Americans have always put the past to political ends. The Union laid claim to the Revolution--so did the Confederacy. Civil rights leaders said they were the true sons of liberty--so did Southern segregationists. This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation's founding, including the battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to "take back America."
Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, offers a careful and concerned look at American history according to the far right, from the "rant heard round the world," which launched the Tea Party, to the Texas School Board's adoption of a social-studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation. Along the way, she provides rare insight into the eighteenth-century struggle for independence--a history of the Revolution, from the archives. Lepore traces the roots of the far right's reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings. Behind the Tea Party's Revolution, she argues, lies a nostalgic and even heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past--a time less troubled by ambiguity, strife, and uncertainty--a yearning for an America that never was.
The Whites of Their Eyes reveals that the far right has embraced a narrative about America's founding that is not only a fable but is also, finally, a variety of fundamentalism--anti-intellectual, antihistorical, and dangerously antipluralist.
In a new afterword, Lepore addresses both the recent shift in Tea Party rhetoric from the Revolution to the Constitution and the diminished role of scholars as political commentators over the last half century of public debate.
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her books include New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, winner of the Bancroft Prize.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Ruth O’Brien ixPrologue: Party Like It’s 1773 1Chapter 1: Ye Olde Media 20Chapter 2: The Book of Ages 43Chapter 3: How to Commit Revolution 70Chapter 4: The Past upon Its Throne 98Chapter 5: Your Superexcellent Age 126Epilogue: Revering America 152Afterword to the Paperback Edition 167Acknowledgments 177Notes 179Index 209
What People are Saying About This
This book gives an informed account of the ways contemporary references to the Revolution ignore, distort, run roughshod over, yet somehow attempt seriously to evoke the events of the past. It nicely represents Lepore's distinctive genius as a historian. Jack N. Rakove, author of "Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution"
Modern Tea Partiers have thrown facts overboard and recast the Revolution in their own image: white, Christian, and ultraconservative. Lepore demolishes the Tea Party's founding fable with deep scholarship and devastating wit. Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic"
Jill Lepore is a national treasure. There is no other writer so at home both as a trenchant scholar of American history and as an on-the-scene observer of our present-day follies. She etches the connection between past and present with a wisdom, grace, and sparkle that makes this book even harder to put downif that's possiblethan her previous work. Adam Hochschild, author of "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves"
The Whites of Their Eyes offers a lesson in what history actually is and how it seems constantly to be used and abused. Lepore is a superb writer. Eric Foner, author of "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877"
Henry Louis Gates
No one writes about our Revolutionary history and its effects upon the shape of our culture and society today with more wit, verve, and sparkling intelligence than Jill Lepore. The Whites of Their Eyes offers the most compelling look we have so far at who we were and who we have become as a nation, and provides a cool and much needed context for the heated rhetoric of this 'new' reactionary moment. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
The Whites of Their Eyes shows Jill Lepore at her remarkable bestaccessible, authoritative, and wise. Jeffrey Toobin, author of "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court"
The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History 3.4 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
History is messy. Historical accounts are typically subject to political/cultural bias of the beholder. Whether you are Zinn or Schweikart your historical perspective is subject to bias. Lepore's work isn't so much history as it is historiography as it compares and critiques popular belief about the American Revolution from two separate periods and their associated popular beliefs (The American Bicentennial and today's Tea Party movement). The analysis seems sound and well reasoned. I recommend this as a source of information for those who are looking for an analysis of how and why we (Americans) venerate the heroes of the Revolutionary War and how and why this veneration skews our perception of what actually occurred during the revolution.
Is this a political book? Perhaps today it is. I don't think the author has gone out of her way to be political in her conclusions, but I am certain there are many out there who will criticize this book based more on its political merit rather than on the credibility of the conclusions presented. In a few years when political focus has moved beyond the Tea Party and its opponents I believe the book will still have value as a cultural snapshot of the political environment today and in 1976.
More than 1 year ago
I expected much more.
Othemts on LibraryThing
More than 1 year ago
Harvard historian Jill Lepore investigates the rhetoric of the Tea Party particularly the claim by many right-wing politicians to speak to the original intent of the Revolutionary generation and the framers of the Constitution. Lepore meets with Tea Party activists in the Boston area and respectfully reports their views while not leaving them unchallenged. Lepore also writes about the historical figures of the Revolution and how their memory is claimed and interpreted throughout American political history (particularly by left-wing activists during the Bicentennial celebration). The book skips around a bit - especially distracting in the later pages - but it is a good, brief journalistic take on the politics of cultural memory.Favorite Passages:The founders were not prophets. Nor did they hope to be worshiped. They believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed is to become a slave to the tyranny of the past. - p. 113Citizens and their elected officials have all sorts of reasons to support or oppose all sorts of legislation and government action, including constitutionality, precedence and the weight of history. But it's possible to cherish the stability of the law and the durability of the Constitution, as amended over two and a half centuries of change and one civil war, and tested in the courts, without dragging the Founding Fathers from their graves. To point this out neither dishonors the past nor relieves anyone of the obligation to study it. The the contrary."What would the founders do?" is, from the point of view of historical analysis, an ill-considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too. Jurists and legislators need to investigate what the framers meant, and some Christians make moral decisions by wondering what Jesus would do, but no NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it. People who ask what the founders would do quite commonly declare that they know, they know, they just know what the founders would do and, mostly it comes to this: if only the could see us now, they would be rolling over in their graves. ...That's not history. It's not civil religion, the faith in democracy that binds Americans together. It's not original ism or even constitutionalism. That's fundamentalism. - p. 124-25This, I guess, was the belly of the beast, the alarming left-wing lunacy, the godless irreverence, the socialist political indocrination taught in the public schools of the People's Republic of Cambridge: an assignment that requires research, that raises questions about perspective, that demands distinctions between fact and opinion, that bears an audience in mind -- an assignment that teaches the art of historical writing. - p. 161
Shrike58 on LibraryThing
More than 1 year ago
This is best described as an extended essay where Lepore bemoans the reduction of American History to a hodgepodge of exemplary stories (mostly wrong) in the current American political environment, while at the same time admitting that her own profession abandoned the field in the 1970s when there was a crying need to offer an overarching popular narrative to make sense of the space where the United States found itself. Of course, the people who most need this book are those least likely to read it.
Jaylia3 on LibraryThing
More than 1 year ago
According to Jill LePore¿s book our founding fathers were not prophets and they didn¿t want to be worshipped. They struggled to make an imperfect but working Constitution that contained many compromises none of them were happy about, including that found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. In Federalist 14, Madison was disdainful of people who let a blind veneration for the past overrule their own good sense, knowledge and experience. The Tea Party has misunderstood much of early American history by conflating the past and the present, but that¿s not surprising because political movements have been appropriating and misrepresenting the Revolution since not much after its last shots was fired. Both civil rights leaders and southern segregationists considered themselves the true sons of liberty. This book is thick with examples of competing ideologies claiming the mantle of America¿s beginnings for themselves, especially during the preparations for the Bicentennial in the 1970s when a divided country couldn¿t agree on what its lessons were. THE WHITES OF THERE EYES weaves back and forth between the country¿s early history and the events of the present day, leading up to the November 2010 midterm elections. Rather than focusing on candidates, LePore spends time with the Tea Party members themselves, especially from the Boston area which is where much of the early American history she covers takes place. The historical sections are among the most interesting and moving parts of the book, especially the running back story on Benjamin Franklin and his sister Jane, which LePore uses in part to illustrate how easily the history can be misinterpreted.
annbury on LibraryThing
More than 1 year ago
This book examines the way in which one group of Americans (the Tea Party, indeed the right in general) is using their version of a key event in American history (the Revolution) to inspire and justify a political purpose. The author contrasts the Tea Party version with reports from the historical record, including extensive quotes from people who lived during the Revolution. She concludes that the Tea Party view is ahistorical, anti-intellectual, anti-pluralist, and fundamentalist. That's a clear-cut conclusion. What is somewhat less clear is that the author, too, presents a version of history that inspires and justifies a current-day political view. Her history is certainly far closer to "what really happened" than the Tea Party narrative. Jill Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard, where her courses focus on early American history, and on historical methods. But her narrative is inevitably selective, and selection favors a point of view. Ms. Lepore certainly doesn't pretend that her version is an absolute truth -- she stresses that history is about stories. Nor does she suggest that the use of a selective narrative of history for political ends is either new, or particularly American. Every culture has a foundation myth, and at least as far back as Vergil's Aeneid this myth has been tied to history. What Ms. Lepore does, she says, is "-- to reflect on what's at stake when present-day political differences are expressed by waging battles over what happened in the past". She does this by alternating between three sets of material -- ideas and events in Revolutionary times, political uses of Revolutionary history in the 1970's (mostly by the left), and political uses of Revolutionary history by the right today. This is all interesting, and leaves the right-wing version looking both misinformed and dangerous. But Ms. Lepore doesn't simply challenge the right wing version. She also presents another version, or more accurately an alternative approach to using the facts of history. She is an anti- originalist, arguing against using 18th century ideas (including many of the specifics of the Constitution) as a template for 21rst century political choices. It's a point of view with which I generally agree, but it is still a point of view. I think the reader's response to this book will have even more to do than usual with what that reader brings to the book. Left wing intellectual types are likely to enjoy it a lot: it's not only interesting, it is charmingly written (Ms. Lepore is also a staff writer for the New Yorker"). Right wingers may well find it condescending, biased, and really, really irritating.