Jill Lepore made her bones at The New Yorker writing on two subjects she cares passionately about: American history and breast-feeding. I am perhaps unqualified to comment on the latter, but the Harvard history professor brings something fresh and badly needed to the former—a wicked sense of humor. When Sean Hannity, for instance, extols the piety of Thomas Paine at a tea party rally, Lepore drolly surmises that "this wasn't the same Paine" who called all religious institutions "human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit." Lepore's acerbic wit (and its accompanying soul, brevity) makes The Whites of Their Eyes (Princeton, 206 pages, $19.95) a welcome change of pace from the 900-page biographies of George Washington now straining bookstore shelves across the country.
Lepore's book draws on numerous pieces she has written for The New Yorker to retell the true story of the American Revolution (a conflict beset, to a surprising degree, with controversies over slavery) interwoven with scenes from the tea party movement of the present and America's Bicentennial celebration of 1976. In so doing, she shows how activists on both the left and right have tried since the early days of the republic to conjure the Spirit of '76 for their own narrow, political purposes. The tea party movement is the more alarming, however, for conflating past with present, patriotism with evangelicalism, and fact with fantasy to the point that none of these people, Lepore argues, has a firm grip on political reality—much less a grasp of American history.
Tea baggers persist in equating policies they oppose under the Obama administration in the 21st century with tyrannies imposed on the colonists by King George in the 18th century. Government-mandated health insurance? That's "taxation without representation." How is a president elected by 53 percent of voters in a nationwide election with the highest turnout in 40 years not "representation"? The upstart election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate becomes "the Massachusetts Massacre." Kind of like the Boston Massacre, Lepore says, because they both happened in Massachusetts and both make dramatic use of the word "massacre."
So many of the iconic people and events Americans celebrate as central to the Revolution, Lepore notes, were no such thing until long after the war was over. Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the Boston Massacre, is now honored both as an African-American and a runaway slave, although no one knew he had been a slave until almost a century after his escape. Children neither listened nor heard of the midnight ride of Paul Revere until Longfellow published a poem about it in 1861. And the "Founding Fathers" weren't called that until Warren G. Harding coined the phrase in a keynote address to the Republican National Convention in 1916.
The problem, of course, is that the persistence of false memory cuts across party lines—tea or otherwise. The Constitution, whether divinely inspired Scripture or merely a promissory note, sets men free to screw up the facts of their heritage as they see fit. The 18th century, as The Boston Globe once noted, wasn't the only time that tried men's souls. Those times, like the revolution they spawned, never really ended.
Jill Lepore appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, Oct. 24. Free.