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.