- History, Myth, and the Making of America
The Boston Tea Party has become ground zero. It was the tipping point in a drawn-out conflict between the American colonists and Parliament in Britain. The Coercive Acts, passed in retaliation for the Tea Party, set the colonies alight. Even in far-off colonies such as Virginia, patriots claimed the cause of Boston was the cause of all America. The Boston Port Act in particular was seen as an actual invasion. Many noted that, from then on, the talk was of nothing but war. Colonists now had a clear choice: they could fight to defend their rights and liberties, or they could succumb to tyranny and enslavement. For most, it was an easy choice to make. In our narratives of the coming of the Revolution, the Tea Party set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the Declaration of Independence and the founding of a new nation.
For a founding story, this narrative makes for soothing reading. Those in favor of liberty put aside their differences in 1774, rallied together, declared themselves patriots, defeated tyranny, and founded a nation. And soothing stories are what many in America today are yearning for, according to Jill Lepore. In her witty, wry, and insightful book, The Whites of Their Eyes, Lepore tacks between this foundational moment and the current obsession with the Revolutionary generation in the form of the modern Tea Party movement. Weaving together stories of John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Phillis Wheatley, Crispus Attucks, and the colonial press, Lepore undermines current popular versions of this narrative. In particular, she attacks the founding fables of the far Right that emphasize the Revolution as a seamless and uncomplicated movement of white, Christian conservatives against an intrusive and increasingly despotic government. [End Page 215]
Along the way, Lepore considers the nature of history itself and the ways in which it has been used and abused. In particular, she is keen to try to understand the basis of the historical understandings that inform efforts by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to "take back America." Meditating on what is forgotten as much as what is remembered, Lepore talks to modern-day activists, meets with managers of the commercial heritage industry, and grapples with the efforts of the Texas School Board to adopt a social studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation. While acknowledging that every generation rewrites its history, especially of the American Revolution, the current far-right version is something altogether different. It is more like a reenactment than an interpretation. Indeed, she concludes, it is yet another variation on a kind of fundamentalism—an antipluralist, anti-intellectual, and ultimately antihistorical view of the past.
In the third strand of this entertaining work, Lepore also tries to understand the roots of this antihistorical thinking. Between stories of angry colonists at Old South Meeting House and angry Tea Partiers at the Green Dragon Tavern, Lepore weaves tales of earlier efforts to understand, commemorate, and remember the American Revolution. The bulk of these focus on the failed efforts of historians and politicians to provide a compelling and unifying story of the Revolution for the nation's bicentennial celebrations. Amid an explosion of contrary and divisive historical accounts of the Revolution that mirrored the political and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings. Since then, there has been a nostalgic longing for just such a story. And in Lepore's telling, behind the Tea Party's revolution lies what she sympathetically calls a "heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past—a time less...