Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bernstein reviews Lepore on the Tea Party

Over at H-Law, Richard B. Bernstein (New York Law School) has published a thoughtful review of The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History, by Harvard history professor and frequent New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore.

Here are the first two paragraphs:

Since early 2009, many historians of the American founding period have watched with mixed feelings of perplexity, frustration, bemusement, and alarm as a vigorous and inchoate popular movement has erupted on the national political stage. Generally referred to as the Tea Party, this movement presents itself as a nonpartisan expression of general public anger at politicians of all stripes, so long as they are deemed part of the American political “establishment.” In particular, these activists seek to label themselves as the true legatees and representatives of America’s Founding Fathers, and their professed goal is to bring American politics back to the true basis of the creed on which the Founding Fathers declared independence from Great Britain and launched their great experiment in self-government. Lowering taxes, limiting government, and reminding elected officials that they hold their offices not as of right but on loan from the electorate--these are core principles of those who identify with the Tea Party movement.

It is all too easy for historians to deride the Tea Party for what many scholars deem to be its threadbare, caricatured, and idealized vision of the American past--of the American Revolution and the Constitution, of the worldview of the Founding Fathers that they believe guided those events, and of the gap separating past and present. To her credit, in her new book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, Jill Lepore largely manages to resist that temptation. Instead, she has written a book that is far more useful and interesting. Through her prologue, five substantive chapters, and epilogue, she has crafted a classic “braided narrative” juxtaposing the imagined history that inspires Tea Party activists in Boston, Massachusetts (the home of the original Tea Party of December 1773) with the actual history of the Boston Tea Party, the events preceding and succeeding it, and the lives and ideas of the actual key players in the era of the nation’s founding.
You can read the full review here. Bernstein's parting remark is that, in all likelihood, "those who will read The Whites of Their Eyes already will agree with it, and those who need to read it most are least likely to pick it up."


Shag from Brookline said...

This is indeed a thoughtful review.

Dan Ernst said...

H-Law subsequently circulated a response to Prof. Bernstein's review:

Shag from Brookline said...

I have read the response that Dan links to several time and am still scratching my octogenarian head trying to understand it. I expect in due course that Prof. Bernstein and others on H-Law lists may respond in more detail. But I note that the singular first person is used throughout the response, which appears to the be joint effort of Lenore T. Ealy and G.M. Curtis III, whoever they are. I haven't read Jill Lepore's book as yet; hopefully one of my libraries will acquire it soon The responder(s) to Prof. Bernstein admit not reading it. While the responder(s) are in a position to criticize Prof. Bernstein, they are not in a position to criticize Jill Lepore's book as yet. I have had the pleasure over the years on the H-Law lists to read Prof. Bernstein's comments and questions on topics involving legal history. I continue to look forward to Prof. Bernstein's comments. But what Ealy and/or Curtis have done with her/his/their response is to throw mud in an attempt, weak though it is, to question Prof Bernstein's reading and understanding of Jill Lepore's book. Maybe the responder(s) should actually read the book before concluding that it is Lepore's "politics rather than her scholarship that is claiming this form of political rhetoric is not within the rules of the game." Sounds like Ealy and/or Curtis are reading tea leaves.

Shag from Brookline said...

Prof. Bernstein and others have responded at H-Law Review to Ealy and Curtis. Perhaps a link would be appropriate. (I lack the skills to provide the links.)

Also, in yesterday's (10/31/10) Sunday Boston Globe there is a review of Jill Lepore's book that may be of interest to visitors to this Blog.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Bernstein's response on H-Law is here:

And additional responses can be found here: