Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Whites of their Eyes”

The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. By Jill Lepore. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

There is a war being waged over American history. Sorry if you weren’t aware of it, but it has been raging for a while now and there is no end in sight. It may be that we are living at a time when Americans are seeking to reassert an identity that seemed in jeopardy in the aftermath of the Cold War, the social turmoil of recent social reform movements, and the anxiety of economic and political transformation. As Jill Lepore makes clear, the current conservative trend in the United States seems to have appropriated the American Revolution, Lepore’s specific area of specialization, for its own purposes. These efforts have relentlessly shaped this past as exceptionalistic, nationalistic, and triumphant.

This effort essentially represents a battle for control of the national memory, as Lepore makes clear. The effort became something of a crusade; they attacked the mainstream assessments of this history and presented alternative understandings of it. This has been seen quite broadly, but the critical component of it has been experienced in the context of American Revolution and formation of the United States. Most recently, the Tea Party movement has sought to appropriate the Revolution for its own purposes. Its name harkened back to a defining moment in the march toward independence, and in Lepore’s words the American Revolution “conferred upon a scattered, diffuse, and confused movement a degree of legitimacy and the appearance, almost, of coherence” (p. 14). The modern Tea Party movement drew strength from the eighteenth century version, to be sure, but Lepore sees more at play here.

Much more than an analogy, she argues, the Tea Party asserts that modern America has forsaken the Founding Fathers. They possess, according to Lepore, “a set of assumptions about the relationships between the past and the present that was both broadly anti-intellectual and, quite specifically, antihistorical, not least because it defies chronology, the logic of time” (p. 15). Lacking any complexity or ambiguity, they subscribe to a strident form of “historical fundamentalism” that eschews any uncertainty whatsoever in favor of a conflation of constitutional originalism, evangelicalism, and easy answers from heritage tourism. The American Revolution has been simplified into a narrowly defined set of maxims considered timeless, sacred, and deserving of worship. They have also been redefined in such a way as to omit inconvenient issues, such as the embrace of slavery by virtually all of the so-called founders. This allows such Tea Party darlings as Michelle Bachmann to announce that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” while ignoring the fact that many of the most celebrated founders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison among them—were slaveholders themselves and even ensconced the institution in the U.S. Constitution. When Lepore writes about anti-intellectual and anti-historical attitudes this is one example among many that may be cited.

Lepore juxtaposes in this book the Tea Party’s use of the American Revolution in its activities with narrative about actual events. A relatively short and easy to understand volume, The Whites of their Eyes offers a commentary on what she considers the reactionary perspective of the Tea Party on this history. She finds that there is a real nostalgia for a simple past in which we were all one, rather than the seemingly complex and fractured present. This perspective offers the Tea Party room for only a narrow presentation of historical facts and little latitude for interpretation. Interpretation, of course, is the “stuff” of historical investigation and imagination; this approach represents a blatant pursuit of a “one nation-one people” approach to history and strives for consensus and continuity. It represents one more attempt to control the story, as well as the message, of the American past. It is, in the end, a yearning for a history that never was.

This approach is also troubling since it is dangerously antipluralist, in addition to being anti-historical and anti-intellectual. In such a setting the ever striving for greater justice in this American nation is lost in a seemingly perfect past that can never be questioned.

Professor of American History at Harvard Jill Lepore speaks at “Tea Party” a panel discussion at the 2010 New Yorker Festival at DGA Theater on October 2, 2010 in New York City. (October 1, 2010 – Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images North America)

Jill Lepore has been on the receiving end of attacks from Tea Party advocates and the larger conservative movement for what she writes in this book. That may be expected and even embraced as appropriate in a pluralist society such as the United States in which all are entitled to their own beliefs. Of course, Lepore makes clear that the misuse of history is inappropriate in any instance. She would subscribe to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” When the facts of history are misused, whether by the Left or the Right, they should be called to account. Additionally, Lepore calls to account the professional historians who have been complacent in this debate, and therefore complicit in this abuse of history. I see this book as an attempt by a professional historian to engage in this debate, to combat misuse of history, and to enrich understandings about a complex and poorly understood past.

Most important, this is not a work of advocacy in the way that so many books that relate to the modern political situation are. This is an analysis of the manner in which one group of partisans in the political process uses history—Lepore documents how this is more misuse rather than use—to buttress their positions. It calls for more reasoned use of the story of the American Revolution, and is remarkably open to a broad approach to it.

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