“WHO shall write the history of the American revolution?” John Adams once asked Thomas Jefferson. “Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?” “Nobody,” was Jefferson’s reply. “The life and soul of history must forever remain unknown.” But there has been a series of history of America seen from different angles and enthusiasm. Jill Lepore in her book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History goes through the interest groups that are re-writing American history.
The Americans are squabbling over the history of their nation, which is less than 250 years old. While some are reviving the spirit of the Tea Party, others are turning it into a Christian state. There is of course no consensus, for, the interest of the different groups vary too much to be contained in one official version.
The book begins dramatically, with Lepore taking a tour of the ill-kept remake of the Boston Tea Party Ship, at the Gloucester Harbor. Then she zooms into the present, attending a group meeting which is against the tax proposals of Obama. Echoing the ‘no taxation without representation’ call of the Americans to the British in the end of 18th century, (1776) today’s protesters under the banner Tea Party (Tax Equity for Americans) call for boycotting the taxes. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour’s mortgage?” asks one. Taking the names of the founding fathers they rue what has happened to their nation.
Back and forth, Lepore travels time and space, giving the reader a window view of the discussions and debates going on in America, to discover, or re-discover America. “What ails the American spirit?” Newsweek asked, on the cover of its Fourth of July issue, in 1970. The question was posed to six historians. “Yale’s Staughton Lynd insisted that there was no such thing as an American spirit, but, except for that, no one quibbled with the question; everyone agreed that something was terribly wrong and that, whatever it was, it was unprecedented.” Such expressions as ‘spiritual crisis,’ ‘losing sense of history’ and ‘velocity of history’ were flung around. But nothing definite.
Lepore’s accounts of the search for the American spirit reveals a longing for a nation that was trouble-free, benign and where there was no strife. The reality is something else. But there are hardly takers for that. The debate is on the objectives of the founding fathers of America. Free market? Religion? Federalism? Etc. “Our Founding Fathers were once revered in this country as divinely inspired, courageous visionaries. But now, after the past one hundred years of ‘enlightenment,’ we’ve come to realise that they were nothing but old, white, racist heathens” the book quotes Glenn Beck a political commentator as saying.
When Sarah Palin was asked on Fox News “Why do you think America is a Christian nation? She said “Nobody has to believe me. You can just go to our Founding Fathers’ early documents and see how they crafted a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution that allows that Judeo-Christian belief to be the foundation of our lives.” Palin has many nodding in agreement. But at the same time, there are people, a huge number, who believe that even if America did start off a Christian state, it has moved on.
What history of America should be taught is a raging issue there. But in all these discussions, no one was ever seen or heard mentioning that there was an indigenous population that occupied the land before the white set foot there and the way these children of the land were marginalised, pushed to corners and wiped out. It is a history that the American children will never learn. Even for the most serious historians the story begins with the settlers’ fight with the land of their origin – England.
Lepore looks at the on-going tussle over history with a sense of humour and lightness, almost laughing at the cacophony of opinions. It is near-impossible for America to authorise a single version, for, the states do not see eye to eye and the ubiquitous spirit of the nation, definitely founded on freedom to choose, does not allow such confinement. Hence, the debate must go on.
Lepore does not make any comment from her side, just presenting the facts to the readers, to discern, as a good historian must. She is a professor of American History at Harvard University and author of many books. An interesting book that places contemporary America in the matrix of the nostalgia.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)