The Past upon Its Throne

by Scott Korb

A look at Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History

In her recent book, The Whites of Their Eyes, Harvard historian and regular New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore takes a close look at the Tea Party and calls it fundamentalist. The Whites of Their Eyes is a book almost entirely set in greater Boston: at Tea Party gatherings in Green Dragon Tavern, where in 1765 the Sons of Liberty themselves began gathering; at the Old South Meeting House, at re-stagings, by children, of the debates that led to the Boston Tea Party; on the field where the Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought, where on the morning of the annual reenactment Lepore’s family (and “some other sleepy-headed colonials”) wage their own little “battle on the green.”  (One thing to note about the book is how often the facts of Lepore’s own Cambridge life enter the story—in this case, the family’s annual failure to get out of bed early enough to make it to the actual reenactment; they’re there in time for the parade that follows.)

Tea Party fundamentalism—or what Lepore calls “historical fundamentalism”—is of a different kind than the religious fundamentalism The Revealer typically notes, though the two are not mutually exclusive, nor are either particularly wholesome.  “Historical fundamentalism,” she writes,

is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—“the founding”—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—“the founding documents”—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.

Consider that the reading last week of the United States Constitution (as amended) on the floor of the 112th Congress was widely understood as a gesture by the Republican majority to its Tea Party wing and Tea Party electorate. And despite debates over reading aloud sections of the Constitution that have been superseded by amendments, including the original Article that referred to slaves as “three fifths of all other Persons,” what undergirded the first days of the new Congress, and what stands behind the new requirements of House members to cite the constitutional authority for each new bill moving forward, is a commitment to the originalism that shapes the historical fundamentalist’s view of the founding documents.

Lepore believes that like faith, the study of history “has its demands and solaces.” One of its demands is that we remember that “time moves forward, not backward,” a rule that strikes at the heart of radical originalism. This is also a fact that, as Jeffrey Rosen points out in the Times, even Justice Scalia admits when considering what it would take to toss out certain precedents—say, “decisions applying the First Amendment’s restrictions on religion to the states”—that Justice Thomas, for instance, would argue are inconsistent with the founders’ intent.

This sort of Tea Party originalism, Lepore concludes, “looks like history, but it’s not; it’s historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.” Though there were undoubtedly some political geniuses among them, the founders were not religious prophets; their documents are not sacred. And as Lepore loves to say, echoing the complaints of Tea Partiers everywhere: None of them are rolling over in their graves. They’re all long dead. The founders are resting, undisturbed.

Scott Korb is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us and associate editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, winner of the American Historical Association’s 2009 J. Franklin Jameson Prize. His latest book is Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, 2010). He currently teaches religion and food writing at the New School and New York University. Read his tumblr at

Read Lepore’s latest article at The New Yorker here.

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