The party of antihistory

Harvard historian Jill Lepore lays a charge at the Tea Party: abuse of history

By Craig Fehrman
October 31, 2010

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The Tea Party movement is too diverse (and too rowdy) to be easily stereotyped. In fact, the one thing holding it together may be its commitment to history — and to the idea that America has deviated from its constitutional course.

This notion that the Tea Party represents a return to original American values is lodged deep in the movement’s DNA. “If you read our Founding Fathers,” cable commentator Rick Santelli said during the 2009 CNBC segment that first raised the idea of a Tea Party protest, “people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson — what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll in their graves.” Since then, Tea Partiers have expressed their devotion to history through tricorn hats, Revolutionary era flags, and historically driven puns (“Give me liberty, not debt!”). On Fox News, Sean Hannity has told viewers the story of Boston’s Liberty Tree and offered a stirring graphic of a second Liberty Tree, with “We the People” emblazoned on its trunk and the apples of “Industry” and “Commerce” dangling from its boughs.

Commentators and opponents have poked fun at this — Stephen Colbert wondered if Hannity’s apples were going to be “fermented into stimulus cider” — but the Tea Party’s focus on history is something to take seriously. The Tea Partiers certainly do, crafting historical narratives that wrap neatly around their candidates’ political goals and drafting the Founding Fathers into the debates over stimulus funding and President Obama’s health care plan.

But is that really the right way to think about American history? This question has occupied Harvard historian Jill Lepore for the past year. Lepore is an influential specialist in early American history, and her previous book, “New York Burning,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. In her new book, “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History,” she examines what the Tea Partiers claim about American history — and, more broadly, at how they pursue and value history itself.

Academic historians rarely mix it up with modern political movements. They even more rarely do so by walking into Boston bars, notebook in hand, and interviewing local Tea Partiers. But that’s what Lepore did — first for a long story in The New Yorker, where she is also a staff writer, and now in “The Whites of Their Eyes.” What she found, and what she dedicates much of her book to arguing, is that the “Tea Party’s Revolution...wasn’t just kooky history; it was antihistory.”

Lepore admits that the Tea Party movement belongs to a long tradition of squabbling over the Revolution’s meaning, a tradition that began before the Revolution had even ended and continued through the Civil War, the Civil Rights debate, and up to today. But the Tea Party has outdone its predecessors on both the left and the right, Lepore suggests, in fashioning a nostalgic and inflexible version of that history. The Tea Party simplifies the Founding Fathers — it turns them into an orderly (and angelic) choir when, in fact, they were a confusing and contradictory group. And Lepore sees this as an error not just of historical fact, but also of historical method. “The study of history requires investigation, imagination, empathy, and respect,” she writes. “Reverence just doesn’t enter into it.”

Over the past few years, Lepore has come at the study of history from several angles, even co-writing a historical novel. She’s also pushed her fellow historians to reenter the public conversation — to counter abuses of history. Patrick Maney, who teaches history at Boston College, acknowledges that, outside of Lepore, “There isn’t anybody writing like this — who’s both informed by today’s historical scholarship and aiming at the general public. Right now, she’s in a league of her own.”

“At first, I didn’t want to write about the Tea Party,” Lepore admits, sitting in her Cambridge office, which has been overrun by stacks of books, piles of paper, and a few FedEx boxes half-full of fact-checking materials for The New Yorker. “I thought it was being over-reported.”

In the spring of 2009, however, Lepore was teaching a course on the American Revolution when Santelli inadvertently launched the Tea Party. Lepore says she and her students started bumping into Tea Partiers on field trips and tracking the analogies their leaders drew between Colonial America and the current moment. When she taught the course again in the fall, the analogies kept cropping up: during the first 9/12 rallies, when people turned out in their best Colonial garb, and again during the rise of Tea Party hero Scott Brown. At that point, Lepore decided she had to attend some Tea Party events herself — and to start to TiVo some Glenn Beck.

Like many observers interested in the Tea Party — though unlike many Harvard historians — Lepore sat in on meetings; attended rallies, including Sarah Palin’s visit to Boston; observed how local elementary teachers taught the Revolution; and explored the historical tourism industry, especially the Boston Tea Party Ship, a replica currently sitting in Gloucester and in serious disrepair. What the Tea Party was marshaling, she found, wasn’t patriotic spirit, and it certainly wasn’t history. It was, in her term, “antihistory.”

Two things separate antihistory from its prefix-less sibling. First, and most obvious, antihistory gets stuff wrong. In our interview, Lepore cites the example of Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, who, in defending herself to The New York Times, claimed that “those words, ‘too conservative,’ is fairly relative. I’m sure that they probably said that about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.” The idea of Franklin and Jefferson as social conservatives would certainly surprise their contemporaries, who knew Jefferson for his religious skepticism and Franklin for his public abolitionism.

The second — and, for Lepore, more serious — problem with antihistory is that it hijacks history’s raw materials. It takes a messy tumble of personalities and events and quotations and molds them into a static picture, a picture that happens to line up with current policy goals. “In antihistory, time is an illusion,” Lepore writes. Antihistory is “more literal than an analogy. It wasn’t ‘our struggle is like theirs.’ It was ‘we are there’ or ‘they are here.’ ”

These twinned ideas, Lepore writes, add up to a form of “historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry.” And that’s what makes antihistory more troubling than a simple partisan interpretation of history, which is something we’ve been indulging in for a long time. “The Whites of Their Eyes” also traces the American tendency to refashion the Revolution for political ends, and Lepore unearths some fascinating examples. In the 1940s, advocates for universal health care invoked John Adams as a guiding spirit. In the 1960s, both sides in Boston’s busing debate tried claiming the Founding Fathers. In the 1970s, the “Tea” in “Tea Party” stood not for Taxed Enough Already, as it does today, but for the progressive group Tax Equity for Americans.

Lepore finds the roots of the Tea Party movement’s historical impulse not in the Revolution itself, but in the 1970s and the American bicentennial. This was a time of national celebration, especially in Boston. (The new Boston Tea Party ship came over during this period.) But it was also a time of national anxiety. And the competing versions of history that resulted from this split — one from groups like Tax Equity for Americans, the other from their conservative counterparts — remind Lepore of our current moment. “The Tea Party’s history reminded me of the story I learned as a school child,” says Lepore, who grew up outside Worcester. “I was in the fourth grade, and we came into Boston for the Red Sox and for the bicentennial.”

The bicentennial’s Revolution, like the Tea Party’s, seemed closer to folklore than to history. Lepore says this parallel makes sense. “In both the 1970s and right now, the country’s in a bad place. People needed to find something to celebrate in the American past that is somehow unambiguous. I understand that need. But I don’t want to found our politics on it.”

Lepore first introduced these ideas in her New Yorker article on the Tea Party, which ran in May and contained a number of interviews with Boston-area Tea Partiers. “They’re good, sweet people,” Lepore says. “They really are interested in the Revolution.”

But Lepore’s article did not sit well with its subjects. I called Christen Varley, the president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, and she told me that “as a former subscriber” — her emphasis — “I never expected the article to be fair.” Varley believes Lepore arrived with an agenda, one that reveals itself in her meticulous descriptions of the Tea Party’s meeting place, the historic Green Dragon Tavern near Faneuil Hall. “She placed so much more importance on the location than we ever did,” Varley says. “I never in a million years would have known this place existed — I’m old and married and don’t live in the city.” (The Greater Boston Tea Party can no longer meet at the Green Dragon, Varley told me, because someone who was unaffiliated with the group got into one political argument too many.)

Varley and Austin Hess, another Tea Partier interviewed by Lepore, dispute her description not only of their meetings, but also of their ideas. They aren’t claiming to be historians and say they shouldn’t be held to that standard: Their focus is on political change. When they deploy the Founding Fathers, Varley says, they do so because “it’s a tool we can use — personalizing the ideas about the way government should be. I admit it’s a little contrived, but it’s no different than campaigning for a candidate or marketing a movie star.”

But Lepore believes history should be held to a higher standard. “If Christen says it’s window dressing, we don’t disagree about that,” Lepore says. “But I am not convinced it operates in that way for everyone else.”

One way to read the Tea Party is to say that it isn’t simply indulging in alternate history, but seeking historical alternatives. The Tea Party gets both in something like Glenn Beck’s online (and for-profit) Beck University, where you can enroll in Faith 102 and learn that the Founding Fathers had little interest in separating church and state. Lepore has no problem digging up the details to dispute this sort of thing, showing in “The Whites of Their Eyes” that the Bill of Rights not only prohibited the introduction of an official religion, but did so “at a time when all but three states still had an official religion.”

But Lepore also believes that her fellow historians share some of the blame for the Tea Party — or at least for a world in which the Founding Fathers can serve as window dressing. Academic history, according to Lepore, has largely pulled away from with the public sphere. She also traces this to the bicentennial, which contemporary historians dismissed as patriotic schlock and thus forfeited as an opportunity to tell a better, truer story to a country excited about Revolutionary America.

Things have slipped further. In the 1980s, Lepore says, the political right began trying to rescue the Founding Fathers from lefty historians, who increasingly emphasized history’s social side over its sweeping narratives and individual achievements. At the same time, the historians abdicated any kind of a public role, which created a space for pop historians — call it the David McCullough school — to start churning out heroic, best-selling biographies. “This saturated the culture with a journalistic perspective on the past,” Lepore says, also referencing the rise of the historian as TV talking head. “That way of reaching a reader is to say, ‘It was just like now. You could sit down and have a beer with George Washington.’ ... I don’t hold these people accountable,” she says, adding that she admires some of McCullough’s books. “But they’re all bound up together.”

Lepore’s next book will be a biography of Franklin and his sister, Jane Mecom, and she hopes it can combine her academic passions with an attention-grabbing narrative. “We can watch him run away, and into history,” she says of Ben, “and we can watch what happens to her, left behind.”

That’s one way historians can have it both ways. “The contribution historians can make to public conversation is to provide the long view,” Lepore says. And that means employing not only a historian’s facts, but also a historian’s methods — not to shut down debate over the meaning of the Revolution, but to keep it going.

The question that remains, of course, is who will listen. In what may be the Tea Party movement’s greatest trick, it has managed simultaneously to invoke history and to dismiss historians. Lepore would like to see the media push the Tea Party harder on its historical rhetoric. But she would also like to see historians make themselves, and their knowledge, more available. “The response of many of them is to refuse to participate,” Lepore says of her professorial colleagues. “But people will still do it — they just won’t be people who know much about history.”

Craig Fehrman is working on book about presidents and their books.