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No Thanks for the Memories

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Luke Sharrett/The New York Times/Redux
Demonstrators at a rally against health care reform, Washington, D.C., March 16, 2010

America’s Founding Fathers have a special significance for the American public. People want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or how George Washington would regard the invasion of Iraq. No other major nation honors its historical characters in quite the way we do. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts to find out what a historical figure of two centuries ago might think of David Cameron’s government in the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington about our current policies and predicaments. Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now.

It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an expert at mocking. Her new book, which mingles discussions of the present-day Tea Party movement with scattershot accounts of the Revolution, makes fun of the Tea Party people who are trying to use the history of the Revolution to promote their political cause. From her point of view, “What would the founders do?” is an “ill-considered” and “pointless” question. It has nothing to do with the scholarly science of history. “No NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it.” The fact that many ordinary Americans continue to want to ask about the Founders evokes no sympathy or understanding whatever from Lepore.

Of course, it is not just people on the political right who use the founding era to advance their causes. As Lepore concedes, the American Revolution is everyone’s favorite event. “When in doubt, in American politics, left, right, or center, deploy the Founding Fathers.” The antiwar movement of the 1970s seized the Bicentennial of 1776 to further its cause. Jeremy Rifkin of the People’s Bicentennial Commission urged Americans to form TEA parties (the acronym stood for Tax Equity for Americans), and his commission competed with the Nixon administration over who were the true heirs of the American Revolutionary tradition. Brought to trial in 1970 for blocking an army base, the radical historian Howard Zinn told the court that he was acting “in the grand tradition of the Boston Tea Party.”

Indeed, in Lepore’s view the left’s use of the Bicentennial in the 1970s lies behind the Tea Party movement of the present. She claims that “Jeremy Rifkin wrote the Tea Party’s playbook.” In reaction to the protests from the left in the 1970s, the right created “a reactionary—and fanatical—version of American history” that simmered for decades only to boil over following Obama’s election. Although Lepore recognizes that “the Revolution has been put to wildly varying political purposes,” with everyone from Southern segregationists to Martin Luther King Jr. exploiting it, she nonetheless believes that the Tea Partiers of today have gone too far. Their version of American history, she says, “was more literal than an analogy,” and it “bore almost no resemblance to the Revolution I study and teach.” But more: its version of the Revolution “wasn’t just kooky history; it was antihistory.” In the Tea Party’s interpretation of history, “time is an illusion. Either we’re there, two hundred years ago, or they’re here, among us.” To say that

we have forsaken [the Founding Fathers] and they’re rolling over in their graves because of the latest, breaking political development…is to subscribe to a set of assumptions about the relationship between the past and the present stricter, even, than the strictest form of constitutional originalism, a set of assumptions that, conflating originalism, evangelicalism, and heritage tourism, amounts to a variety of fundamentalism.

In other words, Lepore contends, the Tea Partiers regard “the founding” of the United States as “ageless and sacred and to be worshiped,” and its historical texts “are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments.” Her book, she writes, “is an argument against historical fundamentalism.”

When the Tea Party movement arose in 2009, Lepore decided to attend its rallies and interview its leaders in the Boston area where she lives and put together a book that would reveal the bizarre way “the far right” uses and abuses the history of the American Revolution. She sets each of the book’s five chapters in Boston, but then travels through time. She begins each chapter with the modern Tea Party movement, moves backward to central moments in the coming of the Revolution in the 1760s and 1770s, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, the Boston Massacre of 1770, and the Tea Party of 1773, then skips forward to the bicentennial of those events in the 1960s and 1970s, with the aim of highlighting “what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s kept and what’s lost.” If this weren’t confusing enough, Lepore repeatedly interrupts this meandering meditation on history with bits of information on topics, sometimes relevant, sometimes not, such as John Adams, printing in the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Mecom, and her insane children, James Otis’s insanity, Thomas Paine, the pledge of allegiance, abolitionism in the 1830s and 1840s, Melville’s Israel Potter, paper ballots, the forced busing of Boston schoolchildren in the 1970s, the Watergate scandal, and many other events and characters.

Since the Tea Party movement in Massachusetts was overwhelmingly white, Lepore suggests that “some of it, for some people, was probably discomfort with the United States’ first black president, because he was black.” Nevertheless, what really struck her about the movement was not the predominance of white participants; “it was the whiteness of their Revolution. The Founding Fathers were the whites of their eyes.” The Tea Partiers’ vision of the eighteenth century, Lepore writes, has no place for slavery, poverty, sickness, insanity, art, sex, pleasure, or humor. “There were only the Founding Fathers with their white wigs, wearing their three-cornered hats, in their Christian nation, revolting against taxes, and defending their right to bear arms.”

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.” If we went back to the world of the Founders in the eighteenth century, as the Tea Party wants us to, women like her would not have the vote. “That I vote, and almost everything about how I vote,” she says, “was unimaginable by the Founding Fathers.” Not quite unimaginable, but we get the point. Her theory of history is “Times change. That’s why everyone can vote.”

Following one of the several examples she cites of the cruel way the eighteenth century treated insane persons, tying them up like animals, she comments: “I don’t want to go back to that,” as if the present-day Tea Partiers do. How foolish can they be? After quoting an evangelical minister who in 1987 expressed confidence that Benjamin Franklin would not identify with the secular humanists of our own time “were he alive today,” she can’t help mocking the minister. “Alas,” she writes, Franklin “is not, in fact, alive today. And, while I confess that I’m quite excessively fond of him, the man is not coming back.”

Sometimes her zeal to criticize the “antihistory” of the Tea Partiers carries her a bit too far. She believes that the jurisprudential theory of originalism is all part of the “kooky” thinking of the Tea Party. “Setting aside the question of whether it makes good law, it is, generally,” she says, “lousy history.” We have all heard loose, ignorant polemics claiming the authority of the “original” intentions of the Founders. But Lepore seems to have little idea of what the interpretative doctrine of originalism really means and can only dismiss it as “historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.”

Originalism may not be good history, but it is a philosophy of legal and constitutional interpretation that has engaged some of the best minds in the country’s law schools over the past three decades or so. It is basic to the mission of the Federalist Society (an important organization of conservative and libertarian jurists, lawyers, law professors, and students), and at times it may have as many as four adherents on the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia’s book A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (1997), which staked out an originalist position on statutory interpretation, was taken seriously enough to generate critical responses from Ronald Dworkin, Lawrence H. Tribe, Mary Ann Glendon, and myself, all published in Scalia’s book along with his replies. In other words, originalism, controversial as it may be, is a significant enough doctrine of judicial interpretation that even its most passionate opponents would not write it off as cavalierly as Lepore does in this book.1

Despite all of her ridicule, Lepore at least does not pass off the Tea Party movement as some sort of Astroturf affair, that is, something that looks like a grassroots movement but is actually a fake, organized by corporate and business interests from the top down. Indeed, as her interviews with the Tea Partiers indicate, the movement, in Massachusetts at least, seemed to be a grassroots affair. Sarah Palin was not their leader, Patrick Humphries, a software engineer from Bedford, Massachusetts, told her. “We don’t need a leader. We’re all about devolution.” Although there is solid evidence—for example in Jane Mayer’s article “Covert Operations” in The New Yorker of August 30, 2010—that big money is coming to the national Tea Party movement from the top down, in Massachusetts it appeared to Lepore to be largely a middle-class movement composed of very ordinary citizens who by her own evidence were determined to keep fanatics and extremists at arm’s length. Misguided as the Tea Partiers may be in their political views, their movement does seem to be, as New York Times reporter Kate Zernike in her book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America,2 claims, “an authentic popular movement.” Echoing the AntiFederalists of 1787–1788 in their fear of far-removed political power and their class resentment of elites, the Tea Partiers are not something new under the American sun.

Indeed, one implication of T.H. Breen’s impressive new book, American Insurgents, American Patriots,3 is that the American Revolution itself may have been an ancestor of the modern Tea Party. Far from being a movement instigated from the top down by celebrated elite leaders separated from the affairs of the common people, the Revolution, Breen contends, was a popular uprising from below against a distant imperial government that had lost its legitimacy and its representativeness. In the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence tens of thousands of colonists boycotted British goods, created committees of safety or inspection, drove Crown officials from office, and intimidated and abused their loyalist enemies.

  1. 1

    For a collection of debates over the meaning of originalism, see Originalism: A Quarter-Century of Debate, edited by Steven G. Calabresi (Regnery, 2007). 

  2. 2

    Times Books, 2010. 

  3. 3

    Hill and Wang, 2010. 

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