Reviewed in the United States on December 13, 2018
I agree with those who have said we very much need a book of this scope, aim, and ambition: a sweeping political history of the United States, intended also to serve as a kind of civics primer, its topics chosen with an eye to what seems most significant in light of our own rather desperate political situation. I also agree with the author's major interpretative decision: to make slavery, sexism, xenophobia, and ethnic/racial hostility an important part of the central narrative of our history. And I share what seem to be Ms. Lepore's moderately left-of-center political views.
Why then my strong sense of an opportunity missed, a worthwhile project botched? I'll try to list the problems in ascending order of importance.
As is perhaps inevitable when one person attempts something of this scope, there are many factual errors (for example, that in 2000 29% of the US population was foreign-born; that Roosevelt was accompanied to Yalta by "fighter jets," that Allan Bloom was "a literary critic," and so forth). Some of these are so strange that one can't possibly ascribe them to any genuine defects in the author's knowledge; they must be some kind of editing blunder or something going horribly wrong in the text's journey from word-processor to printed text (a single example: the astounding statement, on p.298 of the Kindle version, that Virginia just prior to the Emancipation Proclamation was "a border state not part of the Confederacy"; of course, at the time in question Virginia was hardly a "border state"; Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy)
No author of a work of this kind could reasonably be asked to give an account of the competing interpretations of any/every significant historical event; doing so would require not one but many 900 page volumes. But on some questions, there's an option that lies somewhere between doing this, and adopting/stating a controversial position as though it were a matter of established historical fact, or the majority or consensus view of reputable historians. Two examples of the author doing the latter, both having to do with the Supreme Court. It is true that there is no specific listing of a right of judicial review of Congressional legislation in the Constitution. But to present the Court's assertion of such a right in Marbury v. Madison as a pure and simple power grab (as Lepore does) ignores a great deal of evidence that one of the reasons judicial review was not stated explicitly in the Constitution was that so many people took it for granted. (There's also nothing in the Constitution that says explicitly that whites should rule blacks, or men rule women--but as the author herself repeatedly points out, almost nobody in the America of 1787 thought that things could possibly be otherwise) How else, after all, was the Constitution's claim to be "the supreme law of the land" to be effectuated and enforced? Should it have been left to another branch of the Federal Government, or to the states, or to some kind of negotiated agreement between any or all of these? The only feasible alternative--one which in my opinion should have been adopted by the Framers--would have been to require such Supreme Court decisions to be unanimous, given their extreme gravity, their profoundly anti-democratic character, and the allegedly clear guidance provided by the Constitution. But I digress.
To take another example, the author asserts a kind of interpretive equivalence between the Court finding (in Roe v. Wade) of a "right to privacy" in the Constitution as a basis for abortion rights, and its finding in the Heller decision of an individual "right to bear arms" independent of militia service. This reminds me of one of the hostile definitions of a "liberal": someone who believes that the Constitution contains a right to abortion, but not a right to bear arms. [To forestall any possible misguided outrage here, I support abortion rights and also very strict gun control laws. The problem is that the author treats both these rights as Constitutional hallucinations, inventions, or deliberate distortions. But that's much more clearly the case with the right to an abortion than the right to bear arms.] There are all too many other places where Prof. Lepore adopts a position on a controversial question without any indication, except now and then in a footnote reference, that there are serious evidence-based arguments for opposing or alternative points of view. As mentioned earlier, there has to be some area between entering into endless discussions of historical controversies, and presenting one side of a controversy as undisputed historical fact--especially when the issues involved are really important ones.
But the greatest problem with this book can be simply stated: whatever her many skills and virtues as a historian, Prof. Lepore just does not have the extremely rare combination of analytical and narrative gifts needed to pull off a project like this--perhaps no one does, or ever did, or ever will. The text for long stretches meanders from one topic, event, theme, period in time, or person to another without (often) any discernible rhyme or reason. In my opinion, any reader without a reasonably solid prior grasp of American History will find this book difficult to follow. The writing is flabby and pedestrian; when it strains to go beyond this, it all too often falls into mawkishness or melodrama. There are too many examples of these failed attempts to attain the status of literature or epigram to list here; reading the embarrassing and, frankly, cringe-inducing epilogue/peroration ought to be enough to convince anyone.