Of Tea Parties, Historical Fundamentalism, and Antihistory

Linford D. Fisher

It’s always nice when academic and pleasure reading coincide. Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton, 2010) is a bit like that—fun to read, informative, insanely timely, and likely to generate excitement in certain circles for a variety of reasons.

The book is essentially a commentary on the twenty-first century Tea Party by way of the 1970s and the 1770s and is—by Lepore’s own admission—a strong argument against “historical fundamentalism,” which, as she describes it, is "marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—'the founding'—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—'the founding documents'—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible."

The Tea Party folks, she contends, promote not just “kooky history” in their appropriation of Revolutionary themes and employment of Founding rhetoric; they practice antihistory, that is, they conflate the then and the now. The Founders are not just in the eighteenth century, they are here with us now; their struggles are our struggles. “In antihistory,” Lepore muses, “time is an illusion.”

The core of the book is a lively retelling of the Revolutionary Era from the 1760s through the late 1790s. The 1773 Boston Tea Party, ironically, gets precious little play; ditto for the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill (invoked in her title; for the Tea Party proper, you’d have to turn to Ben Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America [Yale, 2010]). Juxtaposing the messy, contested, exhilarating world of the late eighteenth century with the projection of an idealized past created by the Tea Party is both jarring and effective. Framed this way, the story almost tells itself, or so it seems. Regular readers of Lepore’s New Yorker essays will find familiar discussions of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Phillis Wheatley, although there is loads of new material, too, like the delightful sections on Jane (Franklin) Mecom (on whom a biography is forthcoming at some point). Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about the rise of the present Tea Party and how its antihistory came to be in the first place, namely, the historical profession's failure in the wake of the bicentennial of the 1970s to craft a responsible and satisfying historical narrative for the American populace to call their own. Into this lacuna, the Tea Party gladly stepped. In a sense, then, the Tea Party’s (mis)use of history is partially our fault.

As is the case with most books like this, those who should read it, won’t. The book is clearly pitched toward the reading “public”—however defined—who may, in the end, be convinced by the pleasant mix of first-person narrative, historical storytelling, and trenchant analysis, all while hopscotching Lepore-ishly between the eighteenth century and the present. Most obviously, the book is bound be dismissed by the Tea Partiers and their sympathizers as yet another blathering rant by the liberal elites who not only drink the Kool-Aid but help to mix it as they conspire against the American people. The Whites of Their Eyes, however, is hardly that. In many ways it is rather a plea for a particular kind of public discourse and a more accurate use of history. And—in surprising ways—Lepore has spent far more time than you or I with Tea Party folks, trying to understand their rhetoric, concerns, and use of history. Each chapter opens with a fascinating first-person account of attending a Tea Party meeting or rally, before zipping to the eighteenth century and back again.

This book provoked all kinds of questions for me: about the use of history; the decision to write a book like this; and—most of all—what it was like hanging with Tea Party folks. I had to know. And so, over steak salads by the open windows of the Grafton Street Pub perched on the corner of the unseasonably humid Harvard Square, I hijacked the final minutes of a previously-scheduled luncheon with Jill to talk about her book.

LF: In a sense, portions of this book read like an ethnography of the Tea Party. How did—if at all—the experience of attending rallies and meetings in pubs affect your perspective (positively or negatively) of the Tea Party folks and their aims?

JL: My ideas definitely shifted as a result of spending time with the Tea Party people. From the beginning, I always outed myself as a Harvard historian who was writing an article (for The New Yorker; the book idea grew over time) and that I was interested in how people view the Revolution. Most people at the Tea Party meetings didn’t ask more about me. They wanted to talk about themselves. So I listened. Most people felt misrepresented by the mainstream media; everyone I talked to said this. Everyone in the left-wing press was saying the Tea Party was all about race; but for these people I talked to it was not about race. People were upset about that. Austin Hess was offended at being called a racist; he said we lived in a post-racial world. I took him at his word and wanted to be sympathetic with him. I’m not saying it has nothing to do with race. But that’s why they love the American Revolution, because they see it as a white, pre-racial movement, which of course it wasn’t. But that’s sort of the point of the book, and why I gave it the title it has [The Whites of Their Eyes].

LF: This must have taken a lot of intellectual discipline to go and only listen.

JL: I had a lot of fun, actually. Like with the Egan brothers; they were hilarious—exactly like my family. Being at the meetings was pretty much like every family dinner I’ve had since I was eight—was never a Thanksgiving dinner without a pitched political battle. We were family and yet we disagreed. So rather than these meetings being a foreign experience, it was familiar. I never tried to persuade people; I always wanted them to persuade me. People called me “Jane Goodall” because I took notes furiously and furrowed my brow. It’s not a move that a lot of scholars would make, to go and just listen. I did come to think that I understood better, but I still disagreed. For example, I was really trying to figure out people’s position on healthcare. I pressed George Egan on this point, and he told me this heartbreaking story of his three-year-old daughter who was sick and hospitalized and the hospital sent him a bill for ten thousand dollars. He had no insurance, but he got a second job and paid it off over time. And then—this is what surprised me—at the end he said something like, “That’s why I’m against Obamacare. Because I had to pay for it and others should, too.” The same story could be used as an argument for universal healthcare, but that’s not how he was using it. In the end, I think I did become more sympathetic to what they were about. I got to know them. I found myself in the position of defending the Tea Party to my colleagues and friends. I grew to like these people; I didn’t think they were crazy, even though I still disagree with them.

LF: What do you hope that people take away from this book? And have you felt that people are “getting” what you are trying to do?

JL: I’d like people to have a different vision for what political discourse could be like in this country, one that is based on historical evidence and respectful dialog. Argument and evidence are important. Often I need to preface my talks around the country with a plea for restraining emotions and practicing a more evidence-based, measured discourse that is generally lacking in political life today.

I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from various people—schoolteachers, politicians. My colleagues have been uniformly supportive. Same with people I see at events. I was at an event in Washington D.C., on a panel at the National Press Club with Dick Armey (Freedom Works), someone from Fox News, and a person from the New York Times. And a whole group of Freedom Works folks walked in holding—to a man, each woman—color photocopies of my New Yorker essay on the Tea Party. They came to fight. But after the session, a lot of the Freedom Works people came up and said they appreciated what I said. These people really wanted to talk to a real history professor who was taking them seriously. I met a guy in Texas who told me: “You’re the first liberal I’ve talked to that made any sense.” After one talk, a conservative Christian couple approached me and wanted to convince me that the Constitution grants only god-given rights. Neither of us convinced the other, but they appreciated that I was willing to talk. I’m not sure those people “get” me or will like the book, but they are willing to talk to me.

LF: Is this a new direction for you—tackling present issues, arguing for a particular kind of public engagement in the historical profession?

JL: I’ve always thought there should be places to talk about shared concerns, which is why I started Common-Place with Jane Kamensky. It is a place where academics, librarians, teachers, can all share ideas. I appreciate all kinds of historians—we need both Gary Nash and Gordon Wood, for example. I think debate is important; recently in my seminars I’ve set up a series of debates where students read historical speeches and essays and spend time making the case for the historical person they have been assigned. And it works. Students get all animated and put on southern accents or whatever. But of course the next day they are slouched back in their chairs. But it is still worth it.


Phil Sinitiere said…
Great interview, Lin. Thanks for posting this.
Tom Van Dyke said…
"Austin Hess was offended at being called a racist; he said we lived in a post-racial world. I took him at his word and wanted to be sympathetic with him."

Well, that's nice, since her book says that Hess' girlfriend is black.

"But that’s why they love the American Revolution, because they see it as a white, pre-racial movement, which of course it wasn’t. But that’s sort of the point of the book, and why I gave it the title it has [The Whites of Their Eyes]."

Well, that's a relief, sort of. But I wonder how many people will take the title to imply racism.
Anonymous said…
Good stuff, Lin. Perhaps someone needs to do something similar, with more than a book, regarding the influence of David Barton on the study of history, especially among conservative Christians and in parts of the homeschooling movement. Barton's significance has only grown as a result of Glenn Beck promoting his work and his view of American history.

Curtis J Evans

Popular Posts