Memory  /  Book Review

The Iron Cage of Erasure: American Indian Sovereignty in Jill Lepore’s 'These Truths'

Lepore’s framework insists that the “self-evident” truths of the nation’s founding were anything but.

Besides a well-written, if perfunctory, first chapter on Columbus and the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean and of Mexico, the most familiar part of Lepore’s narrative from the vantage point of Native American history may be its erasure of Native peoples. As has been true throughout American historiographical practice, Native peoples lack any sense of historical influence and appear largely as stand-ins or as understudies who are intended, here, to differentiate this production from earlier performances in the theater of American exceptionalism. When introduced, they generally recede and do so quickly. Throughout part 1, Indians serve to introduce broader and seemingly more important subjects, drifting into the narrative for other intentions. For example, members of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) confederacy—whose seventeenth-century military, economic, and political supremacy over New France, New Holland, and the Hudson River Valley is not mentioned—are introduced in a twelve-page overview of Benjamin Franklin’s career as a colonial printmaker, legislator, and mapmaker. Franklin’s famous 1754 woodcut, “Join, or Die,” concludes chapter 2.

For Lepore, Franklin’s woodcut is important: it “made a claim about the colonies: they were parts of a whole.” However, it also originated alongside his Plan of Union, which he developed after attending the 1754 Albany Congress. As Lepore suggests, Franklin’s proposed plan “apportioned representatives for each of the eleven colonies in the Union according to the size of their populations,” but was rejected by the colonial assemblies.

Franklin arrived at Albany as a commissioner from Pennsylvania. Surrounded by Iroquois delegates, orators, and warriors, as he proposed his Plan of Union, he reflected on what he determined to be the Iroquoian “Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse.” Such advantages are familiar to scholars of American Indian history. For half a century, a burgeoning historiography has examined the evolution of Iroquois political culture, cultural ideologies, environmental ethics, and gendered forms of political representation. In Lepore’s brief analysis, however, such Iroquoian “advantages” are not only unclear but also intended to remain so—only two sentences actually reference the Iroquois. It appears that when constructing a history of the “Idea of America,” the political practices of non-Europeans complicate that undertaking. To synthesize is to omit, and throughout These Truths Native American political structures, customary practices of governance, and alternative modes of social organization remain apparently too complicated for inclusion. How and why the Iroquois confederacy (or other Native powers) developed, maintained, and even monopolized any advantages over others are questions that remain not only unanswered but also simply unasked.