Get smarter, faster about America’s 247th birthday

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Welcome to the fourth instalment of This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s news and developments. The few minutes you take to read this newsletter will make you smarter, faster…guaranteed. Here, you will find a deep dive on fiction and non-fiction about the week’s big story and/or perfect watercooler convo and dinner party small talk. (The first post on ‘dictator chic’ is here. The second post on ecocide and the late, great Cormac McCarthy is here. The third post on what to know about Russia, revolts and 1917 is here.)

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We’re a day early — normally, the newsletter goes out Wednesdays — but it’s America’s 247th birthday and there are many compelling reasons to focus this week’s book selections on the Fourth of July. First, for me, is that July 4 is my daughter’s birthday!

But in broader, less personal terms, American declinism continues to be, as TIME magazine’s publisher Henry Luce once said, both cottage industry and big business. At various points since the mid-1950s, when the US became the world’s dominant power, American declinism has been a passionate subject of debate. So it is today. This is not just because America is deeply polarised in political and cultural terms and a mindset of mistrust — of government, the media, police, the scientific establishment, the highest court in the land — is flourishing. As some Republican state legislatures challenge green policies and an activist conservative Supreme Court hands down controversial decisions that will set off a new slew of wars for and against “woke” policies, the narrative of an America in decline is strong.

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Is this justified? Or is America in the throes of a course correction? “Bidenomics”, a term formally launched by Joe Biden’s White House just days ago, is doing rather well, sparking hope that this longer-term reset of economic policy will start a whole new cycle of sustainable growth for the US. With massive investment rolling into manufacturing, infrastructure and green innovation and serious efforts underway to shore up key supply chains, old America is in surprisingly good nick despite the dirge of declinism.

Read on to find out what to read for background and context as we address the state of America 247 years after its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, was adopted on July 4, 1776.

Dear Reader, this week reminds me of those books

These Truths: A History of the United States

By Jill Lepore

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Year: 2018

This is a weighty tome — 960 pages — but anyone who has read Jill Lepore in The New Yorker or heard her on the outlet’s The Political Scene podcast, will know that she combines erudition with accessibility. As a professor of American History at Harvard and a New Yorker staff writer, Lepore was ideally placed to execute a monumental task ­– a one-volume account of American history since European settlement.

The title is drawn from the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

She sets out to ask questions that continue to trouble America and the wider world in the 21st century: “The American experiment rests on three political ideas — ‘these truths’, Thomas Jefferson called them — political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people…Does American history prove these truths, or does it belie them?”

The book tackles the sweep of history — both broadly and with specificity, however paradoxical that might sound. As an American and a trained historian, Lepore is fond but fair. Here’s a taste:

“Southern slave owners, a tiny minority of Americans, amounting to about 1 percent of the population, deployed the rhetoric of states’ rights and free trade (by which they meant trade free from federal government regulation), but in fact they desperately needed and relied on the power of the federal government to defend and extend the institution of slavery.”

“It was lost on no one that the loudest calls for liberty in the early modern world came from a part of that world that was wholly dependent on slavery.”

“The only way to justify this contradiction, the only way to explain how one kind of people are born free while another kind of people are not, would be to sow a new seed, an ideology of race. It would take a long time to grow, and longer to wither.”

“That women were left out of the nation’s founding documents, and out of its founders’ idea of civil society, considered, like slaves, to be confined to a state of nature, would trouble the political order for centuries.”

“To treat the founding documents as Scripture would be to become a slave to the past”.

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

Publisher: Arrow; Special Edition

Year: 1960. This edition 2010

For a sexagenarian, To Kill a Mockingbird has aged exceedingly well. Often a school text, this modern classic tells an old story about racial inequality in the American Deep South of the 1930s. It remains on the ‘must read’ list for those who didn’t have the book in their curriculum.

The plot is so well known it can be simply told. The narrator, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, and her brother live with their widower father, Atticus. A lawyer, Atticus is called upon to represent Tom, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. He does so rather too well, managing to establish that it was the alleged victim, in fact, who had made advances to Tom and been thrashed by her outraged father. Even so, Tom is convicted and while Atticus labours to get the verdict overturned, the black man is killed trying to break out from prison. Atticus Finch is portrayed as an unlikely hero, his moral principles shining through the story’s dark twists and turns. He infuses in his children this abiding sense of natural justice and fierce determination to see things as they really are.

Some of the lines in the novel would not be out of place in a pop therapy session today, but rather than trite, they have a simple force:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

“Things are always better in the morning.”

The closing speech that Atticus Finch delivers in court is stirring and painful, a sobering meditation on the aforementioned famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Atticus says: “We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe — some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others — some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court”.

Forget The Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth

By Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford

Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books

Year: 2021

This might seem like a slightly eccentric choice because it has three Texan writers setting out to challenge the legend of the Alamo, which has the status of a “shrine” to Texan liberty. Now Texas is just about seven per cent of the US so why should this book be resonant on America’s birthday?

I would argue that this lively story is appropriate for American Independence Day because it lays bare the myth-making about Texas and the Anglo US, as well as “American values”.

It tells how a shiny narrative was created to explain why Texas broke free of Mexican rule in 1836. The trigger was less the love of liberty but the determination to ensure the preservation of slavery in Texas because multi-racial Mexico had outlawed the enslavement of human beings.

The book is chock full of zippy stories, not least how and why English singer Ozzy Osbourne earned a solemn rebuke and a decade-long ban on performing in San Antonio, Texas, after he relieved himself on the Alamo cenotaph in the city. We read about the unshakeable belief of Phil Collins (yes, that one) that he served as a messenger during the Texans’ battle against the Mexicans at the Alamo in 1836.

Forget the Alamo is a reminder that a work of historical reassessment can both instruct and entertain.

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