Illustration by Gaea Lawton


Our America: Reactions to the Pre-read

In 2013, President Eisgruber instated the Pre-read program to introduce first-years to “Princeton’s intellectual life.” Since then, each incoming class has collectively read and discussed a book selected by President Eisgruber and sent to them prior to their arrival on campus.

The Pre-read selection for the Class of 2024 is “This America: The Case for the Nation” by Jill Lepore. A professor of history at Harvard University, Lepore explores the concept of the nation and the troubling tensions in America’s relationship with patriotism, nationalism, history, and human rights.

The Daily Princetonian asked members of the Class of 2024 to react to Lepore’s text in 500 words or less. The following reflections reveal how first-years celebrated and struggled with “This America” — and with the nation it aims to describe.

On Writing A More Unified History

A land divided into territories, yet united by a common flag. A country composed of strangers and residents. A nation which leans on liberty, despite being stained by maltreatment and slavery. America exists in a dichotomous state — contradictions ring through history as we examine our nation’s tumultuous past and stumbling present. In “This America,” author, historian, and Harvard Professor Jill Lepore brings readers through an extensive account of what America symbolizes, stands for, and preaches — and how we have yet to internalize many of our nation’s fundamental principles.

Lepore’s narrative traces our nation’s story through the words and perspectives of citizens — immigrants, residents, historians, leaders, and authors. Here, the array of diverse voices emphasizes America’s ongoing battle with the character of liberty as it pertains to suffrage, slavery, and immigration. “This America” is not an archive of uninterrupted progress. It chronicles the birth of a fragmented nation swamped in a dream, relentlessly pushing towards the pursuit of happiness.

Yet, through this process, Lepore scrutinizes the toxicity that arises when the love for one’s nation — patriotism — transforms into a hatred-backed nationalism. To conquer this, we must embrace our nation’s stained past, evaluate patterns, notice complexities, and learn. We must write a truthful, common history grounded in honesty. As Lepore writes, “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism.”

The Contemporary Urgency of “This America”

As our home country lay divided amidst an incredibly polarizing political era, Jill Lepore’s “This America” demonstrates its adaptable contemporary relevance within the United States of today. While Lepore argues against nationalism and baseless Americanism viewpoints, she also advocates for a nation based upon liberalism. She argues that with the division that exists in the world today, status as a nation represents a tool by which we can fight injustice and ensure what’s right. She urges us never to forget our national history — the good and, more importantly, the bad.

My favorite passage from the work featured a particular Louis XIV quote: “L'État, c’est moi,” meaning (in regard to the statehood of France) “I am the state.” For one reason or another, I am an admirer of excessively grandiose statements, so this quote stuck out to me. For some reason, it helped contextualize the warped view some individuals hold of a state or a nation. In the United States, many individuals will defend Donald Trump as if he was the nation. And I could picture him saying something like the aforementioned quote. “The nation? I am the nation.”

Today we can see the relevance of Lepore’s work. Our country has turned apolitical, rudimentary concepts into political cannon fodder, from the politicization of mask-wearing and combatting a pandemic to individuals somehow spurring a debate as to whether Black lives matter. With division running deep, it seems more and more implausible to ask that our nation unites behind a singular cause. It sticks out to me that regardless of the case made for the nation, a need arises for individuals to let the nation come to fruition. As long as the promulgation of fake news remains, as long as Trump continues to antagonize and alienate people, as long as his supporters encourage and support his actions, the nation Lepore wants to see will sadly never exist.

Coming Up Short

“This America” fluidly explains our nation’s complicated history, but its historical analysis is flawed. The book makes a powerful appeal to the reader, but the appeal is bogged down by contradiction. Jill Lepore attempts to synthesize too many ideas in her essay/history/op-ed, leaving the reader with mixed feelings and without a conclusive argument.

As a child of immigrants, I was genuinely heartened seeing how my family’s history fits into Lepore’s flowing story. My great-great-grandfather came to America on page 77, left before the First World War, and then my parents arrived on page 123 at 3 a.m. in LaGuardia. All of them were drawn here by the American dream, a concept Lepore claims was popularized by historians.

Historical writing is not the only force and certainly not the driving force in shaping America. A nation’s culture cannot be defined by textbooks and other esoteric works that few people read. What about novels and newspapers? What about word of mouth? What about the real experiences of the American people?

A particularly glaring example is Lepore’s account of American Historical Society meetings. She writes as if their yearly keynote speeches were world-altering, as if their choice to ignore writing about American history decades ago is the sole reason for nationalism’s return today. I hesitate to argue that historical writing was not a factor, that allowing non-historians to publish their own “histories” to fill the void was without consequence. I will say that for every 1,000 Trump supporters swayed by Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln,” 10,000 were frustrated with Obamacare or a myriad of other American dilemmas.

Lepore tries hard to stay apolitical, which is a noble effort. The last few pages of her book avoid directly attacking Trump, instead making a general plea against nationalism. However, her opinion is a strong one. She advocates passionately for “a new Americanism,” pointing at inequalities and injustices in today’s America that are very real and must be reckoned with. After over 100 pages of pointing out the flaws of every American historian’s arguments, I expected more nuance in her own. She brands Trump as a “nationalist” and claims that there are severe consequences if nationalism grows unchecked, with a clear political implication. I do not disagree with her conclusion, but the argument supporting it is just as flawed as any historian’s prediction of the future. Acknowledging the opinionated nature of her perspective as fallible would have given her statements more legitimacy. Instead, she presents her opinions as facts, further emboldening those who agree and alienating those who don’t. Lepore’s work is powerful, but she could have done better.

History is inherently convoluted. Lepore makes several powerful arguments, but they are undermined by a lack of focus. The retrospective analysis of how America’s culture formed was too focused on historians. The impassioned plea to the reader lacked proper context. Each element of the book had strong attributes, but much like America today, it couldn’t come together as a united whole.

The Fight Continues

Jill Lepore’s book, “This America: The Case for the Nation,” posits that America is a fight for equality. By extension, Americans must be those who partake in such a fight. But a quick look at the country’s past yields countless ignominious instances of people promoting inequality. Slavery, the Trail of Tears, and Japanese internment, among other examples, testify to those who have attempted to address the country’s identity quest by defining “American” to read exclusively as descriptions of their own selves. That said, the United States’ history also contains cases of brave souls that resolved to speak their messages — mainly, “I too belong” — over the cacophony of the status quo.

Both of these groups continue to act as prominent characters in America’s story, and with the groups’ conflicting agendas, the country’s history sometimes reads like a glorified game of chutes and ladders — a cycle of progress made and lost. In its existence, the country has slid down a number of chutes, but it has also climbed a decent number of ladders; ergo, America’s story cannot exist by focusing on only one of these trends. As Lepore states, the country must face the good and the bad parts of its past — the slides and the climbs. After all, one can’t have a full meal without dessert, nor without veggies.

Ultimately, the United States isn’t perfect, but it isn’t horrible either, and now, during one of the most polarized times in the country’s history, it’s imperative that we understand this. For, if America is an ongoing fight, then spending all our time arguing over whether the country is currently great or not is only going to get us as far as one gets on a treadmill.

America was predicated on the idea that all are created equal. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there one day. Until then, keep fighting, everyone.

Liberal Nationalism: An Oxymoron?

Jill Lepore’s book ”This America” is an interesting tract on the history of American nationalism and the importance of a new “liberal” national revival to combat what she terms “illiberal nationalism.” There is certainly little to dispute in the book: Professor Lepore takes the uninitiated reader on a journey through the history of American nationalism, criticizing racism and promoting “liberal nationalism.” However, what is significant in the book is not what it discusses but what it does not discuss. By presenting the history of nationalism as a dichotomy between liberal and illiberal nationalism, Professor Lepore avoids answering hard questions regarding the role of nationalism in a global world and the relationship between liberalism and nationalism on the international stage.

Lepore’s case for liberal nationalism suffers not because ethnic nationalism is preferable but because internationalism is. She does not consider how several important principles of liberalism, most importantly the principle of equality, can be applied on the global stage in a world of nation-states.

The first difficulty is to reconcile the policies of a nation-state with liberalism. There are many policies of nation-states that appear to be incompatible with liberalism. Trade policy is a great example. Lepore states in her book that there might be disagreements between sensible people regarding trade policy. Presumably, she is referring to tariffs. Now, if products and services offered by people of color were taxed at a higher rate than those offered by white businesses, this policy would rightfully be decried as a racist policy that is incompatible with liberalism. Lepore gives us no indication as to why we cannot apply the same reasoning in the case of German, Japanese, and Chinese businesses. How is it possible to reconcile a nationalist trade policy with liberalism? We do not find an answer to this question in Lepore’s book.

This makes clear the fundamental problem with liberal nationalism: Liberalism is universal in character. Nationalism is not. Nationalism privileges certain people based on arbitrary factors, not unlike racism. A “liberal nation” is nothing other than a “nation” of liberals: a nation where everyone believes in the principles of liberalism and every liberal is welcomed as a compatriot. In other words, it is not a nation at all, at least in the way that we understand it. It is simply a community of liberals, a liberal state. Liberalism embraces the whole of humanity. Nationalism excludes the great majority of it.

The three fundamental principles of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” doubtlessly apply to everyone all around the globe. In times such as ours when these principles come under assault, we should not succumb to the temptation to compromise on our values but rather offer a staunch defense of them. Professor Lepore thinks that we can save liberalism by embracing nationalism. That is a grave error that we must not make.

Redefining Nation

“A nation,” to quote Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “is a group of the same people living in the same place — or in different places.” The American experiment was to suppose that we define the word “same.” Before, as Jill Lepore writes in the third chapter of “This America,” “same” meant people “who share common origins, as if they were a family.” The founders of the United States, though, believed that instead of genealogy, we are connected by ideology. As the first liberal nation, we are “a nation to which anyone who affirms its civic ideals belongs.”

The Europeans who came here and ended up making America had to nationalize in that way because they didn’t have a unified identity in the first place, being a nation of settlers. Never had that been done before. Lepore quotes Thomas Paine: “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.” That was our first great act of nationalism — while making our state, quickly justifying its legitimacy by creating a nation. States protect national lives that would otherwise be nasty, brutish, and short, in exchange for sovereignty and legitimacy. States are flimsy, fiat structures without nations; nations are slimy, turgid bodies without states.

That idea — that we define who “We the People” is — has been extended by liberals over time. The quarter-millennium history of the United States can be defined by the expansion of that warm plural pronoun. American history is a continuous nationalism — a series of broken and remade nations to fit the new ideals meant to define them. But even as we do the work to make new nations, it’s only a fairly distasteful post-hoc nationalism.

An in-motion nationalism begs the question of its goal, its end. The founding ideal that we all nominally share as Americans is simple and was laid out by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One day, maybe, these self-evident truths will manifest. Then, American nationalism will end, restful, complete. But for now, we’ll have to continue the work of nationalism — of expanding “We the People” — until the ideal becomes reality, until the original contradiction of America is washed from our sinning body. Till then, a dominant chord rings, unresolved, in America’s unfinished symphony.

This project was led by Paige Allen
Web design by Ananya Grover, Kenny Peng, and Brian Tieu
Sunday, October 18th, 2020