What's Tony Thinking

The Value of Disillusionment


With the encouragement of my book club I am really reading (as opposed to “reading in”) Harvard historian, Jill Lepore’s, big one-volume history of the U.S., These Truths: A History of the United States. I am about half-way through her 932 page book.

She’s a great writer and it’s a terrific book. But it is, in several respects, an exercise in disillusionment. At least if you harbored illusions about the United States history as a more or less steady march of progress or if you imagine that most of our history has been more noble and edifying than our own, present, era.

Perhaps the clearest contribution of Lepore’s book is to hold the incredible tension between the nation’s founding ideas and ideals and the huge contradiction posed by the institution of slavery. From the get-go, our story is one of an epic tension. Or is the right word “curse?”

Lepore shows that slavery is not one issue among many facing the new nation. It was the issue. Still less, is slavery a side-story to the real narrative of triumphs of American ingenuity and courage. No, slavery defines and dogs us every step of the way. It bedevils our most revered leaders, for example, Washington, Franklin and Jefferson. The point is not just that they, as most of the founders, owned slaves. It is how complex and unresolved the issue was at the nation’s founding and how it continued to be so in subsequent chapters.

If Frederick Turner’s core thesis was that America cannot be understood apart from its frontier, Lepore’s would be America cannot be understood apart from slavery.

This presentation reaches its climax (but not conclusion), of course, with The Civil War. About the crux of that terrible conflict, Lepore is clear as a starry night. The War was not about “states rights” or the proper powers of the federal government or any other fuzzy abstraction. It was about slavery.

The other respect in which Lepore’s book is a disillusionment comes should you imagine political deception and hustles, violence, polarization and specters of anti-democratic authoritarianism are unique to our own time. Sorry no. We’ve got nothing on our past when it comes to bitter battles and playing fast and loose with truth and facts.

This is not to say, at least in my judgment, that Lepore is offering us some sort of anti-American or politically correct reading of history, though I’m sure some would see it as such. She gives us, rather, a complex story where American history is a continuing debate, bursting sometimes into open conflict, over who and what this nation really is.

Current debates, partisanship and hyper-polarization, are not new. Ours is time when they are at high tide, but there have been many such times before. In fact, they seem more the norm than the exception.

I’m unsure if all of this is good news or bad news. It is bad news if it leads only to apathy or cynicism. “It has always been thus.” It may be good news, however, if you are feeling that we are in times without precedent or the first generation to peer into the abyss.

Which raises the question that every disillusionment always brings. Are we better off with our illusions or without them? I conclude that disillusionment, though always painful, is preferable to living with illusions.

At some point Lepore observes that a nation born amid revolt and contradictions, like ours, is never far from chaos. Again, good news or bad? On balance, it seems to me helpful to see America realistically as a continuing struggle in which we now have our part to play.

Lepore’s epigraph for These Truths is taken from Lincoln, who at a discouraging point in the Civil War said, “[w]e must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save the country.” “Disenthrall” may be another word for “disillusion.” Face reality clearly, or more clearly, and we may save the country. Lepore helps us to do that.

You may be inclined to steer clear of such a long book. Don’t be. It is very readable. I’m grateful to my book group for helping me discover that.

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