As the 2010 midterm elections approach, the tea party movement is brimming with anger.
But the Boston Tea Party and other founding events and principles so often invoked by today’s angst-filled activists haven’t only been symbols of limited government.
In the 1770s — the days of the actual tea party — it was bitterness about taxation that stirred the colonists to protest. Throughout American history, groups across the political spectrum have tried to claim the nation’s founding events, such as the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord, as their own. This is an issue of selective memory.
It is easy to say the Founding Fathers would have favored one group’s cause over another’s, but it’s harder to prove. In her new book, “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History,” author Jill Lepore tries to do what politicians aren’t willing to: actually study the history behind events such as the Boston Tea Party and examine the way they are manipulated politically.
The book’s hook is the popularity of the tea party movement during this election cycle, but “The Whites of Their Eyes,” despite the seemingly incendiary title, is not a critique of this year’s ubiquitous political movement. The text is much more a historical analysis than a partisan one.
Lepore does point out inconsistencies surrounding the 2010 iteration of the tea party. However, the book spends most of its 165 pages bouncing back and forth from the 1770s to the 1970s and the present day. What Lepore comes up with is an argument against historical fundamentalism — the idea that key events such as the American Revolution can be superficially interpreted, even two centuries later, to reveal an incontrovertible political truth.
“My point in telling three stories at once is not to ignore the passage of time but rather to dwell on it, to see what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s kept and what’s lost,” she writes in the book’s prologue.
The author’s accuracy in describing the three eras is hard to question. The 18th century is one of the specialties of this Harvard University professor of American history, and the book is full of quirky stories about John Adams, Paul Revere and others. And for the modern research, Lepore attended historical re-enactments of Revolutionary War battles in the 1970s and tea party rallies in Boston in 2009.
Lepore’s decision to study the tea party movement in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states, is both an interesting and practical one. The physical link to the Boston Tea Party is obvious, and the tea party movement played a major role in GOP Sen. Scott Brown’s electoral victory last year.
Many tea partiers were happy to speak with Lepore because of what they felt was an unfair portrayal of them in the national media. Still, the ideological connection between the Boston Tea Party and the current movement — which bills itself as “of the people” — is a flimsy one.
“People don’t know very much about anybody but the Founding Fathers, unfortunately,” Lepore said in an interview. “You might think people in the tea party would be really interested in ordinary people, but in fact, they’re not. They are interested in elitist intellectuals, like Madison and Jefferson.”
She recounts an example from 1975 in which a similar disconnect existed between the followers of a movement and the historic events that they invoked. During a re-enactment marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, participants hung a poster out of a window complaining about an unrelated, contemporary issue: They protested the forced busing of African-American students with the saying, “We’re right back where we began 200 years ago.”
Two hundred years ago, of course, African-Americans were slaves in this country and had no access to education.
“The Whites of Their Eyes” makes for complex reading because of its multiple story lines and settings. Nevertheless, the book gives an engaging presentation of politics as historical theater. The moral of this story, as with the American Revolution, is that history isn’t simple — even if, for political reasons, it is sometimes presented that way.