Issue 13, December 2010 | Andrew Broertjes


Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle of American History, Public Square Book Series/Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010, pp. 207.

It was described as the “rant heard round the world”. On February 19th, 2009, with the global financial crisis well underway, CNBC business commentator and former derivatives trader Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago stock exchange decrying bailouts for homeowners about to lose their houses (or to use Santelli’s term “losers”): “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour’s mortgage…President Obama, are you listening?” Anger over the bailouts soon spilled over into anger over health care reforms, reforms that were going to be “rammed through congress” and then “rammed down the throats” of American taxpayers. The protests accompanying these moves by Obama’s government quickly acquired the name “Tea Party”, drawing upon both the acronym (“Taxed Enough Already”) and the original Boston Tea party of 1773. The Tea Party of 2009-2010 presented itself as an apolitical grass roots movement, concerned about taxation and government, and one that drew upon the vision of the Founding Fathers to try and restore what was right in the United States. Flaws emerged almost immediately in this picture. Poll after poll found that the Tea Party protestors were almost exclusively white, middle-class and Republican.[1] Anger over the bailout plans was directed at President Obama, even though President Bush had introduced them. Indeed the anger over government spending that was driven up during the eight years of the Bush presidency was seemingly absent for those eight years, only emerging when Obama took office. Health care reform, designed to bring down public spending on medicine (the supposedly free market health care system representing, before Obama, the largest item of domestic expenditure in the US budget) and introduce some form of government health care, was met with the cry of socialised medicine and accusations that the president was a secret communist.

It seemed as though the emergence of the Tea Party would be a minor matter, a fringe movement enjoying fifteen minutes of fame, no different to the anti-war group Code Pink. However, it became obvious no matter how ridiculous their claims were, the Tea Party was not a minor matter. Protests across the United States drew tens of thousands of people, brought together by online networking and promotion by the “fair and balanced” Fox news network. The influence of the movement was seen most prominently in the Republican primaries heading into the mid-term elections in November 2010. In what some commentators described as a fight for the “soul of the Republican party” several high-profile “Tea Party” candidates won the Republican nomination for seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Two of the more notorious examples included Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, whose first campaign ad featured her denial that she was a witch, and Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, who stated in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that he thought that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was federal overreach and that if restaurants wanted to deny service to African Americans then they should be allowed to without government interference.

The general election results were mixed, with some Tea Party candidates failing, others winning. How then to explain this movement? Analysis has been carried out across the popular media, with heavyweight historians contributing to the debate in recent months. In October, Pulitzer Prize winner Sean Wilentz wrote a lengthy article for The New Yorker, taking aim at Fox presenter Glenn Beck’s misappropriation of history and linking Tea Party concerns to earlier groups like the John Birch Society.[2] In The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, Bancroft Prize winner and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Jill Lepore picks up on this challenge. In doing so, Lepore has written an engaging book that examines not only the Tea Party phenomenon, but traces how the ideas and images of the Founding Fathers have been used, in many cases misused, at various points in US history.

Such analysis is necessary, if for no other reason than the constant references by the Tea Party to the Founding Fathers, deputizing historical actors like Thomas Jefferson into arguments about universal health care and gay marriage, hardly concerns in eighteenth-century revolutionary America. Not that Tea Party members see it that way:

“Everybody in the movement is interested in the Revolution” [Tea Party member] Hess told me. He took his debt to the founders seriously: “We believe that we are carrying on their tradition, and if they were around today, they would be on the streets with us, leading us, and they’d be even angrier than we are. I imagine we’d have to politely ask them to leave their muskets at home.” (p. 21)

 However, as Lepore writes:

When in doubt, in American politics, left, right or center, deploy the Founding Fathers. Relying on this sort of analogy, advocates of health care reform could have insisted that, since John Hancock once urged the Massachusetts legislature to raise funds for the erection of lighthouses, he would have supported state health care reform (pp. 14-15)

 Lepore structures her argument as a flow between the revolutionary past, mainly the 1770s and a number of different time periods, most notably the present. In the latter, Lepore actually went out and made contact with a number of members of the Boston Tea Party group. Her patience and generosity in dealing with these Tea Party supporters is admirable, although at times one wishes she could be a little more critical, a little more along the lines of Matt Taibbi, whose Rolling Stone article on the movement “Tea and Crackers” was a vitriolic putdown that pulled no punches. Lepore is gentler in her approach, despite some obvious provocations. One member tells her:

I don’t want the government giving money to people who don’t want to work. Government is for the post office, and to defend our country, and maybe for the roads. That’s all. (p. 44)

Another mentions her role with the Coalition for Marriage and Family, a group advocating a ban on gay marriage, to which Lepore writes:

I asked her whether that didn’t amount to more government interference, but the problem, she said, was that government had interfered so much already that it had nearly destroyed the family, and the only thing for it was to use the government to repair the damage. (p. 42)

It is a testament to Lepore that she keeps a straight face during these exchanges. But what they reveal is a fundamental contradiction in many of the beliefs that Tea Party members possess.

When it comes to assessing their use of history and the appropriation of the Founding Fathers, Lepore points out many significant points and deep flaws, not merely in the Tea Party, but for anyone seeking some sort of endorsement from the wisdom of ages past. The term “Founding Fathers”, Lepore writes, did not come into existence until the 1920s, when Warren G Harding used it liberally, both in his inaugural address and in other speeches. The assumption that all the “founding fathers” thought and acted the same way is a key myth of the Revolutionary period. As Lepore points out, the founders themselves recognised this danger. John Adams expressed particular concern in various letters and writings that the complexities of the Revolution and its historical actors would be rendered into simplified caricatures (p. 44). The dependence that future generations would place upon the unimpeachable wisdom of the constitution (a particular favourite of Tea Party activists) was also commented upon by the founders such as Jefferson, who as Lepore points out stated:

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the age a wisdom more than human.” (p. 113)

The irony here is probably lost upon the Tea Party movement. Lepore traces a line of writers from the Revolutionary period onwards who shared similar views about being tied to the burdens of the past. But these ideas always have run alongside those who use the founding myths for their own ends, good and ill. Amongst the people Lepore mentions, at times quite rapidly are Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jnr, Glenn Beck, Jesse Jackson, friends of the Kent State shooting victims, John Kerry and the National Park Service. Out of these groups, one of the more significant ones (and one that has attracted a great deal of attention from other reviewers of this book) was the Tea Party of the 1970s. Like the 21st century model, this group also borrowed from the original Boston Tea Party. Like the 21st century model, this group adopted revolutionary slogans like “Don’t Tread on Me.” The key difference was in the acronym, “Tax Equity for Americans” and in their mission statement, which described themselves as “a movement that will treat tax reform as one aspect of a fight for genuine equality of property and power and against taxation without representation.” (p. 84) Such a group would attract scorn in the current political climate in the United States, after a heated presidential election that saw then Senator Obama tagged with a comment about “spreading the wealth around”, finding a new form in contemporary Tea Party accusations that he is a secret communist.

Works such as The Whites of Their Eyes make for interesting reading, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 mid-term elections. One hopes, however, that Lepore will develop these ideas further. If there is a criticism to be made of this book, it is that it seems like an abridged version of a much longer work. The cast of characters, particularly in the Revolutionary period is substantial, yet it would have been nice for Lepore to spend some more time with figures like Boston printer Benjamin Edes, who gave up his newspaper in the wake of John Adams’s Sedition Act of 1798. Issues that provide some interesting links between that period and the present day, such as the role of the media, are dealt with far too briefly. And by focussing almost exclusively on historical appropriation, Lepore has missed out on explaining other reasons why people might have joined the Tea Party movement. Her references to acclaimed American historian Richard Hofstadter are welcomed on this point. While Hofstadter died decades before the Tea Party emerged, his works, especially The Paranoid Style in American Politics are essential reading in understanding this particular strand of the political DNA of the United States. Here, Lepore pays particular attention to Hofstadter’s work in The Age of Reform and the section entitled “History and Conspiracy”. It is worth quoting from this section, although “new critics” are advised to track down the whole work. In writing about conspiracy theories, Hofstadter noted:

This kind of thinking frequently occurs when political and social antagonisms are sharp. Certain audiences are especially susceptible to it – particularly, I believe, those who have attained only a low level of education, whose access to information is poor, and who are so completely shut out from access to the centers of power that they feel themselves completely deprived of self-defense and subjected to unlimited manipulation by those who wield power. There are, moreover, certain types of popular movements of dissent that offer special opportunities to agitators with paranoid tendencies, who are able to make a vocational asset out of their psychic disturbances.[3]

Such a description could easily apply to the current crop of Tea Party supporters and their leadership. Lepore could have updated and sketched out some of these ideas further, however this work is a timely reminder of how history can be used and misused, and is worth reading for anyone trying to gain an understanding into this movement.

Andrew Broertjes is a lecturer in the History department at The University of Western Australia.

[1] New York/CBS News, April 2010; Gallup, July 2010

[2] Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots” in The New Yorker, October 18th, 2010.

[3] Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR, Vintage Books: New York, 1955, p. 71