The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History by Jill Lepore

As short (1000 word) book review on Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. This is a review of Lepore’s work in which she examines the current Tea Party’s history and political beliefs.

Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, offers in her book The Whites of Their Eyes a critical observation of American history according to the political movement known as the Tea Party Revolution. Lepore’s research examines how this far right group has undermined the history of America’s founding in order to promote a political agenda which is centered upon Christian fundamentalism, is anti-historical, and worst of all dangerously anti-pluralist. In order to support her argument, Lepore’s research examines evidence from three specific areas; how the Tea Party has conflated the past to the present, how the Tea Party has created a false impression of the past, and how the Tea Party has subverted the past in order to promote Christian fundamentalism.

Lepore’s research examines how the Tea Party has conflated the past to the present, something that political groups have done since the inception of the nation. Everyone from Southern segregationists of the 1950’s to Martin Luther King Jr. has exploited the past in order to advance a political philosophy, but Lepore contends that the Tea Party Revolution has gone too far. Lepore’s book also argues that the political tradition of using the revolution as celebratory history is a time honored practice, one which the Tea Party Revolution of 2009 has not only borrowed its name from, but has also used to add legitimacy to their cause. One of the most popular examples that Lepore cites is the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010. The Tea Party’s attempt at conflating the Affordable Health Care Act with that of the American Revolution by stating that “health care reform is like the Tea Act”[1] is simply wrong. The Tea Act of 1773 was initiated by England solely as a means to protect a “politically connected corporate monopoly”[2], and according to Lepore actually resulted in lowering the cost of tea in the colonies. The problem the colonists had however was with the principle of taxation without representation, and it is here that the Tea Party Revolution gets it wrong. The Tea Party according to Lepore would argue that health care reform under President Obama is akin to taxation without representation. The problem with that line of reasoning is that President Obama was voted into office with an “electoral vote of 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote. In an age of universal suffrage, the citizenry could hardly be said to lack representation.”[3]  

In the second area of Lepore’s research, Lepore examines how the Tea Party Revolution has created a false representation of the revolutionary period of America in order to advance its political philosophies. The Tea Party Revolution according to Lepore “in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, had very little to do with anything that happened in the 1770’s.”[4] Sarah Palin proves this point when addressing a Tea Party gathering in Boston, where she argues against political change while drawing comparisons between revolutionary figures and today’s movement, exclaiming “we’ll keep clinging to our Constitution, and our guns, and religion and you can keep the change.”[5] The right wing idea that somehow today’s Tea Party Revolution is tantamount to 1770’s America and the revolution is absurd, other than both groups members donning similar garb. The 1770’s was about change, not about maintaining a status quo. Still the most glaring division can be found in the physical make up of today’s Tea Party Revolution, which counts amongst its member’s women, and blacks. This modern day make up of membership stands in marked contrast to revolutionary America. As evidence Lepore argues that women in eighteenth century America were not active members in the revolution, were not allowed to vote, own property, and very likely were unable to write. Blacks on the other hand in eighteenth century America were still considered as merchandise which could be owned. The founding fathers when faced with the issue of slavery “could choose to end slavery, or they could choose to battle [English] Parliament. They could not do both.”[6] Consequently it would take a Civil War some seventy five years later to finally end slavery. The idea somehow that today’s Tea Party Revolution shares so much in common with an eighteenth century America in which woman were second class citizens and Blacks could still be owned defies common logic. The only explanation that Lepore offers for the Tea Party Revolution’s obvious anti-pluralist misrepresentation of history is that perhaps it is a nostalgic yearning for a past that was less troubled by ambiguity, and strife.

The third and last area examined by Lepore is how the Tea Party Revolution subverted the past in order to promote Christian fundamentalism. Many Tea Party supporters such as “Michael Johns of the Heritage Foundation believe that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation…”[7] and as such “is the foundation of our liberty and our God-given freedom.”[8] Yet according to Lepore that simply isn’t true. Lepore argues that if the founding fathers had intended that America be founded as a Christian nation they would have “followed their forefathers, [and] they would have written a Constitution establishing Christianity as the national religion.”[9] A national religion would have been a relatively easy thing to accomplish at the time if it had been the intention of the founding fathers, since “all but three states still had an official religion.”[10] Instead the Bill of Rights was created which expressly forbade the establishment of a national religion. In fact many of the founding fathers themselves had at various times throughout their own lives expressed religious views which were anything but fundamentalist beliefs by today’s standards.

Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes provides a compelling argument for how  the far right has embraced and promoted a narrative about America’s founding that is not only a fable ,but has mixed fact with fantasy to the point that it has undermined the history of America’s founding. Lepore’s research and evidence exposes  how elements of the far right has tried to use revolutionary history in order to promote a political agenda which combines celebratory history with evangelicalism, is anti-historical, and  worst of all dangerously anti-pluralist.

 

 

 

 


[1] Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press, 2010), 14

[2] Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes, 77

[3] Ibid, 7

[4] Ibid, 68

[5] Ibid, 137

[6] Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes, 74

[7] Ibid, 4

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, 123

[10] Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes, 123

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