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No Thanks for the Memories

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.

These ordinary Americans organized their resistance without bothering to reflect on the abstract political theories of John Locke or John Adams that allegedly justified the rebellion. “Not that the insurgents did not have ideas about politics,” says Breen. “They did. But these were ideas driven by immediate passions; they were amplified through fear, fury, and resentment.” Confident of their God-given rights and driven by anger against officials of a British government that had treated them as second-class subjects, the insurgents reacted passionately, spontaneously, and mobilized their communities into action. Not unlike the Tea Partiers of the present, these common people were often way out ahead of their so-called leaders.

The Tea Partiers are certainly not scholars, but their emotional instincts about the Revolution they are trying to remember on behalf of their cause may be more accurate than Lepore is willing to grant. Popular memory is not history, and that important distinction seems to be the source of the problem with Lepore’s book. Although she has spent much of her career mulling over the difference between critical history and popular memory, she doesn’t have any sympathy for the way in which some advocates of the Tea Party movement have remembered the Revolution.

As Lepore knows very well, there has always been a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember. But that tension has become much more conspicuous in recent years. Lepore herself dates the change from 1970, which “marked the end of an era in the writing of American history.” That was the year Richard Hofstadter died, and he was “one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time.” Lepore suggests that since Hofstadter’s death academic historians have more or less abdicated their responsibility to write serious history that is relevant to the present:

Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business.

That includes the Tea Party movement.

If only it were this simple. If only academic historians would write for the general public and relate their history to the present, Lepore suggests, the kind of “antihistory” the Tea Party has constructed about the Revolution and the Founding would never be created. But the separation between critical history-writing and memory goes back before 1970, back to the beginning of professional history-writing at the end of the nineteenth century. From the outset scientific-minded historians have tried to transform memory, to eliminate its falsehoods and anachronisms, to reconstruct the past and recapture it as accurately as possible. Critical historians want the public to know that George Washington did not cut down his father’s cherry tree, that Benjamin Franklin in his own lifetime was not the Founding Father of free enterprise, that Sojourner Truth did not utter the famous words “A’n’t I a woman?,” that Thomas Jefferson was not really very original in writing the Declaration of Independence.

These were myths that people came to believe, and presumably it is the responsibility of critical historians to destroy these myths and to establish the truth of the past as much as possible and prevent the sort of silly history that the Tea Party people have imagined. And Lepore blames her fellow academics for not doing a better job of it.

But it turns out that it is not easy to dispel the power of popular memory. Although many historians of Washington have made sure that no one puts much stock in the cherry tree myth anymore, Mason Weems’s Life of Washington, which created the myth, still remains in print as the most popular biography of the man ever written. The artisans and entrepreneurs in the early Republic who produced the myth of Franklin as the self-made businessman needed a hero, and their image of Franklin as a founder of capitalism has stuck, much to the chagrin of Lepore and other imaginative writers. The historian Nell Painter found that her revisionist and historically accurate portrait of Sojourner Truth was not welcomed by those who remembered the famous ex-slave and abolitionist differently.

Painter came to realize that audiences and readers did not want to hear about her revisions, however historically accurate they were, especially her evidence that Sojourner Truth never uttered the famous remark “A’n’t I a woman?” At the end of her book, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996), Painter herself concedes that heritage is more important than history. “The symbol of Sojourner Truth,” she says, “is stronger and more essential in our culture than the complicated historic person.” “The symbol we require in our public life still triumphs over scholarship.”

In her very contextual history of the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997), Pauline Maier criticized all the ways subsequent generations embellished, misused, and refashioned the original historical character of the Declaration. She even criticized Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Declaration to condemn slavery as bad history. “Lincoln’s view of the past,” she wrote, “was a product of political controversy, not research, and his version of what the founders meant was full of wishful suppositions.” Lincoln, in his invocation of Jefferson’s Declaration, was of course creating memory, not history. John Ford and his scriptwriters knew what they were doing when they had the newspaper editor in his movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance say, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Certainly Lepore is correct in believing that historians have a professional obligation to dispel myths and legends; it is what they are trained to do. In 1969 the distinguished English historian J.H. Plumb wrote a book entitled The Death of the Past. By “the past” Plumb essentially meant memory, what he called the “created ideology”—the “mythical, religious and political interpretations”—with which humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny. Such memory, such imagined pasts, said Plumb, should never be identified with critical history. “True history,” he wrote, is basically “destructive”: “for by its very nature it dissolves those simple, structural generalizations by which our forefathers interpreted the purpose of life in historical terms.” Its role is to eliminate those simple generalizations and “to cleanse the story of mankind from those deceiving visions of a purposeful past.”

Perhaps not in America, but in other nations some intellectuals have come to believe that historical scholarship over the past generation has more than fulfilled its role of destroying memory, and they have reacted with alarm. In France the power of critical history-writing in eroding memory became serious enough in recent years that historian and editor Pierre Nora was provoked into publishing his seven-volume Lieux de MémoireRealms of Memory—much of which has appeared in English translations.

Modern critical history-writing in the Western world, Nora claimed, has broken the “ancient bond of identity” with “memory.” The “conquering force of history,” said Nora, has called “into question something once taken for granted: the close fit between history and memory.” History has now clearly become the enemy of memory. “Memory,” wrote Nora, “is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it, to repress it.” Because critical historians had been so successful in disenchanting the history of France, in reducing its past to a cold and critical contextualism in which no living memory could survive, Nora believed that something had to be done to reverse the process. His project was designed to revive many of those sites that evoke the collective memory of the French people. So he and his collaborators wrote essays on everything they could think of as vital elements of French memory—Joan of Arc, Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Bastille Day, the “Marseillaise,” the Dictionnaire Larousse, the Tour de France, Verdun, and so on.

Nora believed, as does the English historian David Lowenthal in his Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996), that this kind of collective memory is essential for any society. Memory, or what Lowenthal calls “heritage,” may be, like the Tea Party’s use of the Founding, a worthless sham, its credos fallacious, even perverse; but, wrote Lowenthal, “heritage, no less than history, is essential to knowing and acting.” It fosters community, identity, and continuity, and in the end makes possible history itself. “By means of it we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong.”

The eminent American historian Bernard Bailyn agrees. Critical history-writing is all head and no heart. Scientific history-writing, Bailyn writes, is always skeptical and problematic; it questions itself constantly and keeps its distance from the past it is trying to recover. By contrast, memory’s

relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.

Bailyn made these remarks about history and memory at the conclusion of a 1998 conference on the Atlantic slave trade that had threatened to break apart, as many black scholars and others present emotionally reacted to the presentation of the cold and statistically grounded scholarly papers dealing with the slave trade. With his distinction between history and memory, Bailyn calmed the passions of the conference. He confirmed that the dataset of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard laying out the statistics of the slave trade over three centuries would be “a permanent source for the future enrichment of our critical, contextual understanding” of the Atlantic slave trade. “But the memory of the slave trade,” he said,

is not distant; it cannot be reduced to an alien context; and it is not a critical, rational reconstruction. It is for us, in this society, a living and immediate, if vicarious, experience. It is buried in our consciousness and shapes our view of the world. Its sites, its symbols, its clues lie all about us.

The accounts of the Middle Passage in textbooks read by every child, as well as in Alex Haley’s Roots and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, are all more memory than history; they evoke emotions, not dispassionate analysis. This sort of emotion-laden memory, said Bailyn, “is inescapable for all of us, white or black, and we cannot distance ourselves from it by the rational, critical reconstruction of the past.” Bailyn concluded his remarks not by decrying the power of memory to distort history, as Lepore has done, but by suggesting that “perhaps history and memory…may act usefully upon each other.” While memory may be shaped and informed by critical history, history “may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent by the living memory we have of it.” Memory is as important to our society as the history written by academics.

Lepore could have used some such advice as this. Her academic contempt for the attempts of ordinary citizens to find some immediate and emotional meaning in the Revolution might have been softened by such insights as Bailyn’s. She might have been able to display some of her scientific credentials as a historian and written a less partisan and more dispassionate account of the Tea Party movement to help us understand what it means.

  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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