The party of antihistory

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The Tea Party movement is too diverse (and too rowdy) to be easily stereotyped. In fact, the one thing holding it together may be its commitment to history — and to the idea that America has deviated from its constitutional course.

This notion that the Tea Party represents a return to original American values is lodged deep in the movement’s DNA. “If you read our Founding Fathers,” cable commentator Rick Santelli said during the 2009 CNBC segment that first raised the idea of a Tea Party protest, “people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson — what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll in their graves.” Since then, Tea Partiers have expressed their devotion to history through tricorn hats, Revolutionary era flags, and historically driven puns (“Give me liberty, not debt!”). On Fox News, Sean Hannity has told viewers the story of Boston’s Liberty Tree and offered a stirring graphic of a second Liberty Tree, with “We the People” emblazoned on its trunk and the apples of “Industry” and “Commerce” dangling from its boughs.

Commentators and opponents have poked fun at this — Stephen Colbert wondered if Hannity’s apples were going to be “fermented into stimulus cider” — but the Tea Party’s focus on history is something to take seriously. The Tea Partiers certainly do, crafting historical narratives that wrap neatly around their candidates’ political goals and drafting the Founding Fathers into the debates over stimulus funding and President Obama’s health care plan.

But is that really the right way to think about American history? This question has occupied Harvard historian Jill Lepore for the past year. Lepore is an influential specialist in early American history, and her previous book, “New York Burning,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006. In her new book, “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History,” she examines what the Tea Partiers claim about American history — and, more broadly, at how they pursue and value history itself.

Academic historians rarely mix it up with modern political movements. They even more rarely do so by walking into Boston bars, notebook in hand, and interviewing local Tea Partiers. But that’s what Lepore did — first for a long story in The New Yorker, where she is also a staff writer, and now in “The Whites of Their Eyes.” What she found, and what she dedicates much of her book to arguing, is that the “Tea Party’s Revolution...wasn’t just kooky history; it was antihistory.”....

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