Exploding tea party myths about American history

Book Review

“The Whites of Their Eyes: the Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History”
by Jill Lepore
2010, Princeton University Press, 224 pages, $19.95

Every society, social group or individual has a set of stories about its past that it passes on to the next generation.  When these stories are supernatural or fictitious, they are called myths. When they seek verification in written sources or artifacts, we call them histories. Not all histories are true, but at very least, they all seek to explain persons, actions and events in other than fantastic terms.

Jill Lepore’s “The Whites of Their Eyes” is two distinct histories in the space of a single volume.

First and foremost it is a history of the American Revolution. Drawing together the latest sources and hewing to the current canons of historical writing (a multicultural story which includes accounts of women, slaves and workers in addition to the usual generals and statesmen) it not only sheds new light on familiar characters of the period (Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Hancock and Paine), but also introduces less widely noted actors (Attucks, Eades, Mecom and Wheatley). Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University, examines the media of the day and furnishes insight into the role of printers in the uprising. She traces the curiously paradoxical evolution of the ballot and how it was once considered anti-democratic. She touches on the distrust of political parties at the time and pays close attention to black writers, some of whom sided with the Tories over the three-fifths representation of slaves in the Constitution.

Not content to leave us with a first-rate treatise on the founding fathers, Lepore undertakes a second, and arguably more difficult task: making sense of the controversial role for history in present-day politics. Writing history is not a scientific exercise. It is an art form. It is often about the parsing of different words to describe the same reality.

For example, the “slave trade” and the “Atlantic triangular trade” both refer to the same phenomenon, the barter exchange of cash crops (particularly sugar and tobacco), slaves (the “middle passage”) and manufactured goods between Europe, Africa and the American colonies during the 16th through 19th centuries.

Which is the more accurate? The Texas Schoolbook Committee, a bellwether for primary and secondary school history textbooks in the U.S. market, wants to replace “slave” with “Atlantic triangle.” This small group of conservative non-educators and non-historians, in defiance of petitions from thousands of history teachers, wants the term to revert to the status quo ante that existed before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

How many baby boomers remember when history books talked about the “war of Southern secession” as a dispute over tariffs between an industrial North and an agricultural South? Why didn’t you learn how John Hancock got rich smuggling tea from Dutch traders on the eve of the Boston Tea Party? When were you told of Thomas Jefferson’s dalliance with his slave, Sally Hemmings? Why not replace “capitalism” with “free enterprise system”? If the word for freedom didn’t exist, would we still be able to think of it? Think for a moment. Think about the difference between history and myth.

It has been said that history is written by the victors or by the dominant group in any society. While I would argue that such is generally true, it is not without a struggle and that struggle has been afoot for much longer than the fight between the myth of creationism and the science of evolution. The last 60 years has seen a remarkable attempt to remove “dead, white kings” from their dominant position in the story of humankind’s history.

Every politician with any gravity at all invokes the heroes of his constituents. “History is on my side,” they claim, seeking to spin their version of bygone events to advance their own agenda. The strident call by the right-wing tea party movement for the resurrection of an America that never was has reached a clamor pitch since Obama entered the White House, with his supposedly “socialist” programs. Every day, Fox News talking heads and their Republican sycophants exhort audiences to commune with the writers of the Constitution by reading the sacred text in the same miraculous way they read their Bibles. Yes, reading is a miracle for some, but the writing was not.

One of Lepore’s most interesting nuggets of scholarship concerns Jefferson’s copy of the Bible. It was all frayed and tattered, not, as one might suspect, from constant use, but rather because he himself had cut out all the passages he considered miraculous and superstitious.  “The Whites of Their Eyes is a wonderful antidote to much of the willfully illiterate myths in the ether these days.



LaBarre Blackman
LaBarre Blackman

In the struggle since the '60s civil rights movement, Bar presently lives in Macon, Ga., with his wife and seven cats.