Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
History, Fundamentally: Jill Lepore CN ’93 Takes on the Tea Party
Jill Lepore CN ’93 established a name for herself early in her career when she published The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, based on her Yale dissertation. Published to critical acclaim, the book garnered Dr. Lepore the prestigious Bancroft Prize as well as other awards.
As a young graduate student, Dr. Lepore says she struggled “with whether I could write with authority about ethical and philosophical questions having to do with war. But there was something about the thematic emphasis of the Newcombe that helped, because it took seriously the ethical interest that I brought to my historical inquiry. When I think about that book, I’m kind of astonished at my chutzpah. But then I remember that being awarded a Newcombe gave me the courage to write the way I wanted to write.”
Dr. Lepore, David Woods Kemper ‘41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, is also a staff writer for The New Yorker. Asked how she handles it all, she replies, “There’s a lot of synergy in what I do. Most people who enjoy teaching find that it doesn’t drain their energy; instead, it gives them energy because it sharpens their thinking. I have to think hard when I’m teaching, and how I explain something to an undergraduate helps me to understand it better, which helps me write.”
Dr. Lepore was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 2005 book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. Her most recent work, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, is an extended version of one of her New Yorker essays.
In The Whites of Their Eyes, Dr. Lepore writes that the Tea Party’s understanding of the Revolution and the desire to “return” to a society governed by a literal interpretation of the Constitution amounts to something she calls historical fundamentalism, “which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.”
“The Tea Party is many things, and many people are drawn into it for all kinds of different reasons—so when I talk about historical fundamentalism, I’m not describing the entirety of this political movement, which is largely about the economy,” Dr. Lepore cautions. “I’m talking more about a kind of far-right understanding of the relationship between the past and the present.
“This understanding,” she continues, “borrows a great deal from some varieties of evangelicalism, in that we see a strict, originalist interpretation of the Constitution which asks us to look to a very small group of long-dead men to decide how we should live in a democracy today. It asks us to think that historical documents written by these particular people were divinely inspired and speak to us across the ages, the way Jesus speaks to us in the gospels. That way of thinking about the past turns history into a religion. And that, I think, is dangerous to civil society.”
On leave from Harvard this academic year, Dr. Lepore is working on two book projects. The first is a history of American ideas about life and death using historic examples to represent each stage of life. The chapter on death, for example, centers around the Karen Ann Quinlan case. The other new book is about Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Mecom, also featured prominently in The Whites of Their Eyes.
“She was the closest person in Benjamin Franklin’s life,” explains Dr. Lepore. ”He wrote more letters to her than to anybody else and was very close to her all his life, even though he ran away from home when they were both very young. His life is rags to riches, but hers is rags to rags,—and you need both of them to tell the story of the coming American Revolution. It’s not Franklin’s story, it’s not her story. American lives moved in both ways; the book is an attempt to tell their stories together.”
Filling in ordinary American stories is a crucial concern for Dr. Lepore as an historian. “I don’t have a polemic about what professional historians should do—there are many different ways to ‘do’ history and I certainly don’t think that all historians have a responsibility to write for the public or engage in political commentary, not by a long stretch,” she says. “As someone who’s a specialist in early American history, though, I happen to feel a sense of civic obligation to public history because our political traditions have origins in the years that I study. And I take that obligation seriously.”