Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, 2005, etc.) explores the nexus of the American Revolution, the understanding and telling of history and today’s Tea Party.
For a number of years, the author has been contributing pieces to the New Yorker on American colonial history, pithy commentaries shaped by historical evidence and a storyteller’s hand. Here she braids those essays together, which makes them more satisfying and meaningful than if they were merely collected in an anthology. Lepore mixes in thoughts on the historian’s craft, and in particular the misuse of history by the Tea Party, that two-year-old gathering of anti-tax, anti-Obama and, as Lepore shows, anti-history folks. The author is not smug in her treatment of the Tea Partiers, but she refuses to allow them to kidnap and torture history so that it is reduced to fit their fundamentalist mold—fundamentalist in the sense of conflating originalism (that the intent of the framers is fixed and knowable), evangelism and heritage tourism, and uninterested in the historical evidence of the American Revolution, that “messy, sprawling, decades-long affair.” They treat the past as prologue, but it is a fictive past, writes the author, “reductive, unitary and, finally, dangerously anti-pluralist”—for example, the attempt to draw a parallel between the health-care law and the Intolerable Acts. For Lepore, history—“which is controversial, contentious and contested…picky, demanding, and vital”—is hard enough to grasp without willed ignorance.
Learned, lively and shrewd.