"History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man." - Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Many liberal professors in colleges and universities throughout the United States want us to believe that only they have all the answers on any given subject. Perhaps, nowhere else is it more evident than in the case with professors teaching history – more specifically American history. In her book, The White of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, Harvard University professor and New Yorker staff writer, Jill Lepore, argues that only academic historians, such as herself, truly understand the history of the American Revolution.
Published in 2010, Lepore’s book is a direct attack against the growth of the Tea Party Movement that followed the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Lepore notes that her book is merely “an argument against historical fundamentalism” and hopes to “account” for the “battle over the Revolution.” Although she admits that all political sides use the American Revolution to promote their agendas, it is clear that her book specifically targets the conservative movement in the country (note the title of the book itself). She has a low opinion about the theory of originalism that many people still consider a legitimate form of understanding American constitutional history. Lepore wants people to move forward instead of remaining stuck in the past. As such, she hopes to use her expert training as an historian to end the propagandizing of American history by mediocre Americans such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Malkin amongst others. Her intention is to show average Americans that only liberal academics understand America’s past best.
According to Lepore, the Tea Party’s version of American history is not “kooky” but the more dangerous “antihistory.” She notes, “in antihistory, time is an illusion. Either we’re there, two hundred years ago, or they’re here, among us.” Therefore, those who believe in the “illusion” are fooling themselves (and presumably others) in a standard that never existed. Lepore argues, “we cannot go back to the eighteenth century, and the Founding Fathers are not, in fact, here with us today.” She asserts that participants of the Tea Party Movement are foolish in suggesting that Americans “have forsaken” the Founders by “the latest, breaking political development-the election of the United States’ first African American president.” She adds that the Tea Party is a group of fundamentalists who think the Founders are the “prophets” and “certain historical texts” must “be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments.” A few things are notable from Lepore’s assertions here: She feels that the Tea Party Movement is antihistorical and the Tea Party participants are all racists and self-deluded zealots.
In his masterworks, The Republic and The Laws, Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, (admired by the Founding Fathers) noted that by the time of Romulus and the formation of Rome, “men were educated and the times themselves were enlightened, there was hardly any scope for myth-making.” He continues, that although some in “antiquity” may have “accepted fabulous stories” such was hardly the case after the founding of Rome because people “by now sophisticated, made a point of deriding sheer impossibilities and rejecting them with scorn.” Clearly, Cicero recognized that people were intelligent enough to scrutinize myths and legends even in his time. Yet, Lepore only has contempt for ordinary Americans today. She feels they believe in “fables” and in “a version of American history” that has “no resemblance to the Revolution.” She contends that the emergence of the Tea Party Movement is simply an outgrowth of such “illusion.” Therefore, if Lepore is correct, Cicero must be wrong and we must admit that average Americans today are illiterate buffoons and incapable of understanding their own heritage. Unfortunately, for Lepore, I have greater faith in the works of Cicero than hers.
Eminent historian of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood, wrote a fantastic rebuttal of Lepore’s book in 2011. His review of Lepore’s book is an exemplary piece of work from an objective historian who has closely studied the American Revolution since the 1960s. Of the American Revolution, Wood notes that the participants of the current Tea Party Movement share astounding similarities with their predecessors. He states that in the Revolutionary period, “ordinary Americans organized their resistance without bothering to reflect on the abstract political theories of John Locke or John Adams that allegedly justified the rebellion.” Therefore, even if we accept Lepore’s theory that participants in the Tea Party Movement today are unfamiliar with all the works of all the Founders, to suggest that they are ignorant and self-delusional about American history is quite a stretch.
Contrary to Lepore’s assertions, Tea Party participants come from various backgrounds. Indeed, many are college graduates and even (heaven forbid) teach at universities and colleges across the nation. Many others are members of the United States Military. Still others are business owners, parents, grandparents, retirees, college students, and (yes, shockingly) even immigrants. Of course, in Lepore’s assessment, none measure up simply because they dissent from her views and that is enough for her to categorize them as bigots living in a make believe world of the past.
If recalling historical moments in times of crisis (or otherwise) is wrong then what precisely is the purpose of writing history? Why do we want to remember our past? Is it simply to jot down occurrences from a bygone era? Could it be that for many of us, the purpose is to recall the past to help us in the present as we advance towards the future? After all, did the Founders do things any differently themselves? In his groundbreaking work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), preeminent historian, Bernard Bailyn wrote that the Founders, “hated and feared the trends of their own time, and in their writing had contrasted the present with a better past, which they endowed with qualities absent from their own, corrupt era.” Bailyn states that Founders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Otis, and John Adams amongst others felt, “the earlier age had been full of virtue; simplicity, patriotism, integrity, a love of justice and of liberty; the present was venal, cynical, and oppressive.” In this manner, regardless of Lepore’s opinion, it is evident that the participants of the Tea Party Movement today are indeed following the footsteps of the American Revolutionaries of 1776.
Yet, Lepore feels that the writing of history must serve one goal: to record the past as accurately as possible. Undeniably, that should be the goal for all historians. Yet, it is equally important to remember, that history serves a bigger purpose for people than a mere recording of their past. Wood notes, “Memory is as important to our society as the history written by academics.” Indeed, history is written to give people a connection to their past. Without collective memory, history becomes one-dimensional and loses its true value. It becomes precisely what Lepore hopes: a list of occurrences without any meaning to those who ought to remember it.
If the historian’s job is to displace any myths from the study of history, then it is also their duty to consider historical events without unnecessary personal bias. If Lepore does a tremendous job in archiving the history of the American Revolution, she fails considerably by pushing her own liberal agenda. Although, her intention may have been to write a book to set the record straight, the only thing she manages to do in the end is ridicule the significance of American history in the hearts and memories of average Americans. It would serve her well to remember that without memories, all else is transient---including history.