Putting the Tea Party in Perspective

Harvard historian Jill Lepore puts the modern day Tea Party movement into historical perspective.

The modern Tea Party, like other political movements before it, self-identifies with the spirit that moved eighteenth-century Bostonians to cast imported tea into Boston harbor. In a witty account of the uses and abuses of history—mostly for political ends—Jill Lepore’s new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, describes the recurrent misappropriation of our national heritage since the Revolution and the mythologizing of its “Founding Fathers.” The Kemper professor of American history says the modern “Tea Party” movement is a form of “historical fundamentalism” with reactionary precedents that she recounts in wry detail.

“Historical fundamentalism,” Lepore writes, “is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—‘the founding’—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—‘the founding documents’—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”

Lepore identifies the death of the newspaper as a destabilizing influence in American politics, one reason for the rise of the latter-day Tea Party. Even as she points out the ironies and inconsistencies of the Tea Party platform, she musters some sympathy for the cause, in which she sees a “heartbreaking” “nostalgia…for an imagined time…less troubled by conflict, less riddled with ambiguity, less divided by race.…A yearning for a common past…” That common past exists in all its complexity, as Lepore teaches us, but in a partisan age, the nuanced view of American history becomes harder to restore.

A 2005 Harvard Magazine article discussed Lepore and two of her other books for popular audiences.

You might also like

Equality and Justice

A Radcliffe Day panel discusses pluralism and progress. 

Using the Law for Good

2024 Radcliffe Medalist Sonia Sotomayor on civic engagement and optimism

Close Call

Ending a tumultuous year, Harvard tradition is served in the 373rd Commencement—with plenty of thunder from the stage.

Most popular

Close Call

Ending a tumultuous year, Harvard tradition is served in the 373rd Commencement—with plenty of thunder from the stage.

Harvard Corporation Rules Thirteen Students Cannot Graduate

Faculty of Arts and Sciences May 20 vote on protestors’ status does not confer “good standing.”

Orators Three

Harvard’s student Commencement speakers 2024

More to explore

Bernini’s Model Masterpieces at the Harvard Art Museums

Thirteen sculptures from Gian Lorenzo Bernini at Harvard Art Museums.

Private Equity in Medicine and the Quality of Care

Hundreds of U.S. hospitals are owned by private equity firms—does monetizing medicine affect the quality of care?

Sasha the Harvard Police Dog

Sasha, the police dog of Harvard University