History, Myth, and the Making of America

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Benjamin L. Carp. Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. xv + 311 pp. Maps, illustrations, appendix, notes, further reading, and index. $30.00.

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Jill Lepore. The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Public Square Series. x + 207. Foreword, notes, and index. $19.95.

This review first appeared in Reviews in American History. Jun. 2012, Vol. 40 Issue 2, pp. 215-221.

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Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America
Benjamin L. Carp

The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History
Jill Lepore

Reviewed by Michael A. McDonnell, University of Sydney

The Boston Tea Party has become ground zero. It was the tipping point in a drawn-out conflict between the American colonists and Parliament in Britain. The Coercive Acts, passed in retaliation for the Tea Party, set the colonies alight. Even in far-off colonies such as Virginia, patriots claimed the cause of Boston was the cause of all America. The Boston Port Act in particular was seen as an actual invasion. Many noted that, from then on, the talk was of nothing but war. Colonists now had a clear choice: they could fight to defend their rights and liberties, or they could succumb to tyranny and enslavement. For most, it was an easy choice to make. In our narratives of the coming of the Revolution, the Tea Party set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the Declaration of Independence and the founding of a new nation.

For a founding story, this narrative makes for soothing reading. Those in favor of liberty put aside their differences in 1774, rallied together, declared themselves patriots, defeated tyranny, and founded a nation. And soothing stories are what many in America today are yearning for, according to Jill Lepore. In her witty, wry, and insightful book, The Whites of Their Eyes, Lepore tacks between this foundational moment and the current obsession with the Revolutionary generation in the form of the modern Tea Party movement. Weaving together stories of John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Phillis Wheatley, Crispus Attucks, and the colonial press, Lepore undermines current popular versions of this narrative. In particular, she attacks the founding fables of the far Right that emphasize the Revolution as a seamless and uncomplicated movement of white, Christian conservatives against an intrusive and increasingly despotic government. 

Along the way, Lepore considers the nature of history itself and the ways in which it has been used and abused. In particular, she is keen to try to understand the basis of the historical understandings that inform efforts by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to "take back America." Meditating on what is forgotten as much as what is remembered, Lepore talks to modern-day activists, meets with managers of the commercial heritage industry, and grapples with the efforts of the Texas School Board to adopt a social studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation. While acknowledging that every generation rewrites its history, especially of the American Revolution, the current far-right version is something altogether different. It is more like a re-enactment than an interpretation. Indeed, she concludes, it is yet another variation on a kind of fundamentalism—an antipluralist, anti-intellectual, and ultimately antihistorical view of the past.

In the third strand of this entertaining work, Lepore also tries to understand the roots of this antihistorical thinking. Between stories of angry colonists at Old South Meeting House and angry Tea Partiers at the Green Dragon Tavern, Lepore weaves tales of earlier efforts to understand, commemorate, and remember the American Revolution. The bulk of these focus on the failed efforts of historians and politicians to provide a compelling and unifying story of the Revolution for the nation's bicentennial celebrations. Amid an explosion of contrary and divisive historical accounts of the Revolution that mirrored the political and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings. Since then, there has been a nostalgic longing for just such a story. And in Lepore's telling, behind the Tea Party's revolution lies what she sympathetically calls a "heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past—a time less troubled by ambiguity, strife, and uncertainty—a yearning for an America that never was" (dust jacket).

Though Lepore's focus is firmly on the Far Right, she does at times hint that this yearning for simpler and more reassuring stories is not confined to the antihistorical fundamentalists in the Tea Party movement. Her earlier chapters especially deal with a more general problem facing histories and historians of the American Revolution. It is here, after all, that history as scholarship—unstable, forever subject to interpretation, revision, new evidence, new vantage points, and new avenues of investigation—runs headlong into history's civic role in providing a source of common identity. The Revolution, it seems, cannot just be one more historical event to analyze. For better or for worse, it is where many Americans turn to understand their origins as a people united under one nation. The creation of an enduring Constitution reinforced that role and provided a tangible and palpable link to that moment. "No history can easily or always bear that weight," Lepore concludes. 

Still, we keep trying. And implicit in Lepore's own work is a tentative attempt to provide a kind of counternarrative to the antihistorical story of white, Christian patriots in rebellion against government. Broadening her vignettes to encompass events and people far from Boston Harbor, Lepore embraces the case for the plural and often contradictory origins of the American Revolution. But here she does so with a light touch. More importantly, she provides a timely reminder that historical narratives will often be messy and complicated even while historical thinking must be picky, demanding, and vital. Lepore believes that vitality will only come from continued debate. Ultimately, she clearly takes heart from the feisty rapport of school-age children over the events, meaning, and nature of the American Revolution, even as she juxtaposes these vignettes with accounts of heavy-handed school administrators trying to shut down any debate.

Benjamin L. Carp attacks the problem of the antihistorical thinking of the current Tea Partiers in an altogether different fashion. In his deeply researched and finely crafted Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, Carp attempts to provide a definitive historical account of the Boston Tea Party, an event that—oddly—has not had its own historian since 1966. Carp begins his account with an illuminating discussion of the global origins of the Tea Party, as Britain struggled to manage its empire in the aftermath of the costly Seven Years' War. Providing a fresh context for events that we thought we knew well, Carp details the machinations and problems of the British East India Company in India and China that led Parliament to its ingenious solution to allow the Company to ship its surpluses to the American colonies at cut-rate prices. Unfortunately, the new policy ran headlong into an imperial firestorm brewing in the colonies over attempts to impose the authority of Parliament over trade and taxes. Though the Tea Act of 1773 made tea cheaper for colonists, it retained a small tax on the imported tea that became the focus for renewed resistance.

Carp then steeps us in a rich cultural history of tea in the British Empire, and he concentrates particularly on its symbolic importance in the colonies and its centrality to social and family ties and bonds in eighteenth-century America. Yet it could divide as much as unite, since colonists argued over its civilizing influence. Some believed it was a social poison, leading to gossip around the tea table, materialism, and degeneracy. More than a few were aware of the intimate connections between tea-drinking and slavery, as the bitter leaves could only be made palatable by the sugar produced by hundreds of thousands of slaves being worked to death on the plantations of the Caribbean. In this relationship, tea also provided colonists with a palpable reminder of the consequences of not standing up to Parliament over the tax: if they failed to assert their rights as Englishmen, it would only be a short time before the naturally grasping hand of tyrannical authority enslaved the colonists too—or brought famine to the land, as in India.

Against these threats, Bostonians took to the streets, penned protests, and ultimately created a movement that would end with the famous dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. Carp infuses these well-known events with a vivid sense of contingency as he recounts the days and hours leading up to what would become known much later as the Tea Party. He also paints a rich picture of the men involved in the movement and the orderly but menacing efficiency with which they went about the business of destroying the tea. These middle chapters of the book represent narrative history at its best. Finally, the real significance of the events of December 16 lay in the reaction of the British government to the event. Colonial opinions were divided about the destruction of property. But when the full extent of the retaliatory measures that came to be known as the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts came to be known, they dissolved any doubts. Britain and the colonies were at war.

In telling this story in such illuminating detail, Carp fills an important gap in our historical knowledge. And that should be enough. Yet it is inevitable in light of Lepore's warnings and the current political climate that the book will do more than this. Carp himself seems to want to explore the tension between Americans' cherished belief in their rights and traditions of democratic protest and the professions of respect for law and order. On one hand, because it involved no bloodshed, the Tea Party has become "a formative expression of liberty, independence, and civil disobedience, representing the finest human tradition of non-v