This was an interview in the June 2011 American History magazine that I found fascinating given the meteoritic rise of the Tea Party.  I couldn’t directly link to it without buying it, (I have an “owned” magazine in my possession).  It talks about studying the Founding Fathers and how it is so corrupted for political purposes, most recently by the Tea Party.  I can’t tell you how many times I have fact-checked a posting on my Tea Party cousin’s Facebook page (say by Jefferson on guns, religion, or taxes) to find it has been manufactured by Glenn Beck, Breitbart or some other such nut.

The Whites of Their Eyes:
The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History
By Jill Lepore
Americans have always put the past to political ends. The Union laid claim to the Revolution–so did the Confederacy. Civil rights leaders said they were the true sons of liberty–so did Southern segregationists. This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation’s founding, including the battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to “take back America.”

Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, offers a careful and concerned look at American history according to the far right, from the “rant heard round the world,” which launched the Tea Party, to the Texas School Board’s adoption of a social-studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation. Along the way, she provides rare insight into the eighteenth-century struggle for independence–a history of the Revolution, from the archives. Lepore traces the roots of the far right’s reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings. Behind the Tea Party’s Revolution, she argues, lies a nostalgic and even heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past–a time less troubled by ambiguity, strife, and uncertainty–a yearning for an America that never was.

The Whites of Their Eyes reveals that the far right has embraced a narrative about America’s founding that is not only a fable but is also, finally, a variety of fundamentalism–anti-intellectual, antihistorical, and dangerously antipluralist.

In a new afterword, Lepore addresses both the recent shift in Tea Party rhetoric from the Revolution to the Constitution and the diminished role of scholars as political commentators over the last half century of public debate.


“Jill Lepore, a historian of the American Revolution and a staff writer at The New Yorker, has written a brief but valuable book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, which combines her own interviews with Tea Partiers (mostly from her home state, Massachusetts) and her deep knowledge of the founders and of their view of the Constitution.”–Alan Brinkley, New York Times Book Review

“Throughout her book Lepore’s implicit question remains always: Don’t these Tea Party people realize how silly they are? They don’t understand history; they need to learn that time moves forward. ‘We cannot go back to the eighteenth century,’ she says, ‘and the Founding Fathers are not, in fact, here with us today.'”–Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books

“For a number of years, the author has been contributing pieces to the New Yorker on American colonial history, pithy commentaries shaped by historical evidence and a storyteller’s hand. Here she braids those essays together, which makes them more satisfying and meaningful than if they were merely collected in an anthology. . . . The author is not smug in her treatment of the Tea Partiers, but she refuses to allow them to kidnap and torture history so that it is reduced to fit their fundamentalist mold. . . . Learned, lively and shrewd.”–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

More reviews

Table of Contents:

Foreword by Ruth O’Brien ix
Prologue: Party Like It’s 1773 1
Chapter 1: Ye Olde Media 20
Chapter 2: The Book of Ages 43
Chapter 3: How to Commit Revolution 70
Chapter 4: The Past upon Its Throne 98
Chapter 5: Your Superexcellent Age 126
Epilogue: Revering America 152
Afterword to the Paperback Edition 167
Acknowledgments 177
Notes 179
Index 209

Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Jill Lepore:

The Story of America: Essays on Origins. [Hardcover and Paperback]

Jill Lepore’s Home Page

No longer here…..
Jill Lepore’s New Yorker Contributor Page


OCTOBER 29, 2010
The Exchange: Jill Lepore on the Tea Party’s “Dangerous Anti-Pluralism”
BY MEREDITH BLAKE for the New Yorker election series.

It’s been around eighteen months since the Tea Party movement began. On Tuesday, it’s likely that a number of Tea Party-approved candidates will be voted into office, but will this diffuse and decentralized movement have a lasting impact on American politics? In her new book, “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History,” the New Yorker staff writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore argues that the Tea Party is simply the latest frontline in a centuries-long battle over the legacy of the American Revolution. The book is both a critique of the Tea Party’s “anti-pluralist” version of American history, and a historiography of the Revolution itself. I spoke with Lepore earlier this week, and an edited version of our conversation appears below.

You argue that, for all their invocation of history, the twenty-first-century Tea Party actually has an anti-historical perspective, one in which “time is an illusion.” Can you explain this idea, and why it’s so dangerous?

Calvin Trillin wrote a New Yorker essay during the Bicentennial, about what he called “parallelism,” the use of the Revolution, then most commonly by the left, to make a political argument: Richard Nixon was just like King George; Exxon Oil was just like the East India Company; the shootings at Kent State were just like the Boston Massacre. Nothing provides better political cover than the Revolution, which is why the Tea Party’s name—it, brilliantly, contains that parallel—was a stroke of genius. But what’s changed, since 1974, is the growing role of evangelicals in American political life, which has introduced an exegetical reading of the past, in which parallelism has shaded into fundamentalism. A fundamentalist approach to history, which you see in and around the Tea Party, insists that the Constitution was divinely inspired and speaks to us, across the ages, and is therefore incontrovertible, and outside the sphere of political debate, or even of interrogation. Historical scholarship, of course, works otherwise: its methods rely on skepticism and inquiry, and, necessarily, on an appreciation of the distance, and the difference, between past and present.

You write that even before the Revolution was over, opposing factions had begun to claim its legacy. This seems natural, to an extent. Is the problem that we fixate too much on this era in our political conversation?

Every generation has got to figure out what the Revolution meant, and whether its promise has been realized. Isn’t that our obligation, as citizens? Sure, there’s a shabby, grubby tit-for-tat way of going about this: the left claims the Revolution; the right claims the Revolution. And so it goes. Maybe that’s how it has got to go, I don’t know. But think of, say, Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech: the truly transcendent moments in American politics have come when people rise to the challenge of history, instead of beating one another over the head with it.
Do you worry that the Tea Party’s appropriation of the Revolution, and in particular of the Boston Tea Party, is at this point irrevocable—that they’ve got the last word on that historical era, so to speak?

Not to worry: no one ever gets the last word. Not even Lincoln.

One of the things I find fascinating is that certain orthodoxies about the Revolution were formed years, and even centuries, after the fact. In particular, you write that the term “Founding Fathers” wasn’t coined until 1916, in a speech by Warren G. Harding. Nowadays, people on the left and the right think of the Founding Fathers as these deified figures. How/when did this come to be?
Well, that comes, and it goes. I wrote a piece for the magazine about Jared Sparks’ bowdlerizing of the writings of George Washington in the eighteen-twenties and -thirties. Sparks, an old-style New England Federalist, wanted to venerate Washington; the Jacksonian Democrats who took him to task for his editorial presumption wanted to cut Washington down to size. Along comes the Civil War, and Washington looks different: Northerners don’t adore him because he was a slave-owner; Southerners can’t quite embrace him because, after all, the man freed his slaves. Fast forward: Washington is debunked in the nineteen-twenties, kitschy in the fifties, and heroic in the eighties. This isn’t sinister or even suspicious; mostly, it’s just interesting. All history works that way; it’s just that all history doesn’t track political change, so no one notices, or much minds. Our ideas about Daniel Defoe or Jackson Pollock have flip-flopped over the years, too. But when Defoe’s out of favor, or Pollock is in, you don’t see that holding much sway come Election Day. Instead, all that happens is the price of a Pollock goes up, and someone who wants to find a backer for another Moll Flanders movie finds himself plumb out of luck.
One of the ongoing debates about the Tea Party is whether its members are, if not overtly racist, then at least threatened by the changing demographics of the country and the political implications of this shift. You stop short of calling them racist, but you do call them “dangerously anti-pluralist.” Do you think the Tea Party is truly regressive, or simply willing to elide less convenient truths about American history (slavery, the role of women) for the sake of a good analogy?

The only lesson history teaches, in the end, is humility. Everyone who has written about the Tea Party this year will eventually be proven wrong. This is a diffuse and dynamic movement. Yes, its version of American history is quite strikingly narrow. And, yes, founding a politics in that history looks to me decidedly anti-pluralist, although perhaps even to see it that way is to get it backwards: it’s an anti-pluralist politics that has gone in search of a history. Presumably, after next week, Tea Partiers will think more about governance. Maybe their style of governance will prove more pluralist than their account of the past. I sure hope so. I would like to be proven wrong sooner rather than later.

You write that Richard Hofstadter was one of the last historians to “reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” In abandoning this sort of interpretation, have historians ceded ground to the extreme right wing? How can the academy reclaim this territory?

These questions merit sustained and unflinching debate. I don’t have good answers. Mostly, I worry. I like to think that historians, like doctors, have a “do no harm” ethic. Talking about history in a public sphere where, just now, the unit of discourse appears to be a slogan, and usually a swipe, the length of a tweet&#8212sixteen loud and angry words&#8212is I’m afraid, not always harmless. Better to sit it out. Still—and this is where I guess I come down—sometimes, sitting it out is more harm.