The Epilogue: The Question Addressed

From Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of the United States

It had been unusually warm in Philadelphia the summer of the constitutional convention, but by the middle of September, when the last delegates mounted their horses and headed for home, the weather had begun to turn. By October, when The Federalist Papers began appearing in newspapers, asking Americans to debate the question of "whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force, the air was as crisp as an autumn apple. In November, as the last apples were pressed into cider, the temperature began to plummet. The day after Christmas, ice closed the Delaware River and kept it shut for months, over a winter so cold that the ground froze as far south as Savannah.

It's been hotter in the years since. The climate of the Constitution is gone. The average annual temperature in Philadelphia at the time of the constitutional convention was 52 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of Barack Obama's presidency, it had risen to 59 degrees. When the world began to warm, the temperature over land rose faster than the temperature over water, but the oceans heated up, too. Ice caps melted, seas rose, storms grew. Not long after Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the nearly two-hundred-member-nation Paris climate accord, a declaration he described as "a reassertion of America's sovereignty, a trillion-ton iceberg the size of the state of Delaware broke off of Antarctica. For millions of years the continents had drifted away from one another. In 1492 they'd met again, in America, a new world. Sixteenth-century conquerors debated the nature of justice. Seventeenth-century dissenters hoped to find nearness to God. Eighteenth-century rationalists, cleaving themselves from the past, hoped to found a new beginning, a place out of time.

The United States began with an act of severing: "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . . a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. Its Constitution aspired to create a more perfect union, but it was slaves and the descendants of slaves who, by dissolving the bonds of tyranny, helped to realize the promise of that union, in bonds of equality. Those new bonds tied Americans to one another, and to the world. Telegraph wires stretched across the Atlantic, sunk to the ocean's floor. Then came steamships, airplanes, supersonic jets, satellites, pollution, atomic bombs, the Internet. "In the beginning, all the world was America, John Locke had written. By the close of the Cold War, some commentators concluded that America had become all the world, as if the American experiment had ended, in unrivaled triumph.

The American experiment had not ended. A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.

And still the waters rose. Trump's election started a tidal wave. Not a few political commentators announced the end of the Republic. Trump's rhetoric was apocalyptic and absolute; the theme of his inaugural address was "American carnage. The rhetoric of his critics was no less dystopian -- angry, wounded, and without hope.

As Trump began his term in office, Americans fought over immigration and guns, sex and religion. They fought, too, over statues and monuments, plaques and names. The ghosts of American history rattled their chains. In Frederick, Maryland, a Chevy pickup truck carted a bronze bust of Roger Taney, the judge who'd made the decision in Dred Scott, from the city hall to a cemetery outside of town. In St. Louis, cranes pulled up two Confederate memorials--their plinths spray-painted "BLACK LIVES MATTER and "END RACISM"--and put them into storage. New Orleans planned to take down statues of four Confederate leaders, which led to mayhem, seepage from what secessionists once described as a "sea of blood," the bursting of a dam. In Charlottesville, Virginia, where a statue of Robert E. Lee had been slated to come down, armed white supremacists marched through the city; one ran down a counter-protester and killed her, as if the Civil War had never ended, she the last of the Union dead.

The truths on which the nation was founded--equality, sovereignty, and consent--had been retold after the Civil War. Modern liberalism came out of that political settlement, and the United States, abandoning isolationism, had carried that vision to the world: the rule of law, individual rights, democratic government, open borders, and free markets. The fight to make good on the promise of the nation's founding truths held the country together for a century, during the long struggle for civil rights. And yet the nation came apart all the same, all over again. Conservatives based their claim to power on liberalism's failure, which began in the 1960s, when the idea of identity replaced the idea of equality. Liberals won gains in the courts while losing state houses, governors' offices, and congressional seats. By the 1990s, conservative Robert Bork insisted, "Modern liberalism is fundamentally at odds with democratic government because it demands results that ordinary people would not freely choose. Liberals must govern, therefore, through institutions that are largely insulated from the popular will. But the problem wasn't that liberals did not succeed in winning popular support; the problem was that liberals did not try, spurning electoral politics in favor of judicial remedies, political theater, and purity crusades.

Conservatives rested their claim to political power on winning elections and winning history. The National Review, William F. Buckley had written in 1955, "stands athwart history, yelling Stop. From wanting it to stop, conservatives began wanting history to turn back, not least by making a fetish of the nation's founding, in the form of originalism. "From the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965," Newt Gingrich wrote in 1996, "from the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims, through de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, up to Norman Rockwell's paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, there was one continuous civilization built around commonly accepted legal and cultural principles." Since 1965, the year Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act, Gingrich argued, that civilization had come undone. Gingrich's account of America's past was a fantasy, useful to his politics, but useless as history--heedless of difference and violence and the struggle for justice. It also undermined and belittled the American experiment, making it less bold, less daring, less interesting, less violent, a daffy, reassuring bedtime story instead of a stirring, terrifying, inspiring, troubling, earth-shaking epic. And yet that fairy tale spoke to the earnest yearnings and political despair of Americans who joined the Tea Party, and who rallied behind Donald Trump's promise to "make American great again." Nor was the nostalgia limited to America alone. All over the world, populists seeking solace from a troubled present sought refuge in imagined histories. The fate of the nation-state itself appearing uncertain; nationalists, who had few proposals for the future, gained power by telling fables about the greatness of the past.

Barack Obama had urged Americans "to choose our better history, a longer, more demanding, messier, and, finally, more uplifting story. But a nation cannot choose its past; it can only choose its future. And in the twenty-first century, it was no longer clear that choice, in the sense that Alexander Hamilton meant, had much to do with the decisions made by an electorate that had been cast adrift on the ocean of the Internet. Can a people govern themselves by reflection and choice? Hamilton had wanted to know, or are they fated to be ruled, forever, by accident and force, lashed by the violence of each wave of a surging sea?

The ship of state lurched and reeled. Liberals, blown down by the slightest breeze, had neglected to trim the ship's sails, leaving the canvas to flap and tear in a rising wind, the rigging flailing. Huddled belowdecks, they had failed to plot a course, having lost sight of the horizon and their grasp on any compass. On deck, conservatives had pulled up the ship's planking to make bonfires of rage: they had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship's very mast.

It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea. If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky. With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true. They would need to drive home nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill. Knowing that heat and sparks and hammers and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals. And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.