J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Invocations Right and Left

Last night I attended Jill Lepore’s talk at the Old South Meeting House in support of her new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Most of her talk was about how America, and particularly our state of Massachusetts, prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976. As the book’s marketing copy says:

Lepore traces the roots of the far right’s reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings.
But I came away thinking that analysis missed the big point.

Americans have invoked the nation’s founding for all sorts of political causes, starting well before the 1970s. In the long national debate about slavery, for example, both Abolitionists and Slave Power apologists pointed to Revolutionary rhetoric and leaders to bolster their stands. Invoking the founding is an easy way to make any movement seem more patriotic.

With such a tradition, it’s no surprise that Americans of the late 1960s and early 1970s also invoked the Revolutionary period. The fact that many of the hot political arguments of the time involved equality and rights made the founding particularly meaningful, as was the fact that the head of state really was corrupt.

Sometimes people brought up specific Revolutionary events. Folks drew parallels between the Boston Massacre and how uniformed men killed six unarmed protesters at Kent State and Jackson State Universities in May 1970, and between the Massacre and the Boston school-integration program of 1974. (I must say the parallels to the former events are easier to spot.)

At other times Americans argued about principles, just as the founding generation did. Where is the best balance point between liberty and order? Between liberty and the common good? Between equal opportunities for all and the preservation of property for those who have it?

With our history of invoking our history, it’s no surprise that Americans also looked to the founding era in 2009 as we faced two long overseas wars, the worst economic crisis since the Depression, and a growing realization of our dependence on other countries, not entirely friendly. Of course, the country had just elected an African-American as President, which clearly stressed a minority of citizens even more.

What strikes me as extraordinary about the current political invocation of the Revolution is that it’s coming so strongly from one part of the political spectrum—the right wing of the Republican Party.

In other periods of American history, including the 1970s, our left has been just as vocal at proclaiming its political roots and inspiration in the Revolution. It was, after all, a revolution. The founding gave more power and rights to the people, based on principles eventually applied to even more people. It guaranteed that people political representation, creating the governmental structures that exist today. There are just as many Revolutionary precedents and parallels for progressive Democrats, not to mention the current centrist Democratic administration, as for the far right.

Why, then, are we not hearing those arguments? Or when we do hear them, as when President Obama retells an anecdote about Thomas Paine in his inaugural address, why are they drowned out? I reject the right wing’s exclusive claim on America’s founding, but what happened since the 1970s to mute the challenge to such a claim?

In sum, I don’t think the real question for cultural historians like Lepore is why traditionalist conservatives are buying three-cornered hats and Gadsden flags—that’s only to be expected. The real question is the other dog not barking: why our political left isn’t yet invoking American history the same way.


Waldo4me said...

Another interesting post. Well done.

As one who lived through the "revolutionary" 60's, I can vividly remember the rhetoric of change that consumed almost every conversation. Still, the defining moment I remember was the 1968 Democratic convention where even the national correspondents were offering their views on the linkage to American Revolution principles and the chaos in the streets. It seemed like the whole nation looked at that event and said a collective "O my God, what have we done?".

Now, it looks like the far right has their turn at trying to upset our normal political process. I can only hope it ends less violently than the 60's.

Anonymous said...

I was at the lecture as well and I remember Lepore talking extensively about the "Ride of Paul Revere" by Longfellow as an example as how Abolitionists used the Revolution for political purposes. (Remember she spoke about Kennedy and Byrd and how they confused the origins of the meaning of that poem? And how about her use of Frederic Douglas's speech on the Revolution And then James Earl Jones quoting Douglas?)

It was a wide raging talk that is going to take awhile to digest. I was suprised at one of the questions in the Q&A, implying that she located today's Tea Party movement was a recent phenomenon of renactments. I can sort of see why he might of thought because she herself employed that rhetoric, but the purpose of why she did that, in my view, is to illustrate through her acts of speech, the revolution is used throughout history for many causes, with many consequences: election outcomes, judicial appointments, the bantor of two aging senators, or the memory of a young person.

J. L. Bell said...

I must admit that Lepore’s comments about “Paul Revere’s Ride” didn’t make that big an impression on me because I’d heard her deliver many of them the week before.

Charles Bahne said...

Excellent points, John. I too must admit to being a bit disappointed by Thursday night's talk, and I think that you have made a superior analysis.

Anthony Vaver said...

Not long ago, any critique of America was deemed unpatriotic by the political right (especially those levied by the political left). I always thought this blind allegiance ran counter to the whole point of a democracy, which is is to work constantly on improving society through the will of the people.

Now the political right wraps its critiques in a patriotic cloak. I don't personally support the Tea Party movement and the principles it stands for, but at least it engages in addressing social issues rather than blindly accepting the status quo. But I agree with the larger point: there is no reason the political left cannot invoke or claim just as much of a claim to the founding principles of our country as the right.

AD said...

Lepore had a great article in the New Yorker earlier this year on this subject, and which is available online.


Why the Right now claims the Revolution and the Left does not contest that claim is an interesting question. A part of it may be a general messaging issue that has plagued the Left since '08, and a part of it may be that Revolutionary-style rhetoric is more readily embraced by those out of power than those in power. The latter point, if correct, implies that the Tea Party may face a significant messaging problem of its own after the Republicans take one or both parts of Congress this Fall.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the link, AD. I believe that article might be adapted from Lepore’s book. The New Yorker contacted me while fact-checking it, though the details involved things like paint on the carved soldier outside the modern Green Dragon Tavern.

I think you’re right that it’s easier to be a revolutionary firebrand when your party is out of power. But right-wing Republicans have been out of power for only two to four years, and may regain some Congressional control. Surveys find Tea Party adherents to be richer and more educated than the average American citizen, and of course less likely to come from groups that suffered racial and ethnic discrimination. They’re an unoppressed minority that has adopted the rhetoric of the oppressed, people who have benefited from this society who talk about revolting against it. A curious and perhaps unreconcilable mix.

As Anthony Vaver notes, in our lifetimes American conservative dogma has shifted from treating criticism of the U.S. government per se as unpatriotic and dangerous to treating that as a standard baseline belief. Conservatives always felt justified in criticizing some government initiatives or personnel, of course. But in my youth they also lived by mottos like “law and order” and “my country right or wrong.” That change is, I suspect, the influence of Goldwater-Reagan Republicanism.

A Staunch Whig said...

I often thought it amusing that people talk about how are country is so divided. Our country has Always been divided: from before the Revolution (Torys vs. Whigs), the Civil War (Federalists vs. Confederates), to the modern Right vs. Left. For me, that's the political take away from the American Revolution: we never got along and never will... that's what comes with bringing together different cultures and people into this great "melting pot". With freedom of thought, freedom of speech, comes freedom to argue. Thus, may we continue to argue forever more.

J. L. Bell said...

It’s pretty remarkable how for a short time after the Revolutionary War, American statesmen believed that politics wouldn’t break down into factions again. They foresaw arguments to be worked out in legislatures, of course, but they resisted the notion that people might naturally clump into alliances. And then of course those same men did that very thing.