lot of people I work with like a book that would be great if it existed. It more just felt kind of impossible, like an impossible burger. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Which now exists, like your book.
LEPORE: Which now exists, right? So that’s where my analogy was going. But what I—what I wanted to do in writing this book was rekindle the tradition of offering up every generation, or more frequently, to the whole of the country and to the world an account of the country in sort of the—like, a medical clipboard kind of thing. The patient history, patients conditions, the patient’s prognosis. But that—it used to be a tradition in American historical scholarship, that at a certain point in your career you would, as a matter of civic obligation, try to pull together all the pieces and offer an account.
And I—the accounts of that nature that tried to say something with a resounding final authority all failed. They were terrible. They were terrible to read. But the ones that I have always really admired raise a series of questions and invite the reader into an inquiry that asks these kinds of questions, as opposed to offering up from on high my answer to those questions. So I don’t—all of which is a very sketchy way of circling around and saying I don’t have some definitive, like, who we are answer. But I do strongly believe, as a believer in lower-case democracy, that we are the series of questions and the process of asking them and listening to one another’s answers.
ROSE: OK, let me push you on that, because that was a very nice academic-y answer. Lots of—the fact is, you had to make a zillion choices in this book. You had to leave out lots of stuff. And this is not a chronicle. This is not one damn thing after another. There is a thematic interpretation. And you imposed yourself on the subject matter, regardless of whether you’re now being humble about saying, oh, I just raised the questions. So what was your thematic—what makes this more than just one damn thing after another? One more American history textbook? What is the thematic interpretation and the value of doing history like that, that people get from your work rather than just reading lots of encyclopedia articles for 100 pages?
LEPORE: No, it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive. It doesn’t have an encyclopedic quality. But in fact, the act of inquiry—I don’t—I’m not trying—it’s not a fake humility. I’m not actually humble. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Very few people around here actually are either. (Laughter.)
LEPORE: That’s right. We’re in good company. The reason the book is called These Truths is that it argues that foundational to the American experiment is not only the principle of political equality, but the obligation for citizens to forever be conducting an inquiry into the state of our affairs, so as to make informed decisions, so as to be responsible citizens, engaging in—casting votes that are—that have in mind the public interest in our common wheel, and not making knee-jerk, private interest-based decisions. That that is a founding ideal of the country. And in order—and that is why the framers all studied history, because in order to act responsibly as s citizen you have to have some sense of what of the past conditions were that lead to this present set of circumstances, that require making decision about which way to head.
And so the book actually is—it is absolutely a narrative account of the sweep of American history. But it also makes a series of, I would say, fairly intricately architecturally structured arguments about the nature of historical inquiry.
ROSE: Such as?
LEPORE: So it begins—the book—the book places fairly centrally thematically the history of technologies of communication. And so an argument of the book is that changes in technologies of communication will always set our political arrangements on end temporarily, into a period of disequilibrium, from which we need to find a new equilibrium. And that that is because in a democracy—(laughs)—how—our ability to communicate with one another across distances, and who has the capacity and power to communicate, it shapes our political order. So, you know, the book beings in 1492, this is a very controversial way to begin, in order to think about that controversy and pay attention to—the book begins with kind of an inquisition into why we know what Columbus wrote down on October 12, 1492, and whether we actually know that.
What he was doing writing, why he was writing, to whom we were writing. We don’t actually have Columbus’ logbook anymore. So why do we believe in this copy, of a copy, of a copy, and where does it come from? And what does it mean that he had that—the power to write, and the people that he met did not? And so, you know, like, you’re going to end up—I’m sorry, we’re going to end up with Mark Zuckerberg. (Laughter.) So you’re going to go there. But in the meantime, we have to watch how the printing press, the weekly newspaper—the emergence of the newspaper, the weekly newspaper, then the daily newspaper, the telegraph, then the telephone, then the radio, then the television, then cable television, then the early internet—like, how these new technologies of communication shape our political order, and how people recover from various disequilibriums.
That that is—that is a theme that the attentive reader can’t help by follow along. And it’s not—it’s not then—I don’t sort of—so there’s not, like, a page where I say, this is what happens when a technology of communication—when there’s a technological revolution in communications. And this is what you should expect to happen next time. But I chronicle a series of patterns that the observant reader can notice, and ponder, and ask questions about, thinking about the present.
ROSE: What about race? You’ve also mainstreamed race in this book in a way that is unusual, in many respects. And you’ve incorporated race into the American story from the ground up, alongside the entire stream of the rest of history, such as the—there’s a tour de force discussion of the Constitutional Convention, in which the scenes in the meetinghouse are cut with the scenes of the slaves, and the people going back and writing letters about their property, absolutely genius. What was—how did you approach the incorporation and the mainstreaming of all the new scholarship and perspectives about race, and gender, and class into a traditional American political history?
LEPORE: Yeah. So I think it’s important to remember that that’s not an active imposition on mine as a scholar. Like, that is actually what happened and who was there then. It’s that previous generations of historians completely stripped those stories out of their accounts. So it’s been the work of several generations of academic historians to recover archivally and materially chronicles of the lives of people who were—whose accounts were stripped out of earlier histories.
And that work, sadly, has largely not busted out of the academy. And so the incredible revolution, say, in the writing of the stories of women, like, in my lifetime—you know, since the late 1960s, when women entered Ph.D. programs in history for the first time, and founded women’s studies programs, and uncovered—you know, found troves of women’s diaries, and had them transcribed, and then later they were digitized. Like, this incredible world of revolution in our understanding of private life, and of women’s lives, and women’s political affairs is, I think, one of the biggest revolutions—intellectual revolutions—in the academy in the 20th century. And yet, it has barely bled out of the academy.
ROSE: Which you contributed to with your biography of Jane Franklin.
LEPORE: Yeah, No, I mean, but—my biography—I wrote a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane. And I was really shocked that people received it, including the publishing industry, as oh, how cute? A little book by a girl about another little girl. (Laughter.) Like it was just this twee thing. And I wrote that book as an indictment of biographies of great men, and the tradition—the publishing—
ROSE: Duck, Andrew.
LEPORE: Sorry. Andrew has—Andrew, who I deeply admire, has also left for the evening. (Laughter.) But there’s a kind of affirmative of action of those books by the publishing—the publishing industry really boosts and promotes those books. They well them on Father’s Day. They’re just—they’re just given out as gifts to bookstores, essentially. Please sell this book. And books about women are just not—they’re barely published. And when I wrote this biography of Jane Franklin, that I thought was the most intellectually ambitious, searing, fierce indictment of the tradition of historical writing in this country, the book jacket I got back from my publisher was a cameo in an oval of a silhouette of a colonial dame—like, a grandmother with a bun knitting in a rocking chair. (Laughter.) And I had to say to my publisher, like, I quit—burn in hell. (Laughter.) Like, what are you—
ROSE: Is that what made you want to write on Wonder Woman?
LEPORE: (Laughs.) No, I’m just staying, like, and so the book was largely—that’s not the ultimate jacket. And I love my publisher. Like, these are good people. I’m not like—they’re not terrible people. But it was inconceivable to them that a book about a woman by a woman could be a big book. So it’s a big reason why I wrote this book.
ROSE: So what does American history look like? How does it look different with the Blacks, and the women, and everybody else put back into the picture, and not just a bunch of old white men?
LEPORE: I think that it’s much richer, and it’s more morally complicated, and it requires a certain kind of moral fortitude to really honestly reckon with it. But what you get out of it is a sense of the staggering nature of the political struggle to realize the promise of political equality as an ideal, the tenacity of the opposition to equality across generations. You see the interplay between things. I mean, one reason—so after this incredible revolution of historical scholarship that, you know, in our lifetimes, certainly in my lifetime, what happened to textbooks or accounts like this is there would then be—there’d be the, like, standard political history, which would just be presidents and Congress. A lot of presidentialism in these books. And then there’d be these little sidebars. Like, then there was also slavery. Or, then there was also Jim Crow. Or then there was also Indian removal. And then there was also this oppression of the sovereignty of native nations. And apparently women sometimes went to marches. (Laughter.) And there’d be, like, these little, like, blocked, you know, separate sidebars.
And the idea that you come across—that comes across in that construction of that narrative is these things are just incidental to where the real power is going on. And I sometimes ask my students, like, if you were imagining someone writing an account of Mr. Trump’s first term as president of the United States, and the United States in those years, would you choose to either write an account of the Trump White House, and not really much else going on around, or to, say, write an account of the #MeToo movement, or write an account of Black Live Matter? And assume that—or, write an account of, like, Trump’s presidency, with a little, like, sidebar about #MeToo, or a sidebar about—people go, what the hell? Like, those things are all mutually constitutive of one another.
Like, we understand, living in it, that they’re—it’s not that they’re inseparable analytically, but what ties them together analytically is the work that the historian has to do to make this period legible to people. Like, well, exactly how are #MeToo and Donald Trump related? Well, they’re related. But in what—you know, you have to ask some questions about that. You can’t just, like, say: This one is the main story, and this is a little minor subplot, right? Like, it just doesn’t—like, that’s not how the world works.
ROSE: You’ve said that history is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence. That’s a nice definition of what you’re doing. The—in the argument about American history, where all these themes have been constant from the beginning in many respects—the technology and—the communications technology, democracy, and political ideals, oppression but also incorporation and the ever-expansion of the national ideals and the project. Do you come out of that hopeful about going forward, or depressed that we’re still fighting the same battles? Or what is your take on the American experiment after, you know, a few hundred-plus years?
LEPORE: I have a kind of political commitment to publicly express hope. And I think that’s—I do think that’s important. And some of my greatest intellectual heroes had that commitment. And I honor them by kind of committing myself to it. And I do think—I do think it’s, frankly, asinine to imagine that it would be better to live in a time before now, given human chattel slavery, forced segregation, racial terrorism. I mean, there’s tough stuff in our day. There’s a—we could make a long list of tough stuff. I mean, you put climate concerns at the very top of that list. I would, in any case. But it is absolutely a story of largely forward movement politically.
ROSE: So your basic response to my question is it gets better?
LEPORE: And morally generation to generation, are people as crappy now as they ever were? Absolutely. (Laughter.) People are—people are—like, the past is dark, because the present is dark, because people are kind of dark. (Laughter.)
ROSE: So is that the basic story, which is a constant people in—gradually acting in less awful ways because of the institutional constraints and subject understandings they have with each other?
LEPORE: Yeah. I mean, what would be the—this is a question for you. Like, a serious question for you. What would be the conditions in our public life that would make possible erecting a platform that someone of real moral conscience would speak from right now? Who could speak in a morally elevated tone to the whole nation? Where? How, right now? (Laughter.)
ROSE: You won the award. You suggest it. (Laughter, applause.)
LEPORE: No, but I seriously ask that. Like, they’re—I think about the abolitionist presses built in Boston in the 1830s. What it meant to build those presses. I mean, there were abolitionist presses—you know, Ida B. Wells’ press—she printed this newspaper called Free Speech in Memphis. Her press was burned down. Like, what it meant to fight for the right to say something with a careful moral conscience about the issues of the day. What it costs to build that platform, to ink those typefaces. I’m just not sure where that is right now. But I think it’s—for me, its absence is a symptom of a whole series of problems.
ROSE: On that note, we have a very large audience of very impressive people and Council members, and guests who want to come and get involved in this discussion. So with this, let’s throw it open for general discussion among all of us. And—
LEPORE: All of the humble people who raise their hands first. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Stand and when I ask you a question stand, state your name, wait for the microphone, and ask a succinct question. Let’s start right here. Hold on one second, we’re going to get a mic coming to you.
Q: Paula DiPerna. Thank you so much.
To the racial dynamics and popular culture, I just happened to see The Right Stuff, which is about John Glenn, and Hidden Figures, which is also about John Glenn. The women in Hidden Figures don’t appear in The Right Stuff and visa versa. And there’s never been a dialogue about this. And I just wonder, you know, one, how we can create those dialogues. But, two, in your work, you know, how do you think about popular culture as an exponent of the thing that you’re just talking about, which I thought your last comment was quite apt and moving?
LEPORE: Mmm hmm. Yeah. So I try to do that work in this book, and to model how—a way that it might be done throughout the book. And I think there are two ways to do it. There’s one way to do it that has to do with observing large-scale systems. And the other way has to do with offering miniature portraits of individual people. And so I’ll give you two examples. They both come from fairly early in the book because it just—it gets to the question you just asked.
But there’s a—and people will think this is now familiar if you pay attention to the 1619 Project. But I wrote my book years ago. There’s a—there’s a part of the book where I talk about the journey of the Mayflower, and the incredible, powerful, sorrowful diary kept by William Bradford, who goes on to become a long-term governor of Plymouth colony. And he writes about the terror of crossing the vast and furious ocean. And at the end of that journey, I don’t know if you know the story, but his wife throws herself of the edge of the ship and drowns herself, within sight of land. So this is incredibly—I find that story, and the idea that we are a chosen people and making this journey, very powerful and very affecting.
But the way that I tell that story which, you know, brings in 1619, is crosscutting it with the story of the—of the first African trading—African trade vessel that’s bringing enslaved people to Virginia, which is the same—it was within months of each other, these two ships make this journey. And I don’t have the diary of one of those people held belowdecks in chains. But I do have—I spent a lot of time reading, I call them proverbs, later stories and songs sung about those voyages. And so I crosscut the two voyages, which is a way to just remind my reader that these things are happening at the same time. And there’s anguish, and agony, and suffering in both. And they’re not equivalent. They’re not the same kind of suffering. They are really fundamentally different stories. But they’re both founding stories of the nation.
And in fact—well, that just sort of just unravels the whole way through. But there’s a kind of—the journeys across the ocean carrying people who have been taken from their homes, and tortured, and beaten, and were largely starving, and many of whom did, if they could, throw themselves over the edge of the boat to drown—there’s a lot sonically in the descriptions about the wailing, the kind of keening of mothers separated from their children. There’s a lot you can do call attention to systemic, and some sense of scale, because fifteen million people carried on that voyage. The great migration of the pilgrims and Puritans was twenty thousand people. It’s nobody. It’s nobody. How is that the founding story of our country, as opposed to the fifteen million?
So that’s, like, a kind of systemic way to make sure to have these stories be on the same page, and one not be the plot and the other be some, you know, incidental detail. But then I spent a lot of time doing that kind of crosscutting and tacking back and forth to make sure the reader doesn’t lose sight of the systemic. But people—my experience of readers—maybe this is just autobiographical—the systemic arguments are provocative but what people remember are people. So I spent a fair amount of time telling the story, when James Madison, who writes the Constitution, he writes to his father when he’s in Philadelphia.
He’s young. And he’s kind of a prig. (Laughter.) And he wants to go—there’s a Philadelphian who had a huge book collection has died, and there’s an auction of his books. And Madison goes and reads the catalogue. And he wants to buy all these books. And he has—he doesn’t have any cash. And he’s writing for his dad. And you’ve gotten these emails—send me some money, dad. (Laughter.) Because he wants to buy a cache of books that includes Hobbes’ Leviathan. And he says, if you won’t sell me the cash, I’ll sell Billey, who’s an enslaved adult man that has been his property since James Madison was an infant.
And then I later tell the story of Billey, who eventually becomes free and becomes a man named William Gardner and marries a woman who had been Thomas Jefferson’s laundress. So, like, I think there’s a kind of shock to the conscience of you’re going to buy a sell person to buy Leviathan? (Laughter.) Like, are you going to buy Machiavelli with your next human being? Like, it’s—there’s a—it’s not—you know, it’s not to say, like, let’s all hate James Madison. It’s, like, let’s just remember how these things are—the fact that every Madison biographer had carefully excised that letter from the discussion of the great intellectual journey of James Madison through reading the great works of seventeenth century English philosophy, that’s our problem.
ROSE: Who comes out better than you expect? You like Franklin, even though you like Jane better. But you like—
LEPORE: I love—I love Franklin, because Franklin’s filthy. But I’m not supposed to say that. (Laughter.) Franklin’s funny.
ROSE: Did anybody come out of this book surprisingly impressive in ways that you hadn’t expected?
LEPORE: I did not expect to fall in love with Walter Lippmann. Who loves Walter Lippmann anymore? You people, probably. (Laughter.) I—look—oh, I know. William Jennings Bryan. I didn’t think I’d—
ROSE: Why did love—why did you fall in love with William Jennings Bryan?
LEPORE: I wouldn’t say I fell in love with William Jennings Bryan. He came out a lot better than I thought.
LEPORE: Because I’d really only ever seen the movie. (Laughter.)
ROSE: That’s all you knew him from the Scopes trial, and he was more than that.
LEPORE: I knew him from—you know, I liked Spencer Tracy, who was Darrow. Who supports Fredric March in that movie?
ROSE: Another question. Yes, back over there.
Q: Alan Raul.
So stipulating that people were crappy then and that they’re crappy now, did they—was there ever a time where people knew a lot more about the Constitution and about the civic values that we seem to know less about and value less now? And then, just picking up on a point you made at the end of your remarks, do you equate civic knowledge and virtue with moral virtue?
LEPORE: No, I don’t. I don’t. I don’t think I do. I mean, I was using virtue in that sense in an eighteenth century republicanism sense of civic virtue. I tend to talk more about moral conscience than moral virtue. So I once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about this very question, that is to say knowledge of the Constitution and sort of what we might think of as popular Constitutionalism across time. The essay’s called The Commandments. And one of the things I was really struck by was the relative inadequacy of popular understanding of the Constitution as a consistent theme across time. The Constitution wasn’t taught in schools until the 1830s, which is as it approached its fiftieth anniversary. Joseph Story wrote a schoolbook. And then there were these Constitutional guidebooks that were written in the 1850s for members of Congress. But they were largely just these partisan hack jobs. Like, there was a pro-slavery one and an anti-slavery one. (Laughter.)
The pushes to—so there’s a weird dynamic in American history where the right tends to want to teach the Constitution and the left wants to teach the revolution. And so one of the reasons I wrote this essay was because the tea party is a conservative movement that’s more interested in the revolution than the Constitution, which just is a kind of—it’s kind of a perversion of the historical trajectory. And I was kind of fascinated by that. So no. Even when there have been moments—there was a time when—people might remember this or might not. But in 1987 the Heritage Foundation, I think, sponsored like a public opinion poll to do an index of popular understanding of the Constitution. And it found that people didn’t know anything about the Constitution.
And but when you looked at the—I went and looked at the questions. They were actually all, like, trick—most of them were, like, trick questions, because it was really important at the age of originalism—like, it was the high point of Edwin Meese and the Reagan Justice Department trying to make a public knowledge—public knowledge of the deficiency of the understanding of the Constitution was a kind of needed piece of political spin. And it’s not that people didn’t know about the Constitution, but just, like, why bother having a cheating kind of political poll? (Laughs.) It was like—it was like they were worried that people would understand too much, and then their poll would backfire.
So in general people that have called for—talked about the deficiencies of American constitutional knowledge, it’s not that there isn’t a deficiency, it’s that it’s not actually usually that novel. I would say, as a working historian, that there is a problem lately that I don’t think is just a kind of political spin on existing, which is that we don’t teach constitutional history in universities anymore. There are a lot of other things we also don’t teach, but—and it’s tragic, because it’s the one kind of history our students actually want to study right now. Suddenly everyone’s like, wait a minute, the Constitution? I should take a class on that. But there was a real generational shift where people were like, yeah, whatever, the Constitution. I’m going to do social history, because all the exciting work was being done in social history. And—
ROSE: So did you see this book as an opportunity to sort of bring all those trends together and incorporate them in a single narrative?
LEPORE: Yeah. So this book is very heavy on constitutional—it’s super heavy on constitutional history. And by its without sacrificing—it’s sort of, like, you can’t understand the—like, one of my—one of the most powerful—I guess I didn’t really answer your question about popular culture. But this guy, William Grimes, escaped from slavery. And he write an autobiography called The Life of William Grimes. And it was published in 1825. And there’s this incredibly powerful thing in it where he says: When I die, I want the skin to be taken from my back and turned into leather, and it will be our new constitution—because his back is so scarred from whip marks. This is—this is the flesh on which our constitution—this is the parchment on which our political order is actually written, is the skin of my back.
It was, like, incredibly powerful—it’s an incredibly powerful image. And it is a popular understanding of the Constitution that requires recovery. Like, to learn about the Constitution is not to worship it. It’s actually to engage in the recovery of a whole tradition of criticism of it. It’s to engage in the recovery of all kinds of debate about, all kind of failed amendment efforts. It’s not—and that’s one reason it stopped being taught, because the only way to teach it was somehow to venerate it. And not that there’s not much to admire in the Constitution, but that’s not a form of inquiry, right? Like, we wouldn’t—you don’t take chemistry to admire the periodic table. (Laughter.) So you know, you do experiments and understand how people figured these things out. And maybe some of these things are wrong. And maybe what’s some new, interesting ideas I could bring to this. That’s what constitutionalism should be.
ROSE: You describe yourself as a working historian. How do you work? Do you have, like, a whole bunch of elves, like the Keebler elves or whatever, who write these books and then they come out?
LEPORE: Yeah. I liked that you mildly accused me of plagiarism over there.
ROSE: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughter.) It’s just, like, I don’t know how many—like, you’re sybil. Like, how many people write these books? How do you write books—how do you write great books so damn frequently, on top of writing great essays, on top of teaching. There must be more of you.
LEPORE: No. I always wanted that Hermione Granger watch. Remember that? I thought that would be cool. No, I really love to write, and I really love to teach. And writing and teaching for me are very similar activities. I also love to parent. And writing, teaching and parenting are all similar activities. I feel like there’s a lot of synergy there.
ROSE: How are they similar?
LEPORE: You start to think about what would—what explanation would help things to go better. (Laughs.) So I think that’s the thing I think about a lot. So, yeah. So, no, I do work very hard. But I also love what I do. And I feel really lucky to be able to do it. I mean, I do feel like this book—it doesn’t—it stands on decades of scholarship by thousands of historians doing incredibly hard work in archives across the country for years and years and years. And all I can do is footnote those people. But, like, I can’t tell these stories about William Grimes or the experience onboard a ship carrying slaves, like, without relying on extraordinary scholarship. Like, those are the Keebler—they’re not elves. They’re scholars of great distinction whose work, you know, I stand in awe of. What I—a thing that I can do and love to do is pull things together. And I have, you know, this incredible pallet of embroidery thread, and this huge canvass. And, like, I will sit there and stitch, and stitch, and stitch. But I didn’t—I didn’t spin the thread.
ROSE: Yes. Over here.
Q: Hi. Allison Silver.
You’re talking about the historians who came before you. And I—and I studied American history, blah, blah, blah. But there’s a guy named Edmund Morgan. And he wrote a book that’s about slavery. And he’s incredibly respected. And I’ve been struck by the fact that I didn’t hear word one about that book until recently. And I—and I—it wasn’t like I didn’t think about American history or discuss it. And I was really struck by the fact that it’s sort of rising up and becoming a point of conversation finally. And I was just wondering if you wanted to just comment on that and explain what’s going on.
LEPORE: Yeah. Yeah. So the great Edmund Sears Morgan, who was just an unrivaled hero of mine, was a huge influence on me as a historian, a huge influence on my wanting to become a historian. He wrote many distinguished books, but the book that you’re referring to is called American Slavery, American Freedom. Came out in 1975, for the bicentennial. And it’s just a knockout book. And it makes the argument that there exists at the heart of American history a central paradox, which is that it is not possible to argue for liberty without being part of a system of human slavery. Like, that that is where—that there’s a dependence—that it’s not an accident that Jefferson, and Washington, and Madison come from Virginia, which is the first colony on the mainland to have slaves, and has this incredibly—incredible, deep dependence on the labor of enslaved human beings. That it is the observation of the tyranny of slavery and, in fact, the action of being a tyrant over others that makes possible the intellectual insights on which the idea of American freedom, in particular, stands.
And my book makes an—I wrote book years ago called New York Burning: Liberty and Slavery in an 18th Century City that makes a very Morganesque argument about the emergence of the two-party system, based on the story of the Zenger trial in New York in 1735, and an attempt—an alleged attempt by enslaved men in New York to burn the city down in 1741. This is completely an homage to Morgan’s work. I always wanted to work with Morgan, and he had just retired when I got to Yale. But I met him in a dog park. But if anyone know Ed Morgan, but he always had this bulldog named Jack? So I had a dog named Cooper, after James Fenimore Cooper. (Laughter.) And I used to meet him at the dog park. But I could never say I’m a graduate student in history. But I really liked his dog. (Laughter.)
But the thing—I once wrote an essay, I don’t think I ever published it, on why no one ever—why Ed Morgan’s challenge was not answered. And in fact, it was answered. And in fact, his work relied on the work of John Hope Franklin and, like, an early generation, and earlier before that of W.E.B. Du Bois. Like, generations of African American historians doing that work on slavery that made it possible for Morgan to have this—to offer this big challenge. And it was that—what happened after Morgan was that people kind of picked and choosed—chose? Picked and—I don’t even know what you even say. Picked and choosed does not sound right. (Laughter.) Either you were going to do the history of slavery, and your urgent mission was to recovery the stories and lives of enslaved people. Or, you were going to do political history and you were going to pretend that that didn’t exist.
And so there was basically an incredibly deep segregation of American history, where the political historians would just wander around, you know, writing books about Jefferson. And this historians of slavery would pretend that Jefferson didn’t exist. Like, there was just a mutual agreement. And so it’s a kind of a—it also happened with women’s history, right? Like, women wanted to write about women, but they therefore didn’t want to write about large-scale systems, because it was so urgent to do this work of recovery and, in some ways, redemption. And, you know, the men were like, oh, good. I don’t have to think about the women. I’m sorry, but that’s what they said. I heard them. (Laughs.)
So the challenge has been a kind of reintegration of what had been, I think. But, yeah, Morgan—also David Brion Davis I think did some of that work. Certainly John Hope Franklin did that work. There was a kind of moment—it was a window of opportunity, and then it kind of slammed shut.
ROSE: Yes, over here. One sec, we got a mic coming.
Q: Thank you. Carol Atkinson. And thanks, absolutely fabulous panel and great book.
This is the Council on Foreign Relations. And I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on how America’s attitudes to the rest of the world, especially as it became a superpower, and now as it’s seeing rivals, how that is integrated, or can be, or should be integrated into the story of These Truths?
LEPORE: Yeah. That’s a great—that’s a great question. I think it’s something that—the way I tackle that in this book is to just track it. Like it’s something where—like, I guess, you put a tracking device on a bird, and it’s just—you’re following it. Oh, it’s flying over there now. Like, you know, sort of paying attention to some sense of American sense of America’s place in the world. There is not—because there’s not room in this book for other people’s sense of America’s place in the world, which Americans usually haven’t cared about anyway. But there’s—I pay a lot of attention to that over time.
And it’s not—I would say that it’s not full of huge, big surprises. But I think when you tell a bigger story there is—there’s a deeper and, I think, more challenging history to globalism or to populism, so that—one story I think is in this book. But maybe it’s just also in This America. I think it’s in both books. Is in 1947, when the U.S. joined NATO—is it ’47? ’47. There’s this kind of great telegram sent by the Hopi Nation to the State Department saying: So, I see that you all joined in a league to defend, you know, any—you’re in this alliance for common defense. Just want you to know, the Hopi people, we’re sovereign. We’re not defending you or any country in Europe against anybody. Like, just to be clear. (Laughter.)
It’s kind of great. Like, it’s a really—it’s a kind of, oh. Oh, well, that’s actually a really important way to think about the manyness of indigenous people, and the long tradition of legal dispute over indigenous sovereignty. There’s a whole constitutional debate about that. But it casts American foreign policy so that when you see—or—
ROSE: So you’re saying the Hopi are not in favor of Article 5?
LEPORE: The Hopi—(laughter)—I’m saying that we are—we gain a much bigger and broader sense of Americans’ idea of the United States as a nation in the world by thinking more critically about the constitution of the nation itself, as a nation. I think that—I spent some time thinking about international leagues and the age of Garveyism for instance. This isn’t a foreign policy issue, but it is about Americans who feel stronger ties to people in other countries than they do to their fellow Americans. Garveyism is a really strong—the United Negro Improvement Fund. Or the International Association of Colored Women, which I think in 1922.
There are these really interesting international leagues that, you know, they kind of set up the kind of counterpoint to Wilsonianism. They kind of pressure—I just think there’s, like, a—there’s more going on there that I don’t—I didn’t have time in this book to kind of really flesh out. But just kind of remind—just to remind readers that, like, you don’t go from, let’s—we don’t have—like, yes, we need to hear about the Monroe Doctrine. And, yes, we need to think about FDR in the world. But there’s a lot more going on that is helping to constitute or also be in tension with those views of the world.
ROSE: OK. Yes, right here. Anne, and then I’ll go over to you, and then I’ll make a point after that.
Q: Thank you. Anne Nelson.
In the latter chapters of your book you write in a very compelling way about the birth of the modern Protestant fundamentalist movement and its entrée into contemporary politics. At the moment, do you see that as the representation of the American population diminishes that influence is growing or waning?
LEPORE: Has the—I’m sorry, can you just clarify what you mean by the representation of?
Q: I would say that the percent of Americans who correspond to Protestant fundamentalist sects is shrinking as a percentage demographically. But in recent years, we’ve seen increased influence in the national political theater. Do you see that growing or waning moving ahead?
LEPORE: Oh, yeah. I was fairly struck—there were two kind of correctives I wanted to offer to our—well, there—to our understanding of the role in particular of Evangelical Christianity in American political life. One is that I had always been taught that Evangelical Christians stayed out of politics until 1979 and the Moral Majority. And therefore, the Moral Majority should have kept out of politics too. Like, I would just say, like, as a kind of—this is just the way I was—this is the story of American history. And that is just empirically completely untrue. Evangelical Christians were the center of the abolition movement, which started as a moral reform movement but because essentially a political party. I mean, it took over the Republican Party. So that’s just not true.
And there’s a whole—there are a whole other traditions that we can identify. And that had been a problem that was introduced into the scholarship because—and here, I think that the critique on the part of people from the right and Evangelical Christian scholars is that most academic historians were secular and didn’t think that religion really mattered, and also really didn’t care to study it. And so, had missed its influence on American political development. Didn’t think that religion was unimportant, but didn’t see it in American political development, or really in American social movements, with the exception of the Civil Rights Movement, which I think historians would recognize it as a religious revival, among other—among other things.
So one thing the book wanted to do was pay attention to the longstanding tradition—and, in fact, well before abolition I spent a lot of time thinking about human rights, in fact, as a Christian doctrine. So that’s one corrective that I wanted to offer. Another was just that, yes, we should, in fact, have religious history throughout an account of the history of the nation.
With regard to the rising or falling influence of Evangelical or sort of separately fundamentalist Christianity, I was really surprised when—and I really lingered over this moment, I think, in the book itself. Is 1999, after Bill Clinton was acquitted for the impeachment, when—what’s his name? The Christian nation guy. It wasn’t Ralph Reed. One of these other guys was, like, OK, so I retire. Like, I’m done being an Evangelical in politics, because if people think this guy could be president, like, we’ve lost the culture war. Like, I just—like, we should just go back to preaching and, you know, holding Sunday school, and having good faith communities. Like, it makes no sense to be involved in trying to reform the American people through party politics when it’s—you know, it was the public opinion polls. It wasn’t so much that the Senate acquitted. It was the public opinion polls. Everyone’s like, what the hell, who cares? Who cares about Monica Lewinsky?
And it was this moment in 1999 when it seemed like they were just like, it’s over. We quit. And I think the people who got newly involved after that kind of interregnum were different—were largely different people, with fundamentally different motives. And with, I think, a much more politics first, religion second view of the world. Or else, we wouldn’t—they sort of wouldn’t have lined up the way they lined up in the last election. Is their influence on American politics disproportionate to their numbers, which seems be part of your question? Yes. But that’s true for most organized groups, right? So I’m not—I mean, that’s what it is to be organized and effective.
ROSE: Jill’s New Yorker colleague Malcolm Gladwell points out that our notions of us-them and identity are so strong that they can be manipulated and created on the spot. And that all of us, for example, walked into this room with identities, strong fixed things. And then suddenly, just simply by virtue of being here, we take on new identities. And the notion that sort of we have someone over here who’s a middle-aged economist, white, you know, whatever. What’s most important right now is that he’s on the right side. And there a deep sense of injustice if you don’t ask questions geographically dispersed in the group. (Laughter.)
So we’re going to ask a question in the back right now, because we would all feel somehow deeply upset that that quadrant of the room is unrepresented in the debate, even though there’s no grouping of that room, except they happened to be sitting there. So in the back, there was a woman who had a comment there. (Laughter.) We have a question from the back-right quadrant. OK, do we have a question from the front? Over here. A new quadrant heard from.
Q: Thank you. Paul Sheard, Harvard Kennedy School.
There’s a very strong presumption that we’re living in a very partisan—hyper-partisan world at the moment, politically. How does that proposition stand up viewed from the sweep of history? And are there any particular aspects of partisanship today that are striking to you? And if you want to go there, given your historical perspective on that question, do you have any prognosis for how this hyper-partisanship might progress over the next few years, or couple of decades?
LEPORE: Mmm hmm, OK. Yeah, I have a few different answers to that question. One, with regard to whether it is unprecedented. Two answers to that piece of the question. One is that I think it’s important to recognize that although we do not call or have traditionally understood people who are held in slavery, or people who are part of a political community that is completely disenfranchised, like, under the system of Jim Crow a political party, effectively they are a political party. They’re just a disenfranchised political party.
So if you think about before 1863 and emancipation from, you know, from—with 1824 with Jacksonian democracy, and so you have Democrats and Republicans from 1824 to 1863. For sure you have Democrats and Republicans. And, yes, they end up going to a war. But you also have this sort of shadow third party, which is everybody who’s held in slavery. And if we think about the political interest that those people share, again notwithstanding that they cannot engage politically with the suffrage, they determine—they work as a third party, just structurally.
They determine—the other two parties are constantly navigating around them as, like, three planets in orbit around the same—three moons around the same planet. You can’t just pretend that they’re not there. That is our political system. And the same thing is true—I mean, think about FDR’s administration and the New Deal. So much of it was determined by Jim Crow. He could not give up Southern Democrats. He needed them to vote for everything in the New Deal. And, like, it’s not that he accommodated people in the Jim Crow South who could not vote. It’s that he failed to accommodate them and betrayed them at every turn that really distorted his legislative agenda.
So I would suggest that you can’t even—if you’re going to measure partisanship and polarization, people tend to measure it from the first Congress. And they measure—political scientists have this quite elaborate and really sophisticated system for measuring—for quantifying polarization. It involves using rollcall votes. They have rollcall votes for every Congress. And they assign a partisan number from zero to ten for every member of Congress. And so then they can watch partisanship. And that’s really interesting. But I don’t think the data means anything until 1965 with Voting Rights Act. Like, in other words, like, before then there’s just partisanship and polarization, it’s just we can’t see it because people aren’t in Congress. So if you—that’s my sort of corrective.
But, yeah, if you look at that quantitative data using rollcall voting from the beginning, the high partisanship, then low, then when the kind of white northerners and white southerners and Democrats and Republicans agreed to pretend that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. And then you have—then you have a kind of consensus after the Second World War. And then after ’68 you have—partisanship’s been growing since ’68 very consistently. And people are, like, well, it’s unprecedented because we’re at a high point now that’s been growing since ’68. On the other hand, if you erase all that stuff and say, well, that doesn’t count everybody. Like, we do live in this country. We are the descendants of all of these people, not just the people who were eligible to run for Congress in 1824. And then you think about partisanship. Well, then it’s—when we’re actually in pretty good shape. (Laughter.)
ROSE: So the fighting that we’re seeing—so, wait, this is actually a really radically interesting argument. So the fighting that we’re seeing or the increased conflict that we’re seeing is not new conflict, it’s simply the expression of the ability of groups that had previously not been allowed to join the conversation to join so, that conversation. And now it’s a more turbulent conversation.
LEPORE: Yeah, I mean, and so if you had choose—
ROSE: So it’s actually a kind of progress because the insufferable people who would make big changes were just kept out. Now they’re brought in. And it seems like we’re having a more turbulent conversation.
LEPORE: Right. Yeah. So if you had—exactly. So if you had to choose between pre-1965 when, like, only a small percentage of the people could really express themselves politically, but things were kind of hunky-dory, or now and it’s a mess, I’m choosing the mess.
ROSE: So America is like the Council. Interesting. (Laughter.) One more. Yes, back here.
Q: Maryum Saifee, CFR term member.
I loved your book. And I think what was revolutionary about it was that it was so inclusive. Do you see any efforts to sort of—like, I grew up in Texas, where slavery was mentioned as, like, economic migration until recently. So are there—are there any sort of efforts to kind of decentralized the access to some of the truths that are in your book that are so inclusive, that stitch together these sub-narratives that are usually siloed into a broader effort?
ROSE: And did you see the article on that point, the paper about the different books?
LEPORE: In today’s Times? Yeah. Yeah.
ROSE: Right, right. The teaching of history.
LEPORE: Yeah. There was a frontpage article in today’s New York Times comparing high school textbooks in Texas and California. And that is a version of the segregated story.
I did—I did really write this book to try to blow up the idea that there’s—that there are two versions. There’s either, you know, American greatness and the story of the march of freedom, or American atrocity and everything America has done is terrible. And I think that actually school districts generally are choosing between those two things. It’s either Newt Gingrich To Renew America made into a textbook, or it’s Howard Zinn’s People’s History made into a textbook. I mean, people actually assign Howard Zinn. People don’t assign Newt Gingrich. But in other words, there’s, like, a—there’s a deeply conservative and a deeply left version of American history. And they’re completely incommensurate. And I think they’re both lousy—like, really, deeply lousy.
And so I’m kind of surprised that people have accepted this book as an account, in the sense that a lot of people really love the Zinn story. I mean, they want to hate everything. They want to think that everything the United States has ever done in foreign policy is an atrocity. And they really do want to think—and it’s not that there isn’t atrocity in the history of American—like, I’m—but it’s not everything. (Laughs.) You know, and then the people who want to think that America has always been a moral leader in the world don’t want to admit the atrocity. And, like, I tried to write an account that—like, there is—there’s beauty, and wonder, and heroism, and courage, and integrity, and virtue, and decency. There’s a whole lot of courage. And there’s also a lot of evil, and misery, and suffering, and violence and profound cruelty.
And that there’s no moving forward without seeing both. But the Times story illustrates that for high school age students in public schools the school, the state school boards that have control over the choice of textbooks really are voting with their textbook choice. And they tend to be groups of people, because they’re deeply political active individuals, the more politically active you are the more polarized you are politically, right? The people who are moderates actually kind of don’t give a shit. (Laughter.) I mean, generally. Like, it’s not that they’re centrists. Like, that’s a kind of media idea. It’s that they don’t—they don’t—whatever. Like I like this guy, I don’t like that person. I don’t have, like, a belief about them.
So this isn’t my opinion. This is a political science claim. (Laughter.) So they tend to be people that are—that are offering up to the—I don’t think the teachers want to have this either/or, you know, choice. But the people who, the political figures who are picking. So when I say I wrote the book to kind of rekindle a tradition, I sort of wanted to say, like, imagine that you could write something—I was—sorry. Last story I’m going to tell about this book.
I gave—I gave a lecture at the Naval Academy when I was working on the book. And it was an incredible honor. It was wonderful. I had a great weekend there. And I went in and the students were required to come, so it was a great captive audience. (Laughter.) And the whole—all the midshipmen came in there wearing their dress blues. And they—and I read the introduction to my book out loud, and then I talked about—I argued that there were ten debates in American history, and they had to figure out what the tenth one was. I explained what the nine were, and then we had this big discussion.
And afterwards, this midshipman came up to me and he said: Ma’am, I just—I really enjoyed your lecture. And I just want to say, and I know I mean this with all due respect, and I mean this in fact as a compliment, but I have no idea what your politics are. (Laughter.) And it was the sweetest thing. Like, he was, like, dumbfounded that someone could actually talk about American history and not be making a series of ideological claims. It’s not that I don’t have politics, but it’s that there is—there is an obligation to do your best to let everybody, no matter their politics—well, I mean, they can agree with that, or disagree with that. Like, show me more evidence about that. Whatever. Like, that is what I—like, it is an inquiry. We just don’t—like, we are the—this is part of my, like, where are the places where are the places where people have built where people can stand on and say something in public, and not have hordes of crazy people come after them from both sides, which is sort of maybe what I kind of expected. So I was kind of happy that didn’t happen. (Laughter.)
ROSE: On that note, we are extraordinary fortunate to be in one of those kinds of places where discourse is still respected, where people actually try to have reasonable discussions judged by evidence about the major issues of the day. And it may not necessarily be able to have giant national or international influence, but these fragments we shore against the ruins. And I said before that in dark times with dark subject matters, and giant, thick doorstops of books, the Arthur Ross Book Award jury experience is still somehow an enlightening and lightening, not just enlightening but lightening experience.
And the answer is because we spend our days, these times, living in the muck that we’re currently in. And when we read books like Jill’s, and like Andrew’s, and like Max’s and the others, we get a glimpse of what discourse can be like, of what people trying to make sense of the world around them, and applying reason to it, and communicating that clearly and straightforwardly and accessibly can be like. And it gives us hope that there’s something better, and that we’re not necessarily going to be trapped in an endless cycle of crap, like we have been. And frankly, these days we really could use that kind of hope. And so I want to thank you, Jill, for your work and thank Janet for—Arthur and everything else, the Ross family for this award. Richard and the Council. Because this is—the faith that we keep and the candle that we nurture during dark times because later on there will be new generations to come to continue these stories, continue the discussions. And it will be in places like this, reading works like this that they learn what their history is, who they are, and hopefully can do less badly going forward than we’ve done so far in the past.
Jill Lepore, thank you.
LEPORE: Thank you. Thanks. (Applause.)