A Review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (by Bethany)

the whites of their eyes cover image

Postcards from Purgatory is not a political blog, and thank goodness for that. If we were, there would be a chance that we would become really famous someday and get invited to events where we would have to make small talk with James Carville, and that – other than that one recurring dream back in college about being chased through a huge parking lot by the first-century apocalyptic Jewish hermits who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls – is my worst nightmare.

But I do enjoy reading about politics and history, and I am constantly harping at myself that I ought to be more consistent about reviewing all of the books I read, so the time has come to put aside whatever doubts I have about being qualified to review books about politics and history and – as the Nike ads say, or used to say – just do it.

Published in 2010, right around the time of the midterm Congressional elections that brought the Tea Party – in its 21st –century incarnation – into prominence, this book explores some of the seminal events of the American Revolution and the way these events have been morphed by Americans – and specifically by American politicians – over the nation’s 237-year history. Lepore attended Tea Party rallies when she was researching this book, and she describes the way, over and over again, when she told other people at these events that she was a Harvard history professor and lived in the liberal Massachusetts town of Cambridge, Tea Partiers were scornful of her and assumed that she had come to the rallies to mock and criticize them. It’s true that Lepore is skeptical of the Tea Party, and her tone sometimes approaches sarcasm, but overall she provides a fair and balanced treatment of this political movement that seeks – the way almost everyone seems to seek these days – to appropriate history to its own end.

In my hesitation to review a book about politics, and in my very legitimate need to forgo book reviewing for a while to manage what has been an extremely busy work schedule over the last few months, I’ve forgotten many of the specific examples that I would have liked to have referenced. I do remember Lepore pointing out the irony inherent in the Tea Party’s determination to return to a very literal interpretation of the intentions of the United States’ founders when the founders themselves would never have decided a matter in a certain way simply because some ancestor or hero from their past would have decided it that way. On the contrary, the founders – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, Franklin, Paine – were profoundly skeptical of the past. They tended to believe that for the most part, with the possible exception of the classical Athenians, human beings for the most part had spent the past four or five millennia doing an absolutely terrible job of governing themselves. Their own recent past included centuries of abuses and excesses at the hand of kings and popes, not to mention a series of disastrous wars and upheavals over the role religion should play in government. The founding fathers wanted the past to stay past. Some were more radical than others, of course, but overall their intention was to create a nation that was entirely new. They would be appalled and/or amused to see some modern Americans almost worshipping them like saints – when, for the most part they were skeptical about religion, critical of history, and willing to make enormous gambles and attempt ambitious experiments in the formation of their new nation.

Most cultures have foundation myths. In many cases, these myths were passed down via the oral tradition from pre-literate ancestors. I’m thinking of Genesis and Exodus, for example, and of the story of Romulus and Remus, and of Tangun – the son of a god and a bear, who is the mythological ancestor of the Korean people – and of all those African and Native American stories in which the monkey plays a trick on the coyote and that’s why the turtle has a shell. These stories are generally understood as metaphors that explain the spiritual founding of their cultures. In my opinion, the story of Adam and Eve – one of my favorite stories of all time, for its simplicity, its wisdom about human nature, and its universality – completely falls apart if we start thinking about talking snakes, punitive gods, and naked people eating fruit. When a modern-day Christian, Muslim, or Jew thinks of the story of Adam and Eve, he most likely (unless he is a fundamentalist wacko) considers it for its metaphorical wisdom about human ambition and hubris and/or for a sense of connection he feels to his most distant ancestors. Other than fossils and the occasional stone tool, these stories are the best evidence of what our ancestors were like, and I think it’s comforting to know that they were deep thinkers who at times were befuddled by their own complexity.

As Americans, many of us feel a certain connection to the myths of our own ethnic or religious ancestors, but we also want some creation myths of our own. The problem, though, is that the earliest Americans were hardly illiterate. On the contrary, our ancestors were readers and writers of the highest order. Some of them – namely Jefferson and Franklin – were writers at least to the same extent, if not to a greater extent, than they were statesmen and presidents and soldiers and diplomats. We are a post-Gutenberg nation – one that has drafted its laws and expressed its ideals via pen and paper from its very origins.

But knowing these facts doesn’t satisfy our desire for a mythic past. So what the Tea Party – and any number of other groups before them – has done is to create a mythic past out of our historical past. Long before Rand Paul and Paul Ryan were even born, Americans feeling hungry for a sense of their spiritual origins created the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, of Lincoln studying by candlelight in his idyllic log cabin, of Johnny Appleseed feeding the nation by planting fruit trees everywhere (Again with the fruit! What’s up with all the fruit in creation myths?), and of Paul Bunyan and his ox doing – well, doing whatever Paul Bunyan did with his ox. It’s been a while since I’ve read that story.

But there is something dangerous about this very human desire for foundation myths. The founding fathers didn’t want to be worshipped or revered, but they did want to be listened to and appreciated for who and what they were. And what were they? They were experimenters. They were skeptical and cynical about human ambition, even as they were ambitions men themselves. They distrusted concentrated power. They distrusted religion. They were imperfect, and they knew full well that they hadn’t created the “perfect union” that they had hoped for. Specifically, they knew that in failing to resolve the question of slavery in the constitution they were leaving a mess for future generations to clean up – even as they saw themselves as cleaning up the messes of their own ancestors: of Henry VIII and Queen Mary, of Cromwell and the earliest slave traders and the persecutors of the Salem witches. I think the founding fathers would be entirely comfortable with the idea that future generations of Americans might be kind of annoyed at them for leaving so much unfinished work behind – and, on the other hand, would be shocked to know that so many of us today worship them like gods or mythic heroes or saints.

These are the ideas that I took away from Lepore’s book. They aren’t entirely new ideas for me, but Lepore helped me to distill them into some kind of semi-articulate form. I wish I remembered more of the specific examples she cites in her book, and I encourage you to read it if you’re interested in learning more. This book is at once scholarly and accessible to general readers, and it makes for an illuminating piece of reading for anyone who is interested in the links between America’s past and its shaky, conflicted present.

This entry was posted in Authors, Jill Lepore, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Politics/Current Events, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (by Bethany)

  1. Nick Garcia says:

    Interesting. Having studied under Jill LePore’s protege (Greg O’Malley — wonderful person by the way) I know that the Tea Party’s hatred for so-called “liberal college professors” is misguided at best. These people are some of the nicest and most understanding folks around. The problem is that, to anyone who knows an ounce of history, the Tea Party’s version of our past is more than a bit confusing. We’re not looking down on them, it’s just hard to understand their worldviews once you really look at the in-depth primary sources and histories that examine our nation’s founding. Thanks for the post!

    • bedstrom says:

      Thanks for your comment! I wish I knew my colonial and early American history well enough to cite facts and details on my own, but I certainly get the sense (from Lepore’s book as well as from elsewhere) that the Tea Party is only one of many groups that has selectively edited the founders into a mythology that is palatable to their own agendas. I would love a chance to study this topic in detail sometime.

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