Jill Lepore’s one-volume history of the U.S.

“Think of the American republic as a railroad train,” writes Bruce Ackerman in the first volume of his constitutional history of the U.S., “with the judges of the middle Republic sitting in the caboose, looking backward.” Time passes, the political and judicial landscape changes, judges come and go. But all the while the judges are facing backward, not in charge of the train’s direction but trying to make sense of how everything they’ve seen fits together. This notion of judges engaging in “retrospective synthesis” didn’t seem all that helpful to me when studying constitutional law — But how should the judges decide?? — but Ackerman was writing a history, and I found myself thinking of his metaphor recently as explaining part of what historians do.

Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, has taken on an ambitious act of retrospective synthesis with her new one-volume history of the U.S. I strongly recommend it. “Some American history books fail to criticize the United States; others do nothing but,” Lepore writes. “This book is neither kind.” Instead, it is a synthesis, a telling that puts ideals and atrocities on equal footing and which returns continually to the question: By what right are we ruled?

It is also “meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” And there is no doubt that any American who reads the book will come away better prepared for civic life. But while history is an important input into civic participation, Lepore’s account also emphasizes why we cannot proceed based on retrospection alone. Americans, James Madison wrote, “have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity” — and that was a good thing. Lepore also quotes him as warning against fealty toward the wisdom of the founders. (I can’t for the life of me find the quote, but having finished the book just a couple of weeks ago I am confident it’s in there.)

The past can inform, inspire, and chasten. But civics is about the passengers on the train, not just the view from the caboose. It is up to us to choose a destination.

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