The whites of their eyes The Tea Party's revolution and the battle over American history

Jill Lepore, 1966-

Book - 2010

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Princeton : Princeton University Press c2010.
Main Author
Jill Lepore, 1966- (-)
Physical Description
x, 207 p. ; 23 cm
Includes bibliographical references (p. [169]-198) and index.
  • Foreword
  • Prologue: Party Like It's 1773
  • 1. Ye Olde Media
  • 2. The Book of Ages
  • 3. How to Commit Revolution
  • 4. The Past upon Its Throne
  • 5. Your Superexcellent Age
  • Epilogue: Revering America
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Within the US lexicon, few eras grip the popular imagination as does the war for independence, a heritage claimed by all as a symbol of an existence free from the tyranny of government. Yet, no other era is as misused and abused, its characters' deeds and views whitewashed to create what historian Robert Penn Warren termed "a useable past," its principles bastardized in order to legitimize a contemporary political ideology. Nothing illustrates this truth more profoundly than the modern Tea Party movement, whose unconscious remaking of the era is disconcerting. Lapore (Harvard) chronicles the leaders behind the Tea Party movement and how they utilize images from the US past. Writing with verve, wit, and careful attention to detail, Lapore systematically contrasts their use of Revolutionary imagery and ideas with documented facts. She provides a detailed yet disturbing portrait of a populist faction advocating devolution towards a society that would have excluded all of the Tea Party's own members. Yet, Lapore's goal is not to make this association look foolish, but to cast a critical light on all organizations, public as well as private, who misuse the past for their own selfish goals. For that reason alone, this is an important work for all Americans. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries. M. J. C. Taylor Paine College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

TRYING to describe the ideas of the Tea Party movement is a bit like a blind man trying to describe the elephant. The movement, like the elephant, exists. But no one, not even the Tea Partiers themselves, can seem to get hands around the whole of it. Jonathan Raban, who attended the first National Tea Party Convention and wrote about it in The New York Review of Books, was struck by how little agreement there was among "members" as they talked about their grievances and aspirations. And yet the Tea Party uprising is the most visible and energized political phenomenon of the last year. Whether it will remain-a viable movement remains to be seen, but it shows no sign yet of running out of steam. What lies behind the Tea Party movement? Some of it is purely partisan. It has close ties to the Republican Party. It is opportunistically promoted by Fox News. One of its best-known leaders is Dick Armey, former Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, who spent much of the last year or so promoting the new movement through Freedom-Works, an organization he helped to create. Its program is presented in "Give Us Liberty," by Armey and the group's president, Matt Kibbe. It is a simple set of goals, consistent with those professed by Republicans over the last 25 years: "lower taxes, less government, more freedom." But if that were all there were to the Tea Partiers, they would be indistinguishable from the Republican Party itself. Kate Zernike, a national correspondent for The New York Times, has interviewed a number of Tea Partiers in an effort to understand what they believe and what they want. Her book, "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America," is an anecdotal description of the movement, supplemented by an April 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll (already a generation away from the fast-moving character of the insurgents). Her interviews, too few to be of any statistical significance, are nevertheless illuminating as a picture of how different some Tea Partiers are from the Republican establishment's view of the movement. At some points, Armey describes the Tea Partiers as loyal Republicans who do not want to divide the party. At others, he talks about a "hostile takeover," although he is not clear about what that would mean. Zernike's interviews reveal that some of the most outspoken Tea Partiers are disgusted with both major parties. They are enraged by the fecklessness of Wall Street (and the huge bailout in 2008). They argue that cutting government costs (without raising taxes) is the only way to reduce the frightening deficit. They insist that almost everyone in power is corrupt and out of touch with the public. And they believe that the Constitution has been perverted by liberal judges and academics and the political world in general - stretching its meaning well beyond what the founders intended. The people Zernike interviewed rarely expressed bigotry, prejudice or racism, but there are many self-identified Tea Partiers who detest immigration and fear the prospect of an America in which white people will be a minority. Older white men, who seem to constitute the majority of the movement, often rally around the cry "Take Back Our Country." There is little doubt as to whom they wish to take the country back from. Jill Lepore, a historian of the American Revolution and a staff writer at The New Yorker, has written a brief but valuable book, "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History," which combines her own interviews with Tea Partiers (mostly from her home state, Massachusetts) and her deep knowledge of the founders and of their view of the Constitution. The architects of the Constitution, she makes clear, did not agree about what it meant. Nor did they believe that the Constitution would or should be the final word on the character of the nation and the government. It was the product of much compromise, and few were satisfied with all its parts. There were enormous omissions -among them the failure to define citizenship, the lack of a clear definition of suffrage, the evasion of most of the issues connected to African-Americans and Native Americans. Jefferson insisted that "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." Madison asked in Federalist 14, "Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?" The reality of the creation of the Constitution is a far cry from the idea that it instituted immutable limits to what government could do. Listening to the many and diverse demands and ideas that the Tea Partiers express in their rallies, pamphlets and oratory does relatively little to explain why so many Americans are so angry. After all, most of those railing against government deficits (mostly created by Reagan and Bush tax cuts), protesting against taxes (the rates on the top income bracket are lower than at any time since before World War II, with the exception of a brief period two decades ago), and complaining about violations of the Constitution were, only a few years ago, much less concerned about these and many other issues that now loom so large in their vision of the future. Without the economic crisis, these same issues would remain unaddressed. Similar outbreaks of outrage and blame have accompanied most major economic crises over the last century and more. The populist movement during the adversities of the 1890s spawned the People's Party, a powerful but short-lived organization based on hostility to corporate malfeasance and the gold standard. The Great Depression produced multiple movements that reviled the power of bankers and the concentration of wealth. In both cases, as in our own time, the movements soon became immersed in innumerable other grievances and prejudices. We should not be surprised that so many Americans are angry. Almost four decades of growing inequality have left most of them no better off than they were in 1970, and many worse off. The recklessness and greed of much of the financial world - the principal causes of the crisis - have done far more damage than taxes or the deficit. The corruption and dysfunction of Congress and much of the rest of the government have disillusioned many. Everyone should be angry about these injustices, even if no one has proposed a workable solution to them. The Tea Partiers are right to be angry. But the objects of their outcries - taxes, deficits, immigration and supposed violations of the Constitution -are of far less consequence than the great failures that plague the nation. Lee Siegel finds similarities between the Tea Partiers and the Beat generation, Page 31. Similar eruptions of outrage have accompanied most major economic crises over the last century and more. Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history at Columbia and the author, most recently, of "The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 10, 2010]
Review by Library Journal Review

Professional historians, Lepore (American history, Harvard Univ.; New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan) believes, have with few exceptions been wary of employing historical analysis to reflect on the present, so leaving "plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business." Here, Lepore is primarily concerned with the leaders of today's Tea Party movement, whose claim to the inheritance of the Founding Fathers she sees as "anti-historical" and "a variety of fundamentalism." In five brief chapters, she weaves reportage on today's Tea Party together with reflections on the organizers of America's 1976 Bicentennial celebrations and Revolutionary-era figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and others. Their world, she argues, was so vastly different from ours in ideas on religion, race, equality, and most everything else that convenient claims on our Revolutionary past, which recur throughout American history, need to be challenged. VERDICT This book is an expansion of Lepore's May 3, 2010, New Yorker article, "Tea and Sympathy." The reporting and the history both seem thin at book length, and readers who settle for the article will lose very little.-Robert Nardini, Nashville (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, 2005, etc.) explores the nexus of the American Revolution, the understanding and telling of history and today's Tea Party.For a number of years, the author has been contributing pieces to the New Yorker on American colonial history, pithy commentaries shaped by historical evidence and a storyteller's hand. Here she braids those essays together, which makes them more satisfying and meaningful than if they were merely collected in an anthology. Lepore mixes in thoughts on the historian's craft, and in particular the misuse of history by the Tea Party, that two-year-old gathering of anti-tax, anti-Obama and, as Lepore shows, anti-history folks. The author is not smug in her treatment of the Tea Partiers, but she refuses to allow them to kidnap and torture history so that it is reduced to fit their fundamentalist moldfundamentalist in the sense of conflating originalism (that the intent of the framers is fixed and knowable), evangelism and heritage tourism, and uninterested in the historical evidence of the American Revolution, that "messy, sprawling, decades-long affair." They treat the past as prologue, but it is a fictive past, writes the author, "reductive, unitary and, finally, dangerously anti-pluralist"for example, the attempt to draw a parallel between the health-care law and the Intolerable Acts. For Lepore, history"which is controversial, contentious and contested...picky, demanding, and vital"is hard enough to grasp without willed ignorance.Learned, lively and shrewd.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.