The revolution, revised
An expert in early America ensures the tea party isn't the only one writing history.
Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, New Yorker staff writer, novelist, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and most recently, tea party hanger-on as part of her research for her most recent book, The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, $19.95). She’ll speak about something else entirely as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, though we spoke to her on the phone just prior to the midterm elections.
What does it mean that the Founding Fathers are the “whites” of the present-day tea party’s “eyes”?
The phrase itself is a long-standing military expression that predates the Revolution. It’s associated in American folklore with the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston, and that appears to be largely apocryphal. One [reason I used that title] was to evoke the storybook nature of what we think we know about the Revolution, and the other was to acknowledge the degree to which the Revolution appeals in this particular storybook way because it seems almost some piece of American history that comes from a simpler, more innocent and more harmonious age. The tea party’s 18th century pretty much is white, and I think that’s part of its appeal. It’s about doing an end run around the really important social and political questions that occupy us today—about equality and inequality.
And is associating with the Revolution and the idea of pre-racial conflict a way of deflecting from the more racist or sinister origins of the tea party?
What everybody who tries to write about the tea party struggles with is it’s very difficult to make generalizations, both about such a diffuse movement and also about such a dynamic movement. I went and spent a lot of time with people in the movement here in Boston and feel accountable to them personally. And I don’t think what brought together this small handful of people I hung out with was racism or something even especially ugly. I think they were brought into the movement by a quiet sense of desperation about their lives, if anything. And it’s animated a fair amount of sympathy in me for what they found so uncomfortable about modernity.
In the book, you intertwine scenes of the American Revolution and the present-day tea party.
The reason I did it: What I was really struck by with the tea party movement was the way it collapses the distance between the past and present, again and again and again: Nancy Pelosi is like King George. The Tea Act is just like health care. People constantly imagine that we are living today in exactly the set of circumstances that people lived in in the 1770s. As a historian, this couldn’t possibly be less true. What I wanted to try to offer to the reader was to point out: Here’s how different.
Where does that urge come from to not just study the past but to attempt to re-create it and feel that we’re somehow still sharing that context?
There are a lot of powerful forces in our culture that demand less of us by way of imagination. The assumption of a lot of for-profit historical tourism, or the reenactment movement is: In order for you to be entertained by this historical experience, we need to put you there. You need to travel through time, and you need to be told that they are just like you and you are just like them. It’s a cheap, easy, lazy move to sell tickets to a Disney experience of the past.
And I think it has consequences. So then you get political candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell: “Well, you know, we’re just like the Founding Fathers, and we suffer in the same way that they suffered by being called ultraconservatives.” Somehow, it’s all about you. I find that insidious.
The title of the talk you’re giving at the Humanities Festival is “The Chicken and the Egg.” So…which came first?
[Sort of laughs] Umm…The talk comes out of a new book I’m working on called The Quick and the Dead, which is kind of a history of life and death. It sort of makes the argument—you kind of have to bear with me here—that the long-standing debate about how life begins is marked by a huge leap, which takes place in the last couple centuries, from studying how life begins by cracking open eggs to studying how life begins by dissecting mice. It’s kind of a hard sell.… It’s sort of about the fantasy that a woman was like a chicken.
Lepore’s “laughably complicated” talk takes place in the Rubloff Auditorium of the Chicago History Museum Saturday 13 at noon. Tickets, available at chicagohumanities.org, are $10, or $5 teachers/students.