Michael Sean WintersMarch 14, 2011
Book cover
The Whites of Their Eyesby By Jill LeporePrinceton Univ. Press. 224p $19.95

A core belief of the Tea Party is that contemporary politics should be viewed through the lens of the American founding. Jill Lepore’s new book looks at the Tea Party itself through the lens of that belief, and the resulting picture is not a pretty one. Lepore teaches history at Harvard, and she writes for The New Yorker, so she epitomizes the “liberal cultural elite” the Tea Partyers decry. This book is a kind of payback, unleashing her wealth of learning and her stylish prose on the Tea Party’s self-identity.

Lepore’s first gripe with the Tea Party is that they whitewash history. Not only do they buy into the hagiographic treatment of the founding fathers that we associate with the History Channel, but they avoid all the controversies that consumed the founders, such as the debate over slavery. “There were very few black people in the Tea Party,” Lepore notes, “but there were no black people at all in the Tea Party’s eighteenth century. Nor, for that matter, were there any women, aside from Abigail Adams, and no slavery, poverty, ignorance, insanity, sickness, or misery.”

The Tea Partyers not only misunderstand the founding, according to Lepore, they fail to grasp how history relates to the present. “Time moves forward, not backward. Chronology is like gravity. Nothing falls up. We cannot go back to the eighteenth century, and the Founding Fathers are not, in fact, here with us today.” This section of the book is a little too succinct for such metaphysical thoughts, or a little too metaphysical for so succinct a book, but either way the reader should have been spared this particular digression.

This train of thought leads Lepore to one of the few moral misjudgments in her text. She writes, “The study of history requires investigation, imagination, empathy, and respect. Reverence just doesn’t enter into it.” Catholics, of course, revere certain historical figures as saints, but one need not be a Catholic, or even an American, to revere someone of Lincoln’s stature, nor do the hypocrisies and moral lapses of a man like Jefferson steal away one iota of our admiration for his gifts. Hagio-graphy is one danger, but the instinct to deny human greatness is another.

Lepore is much stronger when she detours into a riff on the late, great historian Richard Hofstadter. She notes the tendency among academic historians to avoid drawing sweeping conclusions about the past, still less anything like a lesson for our own time, a trend Hofstadter defied. While his colleagues buried themselves in minutiae, Hofstadter stood for the proposition that “historians with something to say about the relationship between the past and the present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, skepticism, and an authority that derived not only from their discipline but also from their distance from the corridors of power.” If the Tea Partyers mangle history, it is because they can: academic historians were so busy trying to get published in the Northeast Michigan Quarterly Review, they abandoned their responsibility to teach the nation about its own roots.

Snappy writing, especially in the writing of history, is a gift to the reader, and Lepore exhibits that gift in spades. “The remarkable debate about sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1761, when James Otis argued the writs of assistance case, and 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, contains an ocean of ideas,” Lepore writes. “You can fish almost anything out of it. (Almost anything, but not everything. There are fish that just weren’t around in the eighteenth century, although that doesn’t stop people from angling for them. Glenn Beck once said that George Washington was opposed to socialism.)” That is mighty fine prose.

The strongest parts of the book are the pages where Lepore shows how the Tea Party does not, in fact, mimic the founders they adulate, but the 1970s radicals they detest. Lefties, too, have distorted the history of the founding for political ends. Though it was Jeremy Rifkin who wrote, “the revolutionary heritage must be used as a tactical weapon to isolate the existing institutions and those in power,” it does not require much to imagine that remark coming from the Tea Party strategist Dick Armey.

Lepore’s book could have benefited from a sharper editorial pen. The long section on Mercy Otis Warren, the remarkable early historian of the Revolution, feels like it was forced into the book, adding little to the central argument. We also learn more than we need to know about Richard Nixon’s dealings with the Bicentennial Commission and other stories that distract more than they elucidate.

Nonetheless, this is an important book. It is one thing for Glenn Beck to distort history, but Lepore shows how his esoteric, historically unfounded ideas are making their way into school curricula. Those of us who resent the hijacking of our history need to be informed about both the hijacking and the real story of the founding. Lepore’s text is a highly readable place to start in the urgent task of reclaiming both the historical and the political debate from the Tea Party.

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