Scott-Childress on Lepore, 'This America: The Case for the Nation'

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A review of Lepore's new general survey of American history. 
Jill Lepore
Reynolds J. Scott-Childress

Scott-Childress on Lepore, 'This America: The Case for the Nation'

Jill Lepore. This America: The Case for the Nation. New York: Liveright, 2019. 150 pp. $16.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-63149-641-7.

Reviewed by Reynolds J. Scott-Childress (State University of New York at New Paltz) Published on H-Nationalism (December, 2019) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

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Hans Kohn’s formidable essay The Idea of Nationalism first appeared in 1944, a distant historical era when the liberal ideals of individual freedom and equality appeared to be triumphant in the waning days of World War II. The immigré author found in the United States the ideal embodiment of these values. The American nation, he proclaimed, “was formed by an idea, a universal idea.” This capacious foundation meant “everyone could be included, and if he were of good will, assimilated.”[1] To justify this claim, however, Kohn had to ignore some uncomfortable historical exceptions to his claim (slavery, for example, the US Civil War, Chinese exclusion, anti-immigrant nativism) as well as such contemporary realities as racial segregation throughout the Southern states and in the US Army then fighting to defeat fascism in Europe and Asia. At least he gave serious attention to nationalism as a mode of American groupness. During the ensuing Cold War, US scholars, policymakers, and political commentators detested nationalism as a plague of the body politic, an irrational partisanship. They condemned nationalism as merely a guise for collectivist, totalitarian ideologies. Over the past half-century, this American distrust of nationalism has led scholars of American history to focus mostly on other categories of groupness, such as race, ethnicity, and immigration. Americans’ sociopolitical anxieties over nationalism have recently grown more acute, as demonstrated by the ease with which the media and scholars have acquiesced in white supremacists’ demands to refer to their racist ideology as “white nationalism.” They are also evident in the fears expressed in historian Jill Lepore’s recent polemical essay, This America: The Case for the Nation.

Lepore is a prolific writer. She has published books on diverse subjects ranging from the seventeenth-century King Philip’s War to the twentieth-century creator of Wonder Woman. As a staff writer at the New Yorker, she has developed a highly visible position as a public intellectual. This America follows closely on the publication of her single-volume history of the United States, These Truths (2018). These two books are among several recent works that fret over the seeming demise of American liberalism.[2] This America argues that American historians must embrace the ideal of “the nation” to defend liberal values against attack from those who espouse a dangerous, populist nationalism.

Lepore’s essay unfolds in sixteen chapters. The first two raise theoretical concerns and are followed by fourteen roughly chronological chapters rounded out by some concluding remarks. Chapter 1 introduces the two key themes of the essay: the treason of contemporary American historians and the call for a return to liberalism. Because American historians, she argues, no longer write the history of the nation as a whole—opting instead to write histories of subalterns, identity groups, or other minorities—they have left the history of the United States to illiberal nationalists. Chapter 2 lays out Lepore’s claim for American national exceptionalism. She distinguishes three modes for considering American peoplehood: the voluntary collectivity of the nation, the ideological program of nationalism, and contemporary forms of fanatical patriotism. In the chapters that follow, she argues that the uniqueness of the American nation lies in the first mode and its supporting liberal values, while rejecting the populist mentalities of the latter two. Lepore considers the birth of the American nation as a great historical aberration in chapter 3. Her aim is to demonstrate the purported uniqueness of the nation’s founding. The United States did not follow what Lepore deems to be the standard process of long national evolution. Rather, she asserts that the American nation sprang from the state apparatus created in the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution of 1787. This course of events, she writes—seemingly unaware of the large body of nationalist literature to the contrary—means that “the United States [is] not a nation-state but instead something stranger, a state-nation.” This, she claims, “is a thing as rare as hen’s teeth” (p. 33).  Students of nationalism will no doubt be surprised by this assertion.[3]

Chapters 4 through 9 take the reader through the nineteenth century to render an impressionistic portrait of “the emergence of nationalism” (p. 45). Lepore explores the liberal nature of the American nation by considering works by a wide array of eminent Americans. These include historian George Bancroft, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, minister Theodore Parker, political theorist Franz Lieber, politicians Charles Sumner, John C. Calhoun, and Stephen Douglas, and others. Aware of the pitfalls of triumphalism that a focus on such figures might create, Lepore is careful to delineate a counter history rooted in our contemporary struggles over issues of race and gender. She considers in chapter 6 a handful of critiques by people of color and women directed against antebellum liberal hypocrisies. She provides overviews of, for example, William Apess’s essay “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s draft of the “Declaration of Sentiments” issued by the 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls. While Lepore is adept at rendering these critiques of the limits of antebellum liberalism, she does not clearly explain how they relate to questions of nationalism.

Chapter 10—the longest in the book—is the work’s linchpin. Here, Lepore elaborates on the struggle between liberalism and illiberalism at the turn of the twentieth century. She details a number of court cases that began to hedge the definition and inclusiveness of US citizenship. She follows the development of legal codes, particularly the Jim Crow laws promulgated in Southern states that barred participation of peoples of color from the political process. She notes the passage of federal policies that increasingly limited the number and nature of immigrants who could gain admittance to the country. The dominant figure in this discussion is Theodore Roosevelt. Lepore ably conveys Roosevelt’s struggle between what historian Gary Gerstle in his Civic Nationalism (2001) termed “racial nationalism” and “civic nationalism.” Lepore demonstrates how Roosevelt presented “a strange hybrid” of liberal and illiberal nationalism (p. 85). On the one hand, she notes, Roosevelt championed “our race” in “winning the West,” while on the other he called for treating “every good American … on a full and exact equality with every other good American” (p. 83). Lepore crucially demonstrates, too, how incisive early twentieth-century critics of color such as Mary Church Terrell and W. E. B. Du Bois challenged racialized, illiberal forms of American citizenship.

Chapters 11-14 cover the twentieth century. In chapter 11, Lepore, without specifically framing the history in terms of inventing a white American race, relates the development of an exclusionary American national ideal. The chapter develops in two movements. In the first, Lepore examines the articulation and increasing use of color to designate an American racial essence. She notes events from the 1916 publication of Madison Grant’s widely influential The Passing of the Great Race to the exclusion of large numbers of southern and eastern Europeans by the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. In the second part, Lepore argues, in line with the mid-twentieth-century historian Oscar Handlin, that in the mid-1930s “there was a turn, Americans ceased to believe in race” (p. 97). During the New Deal and World War II administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, she claims, Americans repudiated racial hate and discrimination. Instead, they celebrated what social commentator James Truslow Adams called “the American Dream”—a purportedly capacious program that included citizens of all creeds and colors.

Nevertheless, if any American idealist truly believed in this vision, it was clearly shattered in the Cold War era. The national project of countering Soviet propaganda with claims of American individual freedom and equality collapsed under the crushing realities of Jim Crow segregation. In chapter 12, Lepore notes the inadequate response of liberal historians and intellectuals such as Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and Lionel Trilling to the resulting social and political divisions, not only those between black and white Americans, but those between liberal and illiberal ideologues.

Lepore turns in chapter 13 to the rise of violent responses to the American state’s rejection of the separate-but-equal doctrine and its at best grudging support for the civil rights movement. She sees the numerous bombings perpetrated by those she anachronistically deems “white nationalists”—abjuring for some reason the more historically and ethically appropriate labels “white supremacists” or “racists”—as the beginning of contemporary illiberalism. Her strategy here is not presented as cause and effect. Rather, she suggests correlation by shifting back and forth between the events of the civil rights era and more recent acts of racist violence and the vicious response to Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. Lepore offers her explanation for the rise of white nationalism in the Obama years in chapter 14. The blame for the new illiberalism, she claims, lies with American historians, rather than Tea Party adherents and contemporary white nationalists. The most significant correlation she notes is that American historical scholarship became fragmented by identity politics in the very same years when “conservatism became the dominant force in American politics” (p. 124). Thus, she concludes, because historians no longer wrote about “the nation, as a nation” (p. 125), they thereby rejected the consensus liberalism of an earlier age—apparently the last bulwark against conservatism—and they now, she laments, write instead as tribal partisans.

Lepore leaves historical narrative in the two concluding chapters and returns to her political project. Here the author tips her polemical hand. Nationalism is a populist, violent force that wreaks havoc wherever it appears. For example, she blames events as disparate as the genocide in Rwanda and recent exclusionary policies of the US government on nationalism. Against the divisiveness of nationalism, Lepore calls for, in her final chapter, “a new Americanism” (p. 135). She defines this attitude in thoroughly liberal terms: “A new Americanism would mean 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” (p. 137). As a historian who has written insightful, powerful histories of violence that has often marred the practice of these ideals in US history, Lepore tempers the idealism of the new Americanism with a simultaneous commitment to “a clear-eyed reckoning” (p. 137) with the violence and intolerance that have tainted the American liberal project in the past.

Perhaps it is this awareness of the inconsistences of American liberalism that leads Lepore to close her essay with a classic liberal evasion. Rather than offering a positive program for winning the American people to the values of equality and individualism, she concludes with a jeremiad. There was a golden age of liberal consensus, she suggests, when American historians wrote of a nation that embodied the ideals of an inclusive citizenship. And, if contemporary liberals do not revive the post-World War II project of consensus, she warns that their only solace in the future will be the power to label the illiberal nationalists’ claim that “they alone love this country” as “a fiction” (p. 138).

This America is a political essay rather than an analysis of nationalism per se. Lepore uses the concept of “the nation” to argue in favor of revitalizing liberalism to combat the populist nationalism that currently threatens the demise of long-standing American values of liberty and equality. However, it is difficult to see many readers being persuaded by her argument. Her definition of liberalism is hardly inspirational. It is, she says, “the belief that people are good and should be free, and that people erect governments in order to guarantee that freedom” (p. 40). This definition is all the more problematic in that she emphasizes the egalitarian side of the liberal coin and makes no serious attempt to conceptualize the potentially individualist, antidemocratic outcomes of the freedom side. Her argument remains firmly rooted in glib rights talk (though she does not explicitly engage in such discourse). She rightly condemns the barriers to inclusion of people of color and women, for example, but says virtually nothing about the struggles of class and unequal wealth. Thus, when she criticizes the post-World War II liberal historians for their uncritical belief in a triumphant liberalism (pp. 101-3), her complaint is not against their liberalism, only that they prematurely proclaimed victory.

Like those Cold War-era historians, Lepore detests nationalism as a political ideology. She calls it the product of “fiends and frauds” who truck in “myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, [who] pour out the contents of old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls to violence” (p. 20). Nationalism, for Lepore, is akin to fascism. It is “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” (p. 23). Yet her claims are based on no discernable serious engagement with the rich production of nationalism studies since the early 1980s. Her work instead demonstrates the paucity of attention scholars have paid to American nationalism and stands as a shining example of how a nationalism study can go wrong.

Some thirty years ago, Richard Handler warned scholars of nationalism to be careful to establish a truly analytical framework rather than deploy the very nationalist idiom they seek to understand.[4] Lepore falls into this trap. By framing her history in terms of “either/or”—liberalism or illiberalism, inclusion or exclusion—she denies how new groups, whether arising from within (organized labor, the civil rights movement, for example) or from the without (such as post-Civil War freed people, eastern and southern European labor activists) have fundamentally changed the nature of American nationalism. Thus, Lepore ends up embodying the very sorts of nationalist assumptions and anxieties that propel her enemies. Instead of exploring the “style” of American nationalisms or the ways Americans have used nationalism to achieve particular political or cultural ends, for example, This America provides an ideological attack on illiberal populism. Lepore “forgets”—she makes much of Ernst Renan’s famous dictum about the role of forgetting and historical error in the foundation of nations—such crucial moments in American nationalism as Frederick Jackson Turner’s immensely influential “frontier thesis” or Malcolm X’s turn to black nationalism or the antipathy of Cold War American historians to the subject of nationalism itself. Clearly, in such a short work, an author cannot address all key moments. Nevertheless, Lepore’s choices demonstrate that her work is not analytical in nature, but ideological. Because of this ideological framework, her political critique holds little bite. When she comes to critique her central target, for example, she cannot provide any powerful, motivating argument. To President Donald Trump’s pronouncement that “it [nationalism] should be brought back,” the only reply she can muster is the weak retort: “It should not” (p. 25).

For Lepore, nationalism is an ideological tool wielded by tribalist factions—whether identity scholars on the left or illiberal partisans on the right—to destroy American liberalism. Correlatively, the American nation, in Lepore’s reading, is the historical embodiment of the liberal ideals of individual independence and equality. This is an analysis of which Hans Kohn would be proud.


[1]. Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origin and Background (1944; reprint, New York: Collier, 1967), 324.

[2]. Timothy Noah, “The L Word,” Sunday Book Review, New York Times, October 6, 2019, 12. Noah mentions, besides Lepore’s This America, James Traub’s What Was Liberalism?, Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, and Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities. He could have added also Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.

[3]. Eric Hobsbawm asserted, some thirty years ago, that “nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round” (Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990], 10). A similar point is made in Richard Handler, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 6-7; and see Crafting State-Nations: India and Other Multinational Democracies, ed. Alfred Stepan, Juan J. Linz, and Yogendra Yadav (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

[4]. Handler, Nationalism and the Politics of Culture, 8.

Citation: Reynolds J. Scott-Childress. Review of Lepore, Jill, This America: The Case for the Nation. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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