Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Books

Putting the Tea Party in Perspective

10.29.10


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:

Photograph of a mathematician's blackboard, from the book Do Not Erase

Ana Balibanu’s chalkboard, like the others in Do Not Erase, provides a glimpse into the mathematical mind at work.

Photograph by Jessica Wynne

Off the Shelf

Composite illustration of African American poets Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar

Left to right: Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the background: On Virtue, written in 1766 by Phillis Wheatley

Photomontage illustration by Niko Yaitanes

Critique and Joy

The painting, "Overseers in the Field #1" (2007), informed by Winfred Rembert

Click on white arrow to see full image
Overseers in the Field #1
(2007), informed by Winfred Rembert’s life

© 2021 Estate of Winfred Rembert / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Open Book: Hiding in a Tick Mattress

You Might Also Like:

Photograph of a mathematician's blackboard, from the book Do Not Erase

Ana Balibanu’s chalkboard, like the others in Do Not Erase, provides a glimpse into the mathematical mind at work.

Photograph by Jessica Wynne

Off the Shelf

Composite illustration of African American poets Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar

Left to right: Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the background: On Virtue, written in 1766 by Phillis Wheatley

Photomontage illustration by Niko Yaitanes

Critique and Joy

The painting, "Overseers in the Field #1" (2007), informed by Winfred Rembert

Click on white arrow to see full image
Overseers in the Field #1
(2007), informed by Winfred Rembert’s life

© 2021 Estate of Winfred Rembert / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Open Book: Hiding in a Tick Mattress