History lessons

Jill Lepore says the Tea Party movement has embraced an approach to American history that is more rooted in religious fundamentalism than in any serious examination of the past.

JILL LEPORE of all people, ought to be celebrating the fascination Americans have with the country’s Revolutionary War era. After all, Lepore specializes in early American history at Harvard, where she has been on the faculty since 2003. Lepore is heartened by interest in the nation’s early history. But she is less taken with the ways the past gets interpreted and put to use in contemporary political battles.

Americans have always tried to appropriate the ideas and events from the country’s founding in order to advance various causes of the day, she says. It was happening in the late 1700s, when the Revo­lu­tion’s muskets had barely been stilled, and has been part of American political culture ever since. In the 1970s, anti-busing protesters in Boston invoked the Founding Fathers when they decried court-ordered school desegregation as a new “tyranny dressed in judicial robes.” And appeals to various touchstones of America’s founding were made by anti-war protesters during the Vietnam era, crusaders for women’s rights, and civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King, who said “the Boston Tea Party was nothing but a massive act of civil disobedience.”

But Lepore says today’s Tea Party movement, which she explores in her latest book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, has taken popular use of Ameri­can history to a new, and much more troubling, level. With its references to founders who are said to be rolling in their graves, study sessions that treat the Con­st­i­tution like Holy Scripture, and reverential treatment of Revolutionary-era leaders whose views are stripped of all ambiguity or contradiction, the Tea Party movement, says Lepore, takes an approach to history that has more in common with religious zealotry than any sort of reasoned scholarship that examines the past.

“That is not history,” she writes. “It’s not civil religion, the faith in democracy that binds Americans together. It’s not originalism or even constitutionalism. That’s fundamentalism.”

Some of the blame for today’s treatment of history lies with historians themselves, Lepore says. Over the past 40 years, academic historians have largely retreated from the public arena, no longer offering sweeping narratives that try to tell the entire story of the country’s past and present. Filling that vacuum, she says, have been pundits-as-historians and various political movements that have laid claim to the role of national story-tellers. The free fall of US newspaper circulation has also played an important role, Lepore says, as fewer Americans share a common reading and understanding of current events.

While academic historians have been less engaged in public life, Lepore, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker, cuts against that grain. A fluid writer who ambles comfortably out of the research stacks and into the reporting trenches, Lepore has written pieces for the magazine about the Tea Party, the Constitution, and other matters connected to early American history, but has also ranged across topics as varied as parenting and the politics and culture of death in America (the topic of her next book).

Nothing may capture better the ease with which she moves between mining the past and observing the present than her new book, which sprang from a New Yorker piece she wrote last May. In it, Lepore drops in on meetings of the Boston-area Tea Party and heads to the Boston Common for last spring’s big Tea Party rally with Sarah Palin. What she sees and hears is interwoven with the history that the Tea Partiers claim as their inspiration.

In an interview, Lepore is quick to say that she enjoyed the local Tea Partiers and the time she spent with them, describing their political views as not that different from those of the Republican family in which she was raised in Spencer, 10 miles west of Worcester. But she’s considerably less charitable on paper in describing the version of American history that the broader movement began peddling when the Tea Party exploded on the scene in 2009. It “wasn’t just kooky history; it was antihistory,” she writes.

Rather than trying to understand history in its time and place, she says, the Tea Party has collapsed the idea of the passage of time, treating the Revolutionary era leaders as if they are here with us today—or we are somehow living in their time. Lepore says the yearning of today’s Tea Partiers for a straightforward story of an idyllic American past, as the country grapples with complex problems, is understandable, but ultimately misguided. She traces its roots to a similar quest that emerged at the time of the national Bicentennial, when the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s was exposing just how messy and complicated our history was.

Lepore wants us to consider and study the country’s early history, not raise it on an altar. “The founders were not prophets,” she writes. “Nor did they hope to be worshipped. They believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed is to become a slave to the tyranny of the past.”

I sat down with Lepore in her office at Harvard. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

COMMONWEALTH: You’re an academic scholar of early American history. What inspired you to write a book looking at the most current wave in American politics?

JILL LEPORE: By period, I study early American history, but, thematically, I study race, violence, and the writing of history. My first book, The Name of War, was about King Philip’s War, in 1675 and 1676, a war that, while devastating—the Indians were trying to kick the colonists out of New England, and destroyed more than half the existing English settlements—and abundantly chronicled at the time, has been almost entirely forgotten today. Never­the­less, it was memorialized, politically, at key moments in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ve always been interested in how, why, and when wars are remembered and forgotten. The Tea Party’s rhetorical use of the Revolution is not unlike, say, the invocation of King Philip’s War by New England ministers at the war’s centennial, in 1775 and 1776, to argue for ousting the British. They said, in effect, “We are the Indians now.”

CW: Your book’s title, it becomes clear in reading the text, is a double entendre—or maybe it’s even a triple entendre: It’s obviously a reference to the famous battle call from Bunker Hill. You write that it’s not clear such a cry was actually uttered, which seems to make a point about how some things that take on legendary status in history may be mythic. But you also use it at one point to capture the idea that the Tea Party movement yearns for a particular version of American history that is almost literally whitewashed, a story in which only white people figure.

LEPORE: Yes, the mythic. I also wanted to point out, in particular, that the story of slavery in the North has been largely forgotten. My last book, New York Burning, was about New York City in 1741, where 13 black men were burned at the stake and 17 more hanged on charges that they were conspiring to burn the city down, to liberate the slaves. Every time I spoke about the book in public, people were genuinely surprised, and deeply troubled. “You mean, there was slavery in New York?” In 1741, one in five New Yorkers was a slave. It’s not surprising that people don’t know this history. Consider New England. By the end of the Revolution, slavery had been abolished in all of New England but, as a number of scholars have demonstrated, New Englanders then set about erasing slavery from their memories, as if it had never been a part of this place’s past. Academic historians have been trying, for the last half century, to write an integrated history of the United States, a history both black and white, a history that weaves together political history and social history, the history of presidents and the history of slavery. The story of the Revolution told by the far right today is, among other things, a rejection of that scholarship.

CW: Looking at the current Tea Party movement, one question that jumps out is, how did the cry of “no taxation without representation” turn into a cry of “no taxation” or “much less taxation.” That wasn’t exactly what was going on.

LEPORE: On the one hand, it’s very easy to look at the Tea Party and say, OK, taxation without representation—that’s just a patently false analogy. We are looking at a democratically elected Congress and a democratically elected president, during an age of universal suffrage. Voter turnout in 2008 was the highest since 1968. That is simply not a failure of democracy or, by any conceivable measure, a lack of representation. Voter turnout in 2008 was the highest since 1968. That is not a failure of democracy or, by any measure, a lack of representation.And of course, during the 2010 mid-term Congressional elections, many candidates supported by the Tea Party were brought into office. That is not a failure of democracy, either: disgruntled voters brought in new legislators, starting here in Massachusetts with Scott Brown. So the big story is that our political system allows people who are discontent to go to the polls, and make a difference. The big story is just, patently, not a lack of representation. On the other hand, it’s almost too easy to point out that it’s a false analogy. Because it’s a very powerful image for people, and the Revolution itself, including the dumping of the tea, contains all kinds of elements that I think work like kind of civic folklore, that matter a lot to people, and that are important. They’re important enough that they’re worth debating and arguing over.

CW: You write that this whole period during the Revo­lu­tionary era contains “an ocean of ideas; you can fish almost anything out of it.” Is that a danger in terms of our relationship with history?

LEPORE: Yes and no. If you want to Google something, the Founding Fathers’ papers are online. You can search for, say, “arms,” and you can very easily find some quote to support your point of view. But what you have found is, by definition, something you have taken out of context; that is how your search, in fact, worked: you took something out of context. To Google is, fundamentally, to yank something out of context. So, yes, there is an ocean of ideas, and always has been, but going fishing for them hasn’t always been so easy as it is just now. And, it’s not only that there’s an ocean of ideas, it’s that, over the course of, say, the 18th century, different ideas were expressed and debated; even individual people had different ideas over the course of their own lives. These people were living in an age of revolution, the most exciting political ferment in a millennium, and having profound political arguments about the relationship between people and their rulers. People thought hard; they thought deeply; they argued with one another; they changed their minds all the time. They weren’t writing slogans for us to put on bumper stickers.

CW: And what would you say history is for?

LEPORE: I think history is for finding ourselves in the lives of others and studying the human condition, and learning not only about universals but more about particularities—how different we are from people from different times and places. What we have in common with people who lived long ago matters, but so does what we don’t.

CW: People resist that, though. They want to locate in this period of history in particular some timeless moments or truths.

LEPORE: Sure, and there’s more than one way to think about the past. We draw inspiration from the past and we look to the past for lessons and we look to the past for models. Those are all fine things to do. But to make a political argument based on the claim that certain documents constitute a kind of revealed religion, and to insist that to argue against them, or even to question them is blasphemy, well, that’s not history; that’s fundamentalism.

CW: You use the term fundamentalism a lot in de­scribing the Tea Party movement. What do you see as the connection there?

LEPORE: If you listen to the rhetoric long enough—“what is wrong with America today?”—there’s this constant sense of panic that we are in an unprecedented state of decline and disaster. When you listen to the rhetoric of people on the far right—and I wouldn’t say only the Tea Party, or even that most people who support the Tea Party subscribe to this —you hear that the problem is that we have forsaken our Founding Fathers, our ancient patriarchs: they left words for us that were divinely inspired and that were brought down to us by God; we have forsaken them and they are judging us, and they will come back to haunt us. That’s not history. That’s not folklore. That is a way of thinking about the relationship between the past and the present that comes out of certain varieties of religion.

CW: At one point you quote Glenn Beck saying, “reading the Founders is like reading the Bible.” I guess that’s pretty explicit in drawing the connection.

LEPORE: Lately, the Tea Party has made a big shift from all the rhetoric of “we need a new revolution” to “we need to read the Constitution.” And in that move, the connection with Biblical reading is often made very explicit. In fact, people read the Constitution now in Bible study groups. Reading the Constitution is, of course, a good idea. But I don’t think the Constitution was meant to be read devotionally. I don’t actually think the answers to our problems are found in those 4,400 words nor were they meant to be found in those 4,400 words.

CW: The Constitution was read on the floor of the House when Congress convened in January. What did you make of that?

LEPORE: The rhetoric surrounding that act of political theater was that it marked a return to the nation’s founding principles. Interestingly, though, of course, the Con­sti­t­u­tion had never before been read on the floor of Congress. Reading the Constitution on the floor of Con­gress was a break with tradition, a novelty. And, of course, they didn’t “read the Constitution”; they read a redacted and amended Constitution, having removed, most notably, everything about slavery, presumably because they understood that the Constitution drafted in 1787 doesn’t actually explain our lives today. What explains our lives today are all the changes that have happened since 1787. The Constitution is not a document, Felix Frankfurter once wrote, it’s a stream of history.

CW: You talk a lot about this line of connection from today’s Tea Party movement to events in the 1970s around the time of the Bicentennial. What’s the connection there, or why is it that today’s Tea Party is really following in that tradition in some ways?

LEPORE: I don’t think it’s fair when people accuse the Tea Party of shameless hucksterism in making political arguments by reviving stories from American history, as if this has never been done before, as if this always comes from the right. That’s just not true. It’s done by the left all the time, too. And it was certainly done by the left more than by the right in the 1960s and in the 1970s during the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. Think about the political violence and the political disillusion, the disenchantment of those years. Think about the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, Kent State, the US invasion of Cambodia, the assassinations. The Tea Party seemed to offer a balm: ‘We can have our story of America, and it’s going to be a whole story and a good story.’ And then think about those things taking place at a time when Americans were trying to tell a story about the country’s origins. It’s not surprising that the left used that story to critique what was going on in the United States at that moment.

CW: But then there was in the 1970s a right-wing reaction to these left-wing critiques, which you say the Tea Party is the most recent manifestation of.

LEPORE: I have tried to understand what I think is earnest and sincere and somewhat moving about what draws a lot of people into the Tea Party. A generation of people—generally it’s older Americans—who were coming of age in the 60s and 70s, at a time when the story of the nation’s origins, a kind of consensus American history, was falling apart, and being challenged by activists and also by historians. And I think that was, for many of those people, an incredible loss, a loss that left them mourning, and the Tea Party seemed to offer a balm: “We can have our story of America, and it’s going to be a whole story, and it’s going to be good story and it’s going to be inspiring and uplifting.” As if the 60s and 70s never happened. And that’s what’s not okay about it. But I think the earnestness and the sincerity of wanting that—that’s not to be trifled with, and I think it is for many people a real and kind of heartbreaking sentiment.

CW: The 1970s were rich in invocations of the Tea Party and the Revolution: anti-busing activists here in Boston laid claim to this legacy as did antiwar activists who staged a reenactment at Lexington and Concord, a huge protest that our senior senator [John Kerry] himself was involved in and got arrested at. You don’t seem too taken with the efforts on either side.

LEPORE: I’m a historian, so it’s not surprising that when people use history in these ways, it’s not going to thrill me.

CW: But there’s this idea that all sorts of debates and arguments involve metaphor or a likening of two things, and history is like this too: “This is like that,” or “this is the same as that.” It seems like a natural way to frame arguments is to draw on things and make reference to things that are familiar to people.

LEPORE: I guess. And there’s insight to be had there. But I think, finally, it’s shallow insight. I would say, as a scholar, as a teacher, where is that going to get you? That’s a curiosity; that’s not an analysis. When the swine flu panic hit in 2008, the job of most newspaper reporters or magazine reporters or television reporters was to say, let’s find something like this that has happened before. Let’s find a precedent. And so in that instance, everybody focused on the influenza epidemic of 1918, which, as you know, was devastating, an international epidemic of massive proportions, at a time when medical care was fundamentally different than it was in 2008. You had all these people on radio shows and on TV, nattering on about flu in 1918. As a historian, you’re just thinking, of what possible use is this analogy? What’s interesting about 1918 and 2008 are the differences, not the similarities. If I had a student come to me and say, I want to write a paper about how the 2008 swine flu was just like influenza in 1918, I would say, “Come again?”

CW: But take the current debates around education reform, for example, and the efforts to close the achievement gap. A common refrain is that this is “the civil rights issue of our time.” Yet trying to figure out a way to provide high quality urban education for poor kids is fundamentally different from the Civil Rights Movement.

LEPORE: I’d have to look at it, but I might say that is a legitimate argument, that’s actually not a false analogy, not a leap between now and then. That’s actually an origins story. That’s seeing this struggle as a piece of a continuum that we can trace all the way back to the cases in the 1850s, when black Bostonians petitioned the Massa­chu­setts Legislature for equal education and were denied. We want to see this as part of that, that it has its origins in this place. So if we want to think about this educational moment in that context, I think that’s about marking continuity, it’s not actually about specious comparison.

CW: But you could imagine somebody saying, “If Martin Luther King Jr. were here, he’d be championing charter schools.” You can see it working its way into very specific arguments. As with the Tea Party, they’re efforts to seize the moral high ground, right?

LEPORE: Sure. People do that. That’s how arguments are made, that’s a rhetorical move. I don’t find it convincing but so what? I do think, though, that the Tea Party tried to make a much bolder intervention in how we think about who we are as a people than to say something about Martin Luther King and education. That’s not a one-off.

CW: You wrote about the historian Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, that he was “one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside of the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” You say the absence of historians in the period since then who played that kind of role has been an important factor in American life.

LEPORE: For one thing, pundits have replaced scholars as political commentators. For another, academic historians, American historians, have been engaged in a different kind of project, which is telling the stories of smaller groups of people and conflicts between groups. Finally, scholars no longer often write the way Hofstadter did, about the near-present, or in the way that he did. There are many forces we could identify for that change. Much excellent historical work has been done since 1970. But I think a kind of cultural space was created by the retreat of academics from public debate, and into that space has come Glenn Beck, America’s history professor.

CW: You say this started to take place as early as the mid-70s. You wrote, “Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock but didn’t offer an answer, a story to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for other people to get into the history business.” So the role of history-telling abhors a vacuum?

LEPORE: Americans love history. There’s the History Chan­nel. Ancestry-dot-com is a huge industry. Professional genealogy, hiring someone to research your family, is big business. Where do we come from and who are we as a people? Those are still good questions, even if historians don’t want to answer them.

CW: So what does that leave us with? Do you see a danger in the way history gets practiced out there?

LEPORE: Not danger. Promise. Eric Foner, who was actually a Hofstadter student, wrote this great book, The Story of Freedom, an attempt to tell the story of America as a story about all of us, as a people. People are still writing those books.

CW: What was it like for you to spend time with the Tea Party people? On the one hand, you say you have a lot of sympathy for their wish to find a connection to history or see a unitary sort of national purpose that binds us together. But it also pretty clear you aren’t close to being on the same page politically.

LEPORE: They were all smart people. They were all incredibly welcoming and generous with their time, and very open with me. And I liked them to a person. I think a lot of them are basically Republicans who have always been a minority in this state and who were excited about a chance to be active politically in an organization that might actually be effective—and that was effective, with the Scott Brown victory. We really disagreed about politics, but that’s like every Thanksgiving dinner I have ever been to. I find it very comfortable to sit around a table and disagree with people about politics. That’s about the best thing that any of us could do. The problem is that people sit in their living rooms and scream at the TV and disagree about politics with people who aren’t even in the room.

CW: But is there something that disturbs you about their claim on history? People can say, “We don’t want a further government role in health care”—that’s a position one can take. But the idea that this is contrary to what this country is about….

LEPORE: There’s nothing about this particular group of people that disturbs me. These are ordinary citizens getting involved in politics. There is a piece of it—some guy from ‘BUR told me he was doing a story and people from the Tea Party were harassing Freedom Trail interpreters about their interpretation of the Freedom Trail – that bothers me. But that’s not the people I met.

CW: We’re in such an era of information overload with so much available online. But it doesn’t always seem particularly helpful or that it brings a more reasoned reckoning with history. Are you more hopeful or pessimistic going forward about how we’ll treat our history and bring it into current debates and discussions? Now I’m asking you to be a forecaster.

LEPORE: Historians are not supposed to prophesy. I think it’s great that Americans are interested in the past, and the one thing that I most liked about doing book events at town halls was, when people from the Tea Party came, we would have a really good conversation, because what we share is we’re all really interested in the Revolution. I could talk about the Revolution for hours. What they knew did not make a lot of sense to me, but they were really eager to talk about it. And that seemed sort of promising. I’m stretching to find something promising, though, you will notice.

CW: Yes, I see. So there’s a lot about the current times that is worrisome.

LEPORE: I make the argument in the book that the rise of the Tea Party and the death of the newspaper are causally related. American democracy and the American newspaper were born together, and the newspaper is now dead, and it’s thrown our politics into a sort of disequilibrium, and we won’t get past that for a while.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

CW: Is it just newspapers? Isn’t it also the death of the network newscast? We used to all sit down and get a shared sense of what’s going on in the world, whether in the newspaper or on TV.

LEPORE: Right. It’s not just newspapers. It’s a lot of things, including a shared sense of the past. Losing that consensus was good and bad. American history, as it was written during the Cold War, served as an argument against totalitarianism. It was good to have a story about the origins of democracy; it’s too bad it wasn’t better history. Better history has since been written, much better history, but it doesn’t make as good a story.