Historical Fundamentalism

Today I decided to kill a few minutes by browsing a bit at my local bookstore.  To my surprise I noticed a new book by Jill Lepore, who happens to be one of my favorite historians.  Her latest book is titled, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History.  Of course, I bought it and I am glad I did.  It’s a quick read and Lepore does a wonderful job of illustrating the various ways in which the Tea Party Movement is using (and often abusing) the past for their own present purposes.  Early on she introduces what she describes as historical fundamentalism:

Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past-“the founding”-is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts-“the founding documents”-are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible. (p. 16)

Along the way I’ve learned that the term ‘Founding Fathers’ wasn’t coined until 1916 by Warren G. Harding in his address to the Republican National Convention.  And I was surprised to learn that in 1798 John Adams signed an “Act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen”.  Both state and federal officials were, as a result of the legislation, permitted to tax shipmasters in order to construct hospitals and provide medical care for merchant and naval seamen.

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20 comments… add one
  • John Maass Jan 22, 2011 @ 15:17

    Dr. Gordon Wood just reviewed this book here:

    He doesn;t eally like it….

    • Kevin Levin Jan 22, 2011 @ 15:23

      Thanks John. I had a chance to read it last week. He makes some good points, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Colin Woodward Oct 3, 2010 @ 7:17

    @Rob. I can’t imagine Lincoln would find much to like about today’s Republican Party (and certainly not the Tea Party)–the xenophobia, the corporate welfare, the anti-intellectualism, the racism, the neglect of the working and middle classes, the War Hawkishness. In 2010, I could see Lincoln as a moderate Democrat. But, as you say, who knows? What ifs are impossible to prove or disprove.

    • James F. Epperson Oct 3, 2010 @ 7:44

      Considering that Thomas DiLorenzo gave a speech to the last CPAC meeting, it is very doubtful that the Republicans would have much to do with Lincoln!

      • Kevin Levin Oct 3, 2010 @ 7:47

        I highly recommend Jill Lepore’s new book on the Tea Party Movement and its connection to American history. There is nothing new about using the past for political gain, but this book is relatively short and playful account of how it is currently being carried out and the inherent dangers/pitfalls of doing so.

      • jh Oct 5, 2010 @ 9:14

        Speaking as a Republican I can assure you the majority of GOP folks really don’t care what Thomas DiLorenzo thinks about Lincoln. Besides the small corner of the BLOG universe where people talk about the Civil War 24/7 no one is paying attention

        • Jonathan Dresner Oct 6, 2010 @ 4:51

          The majority doesn’t know what DiLorenzo thinks, but his arguments are used as political and historical cover by writers, pundits and politicians to make their own historically ungrounded arguments, when then enter the public discourse (mostly through Fox & radio) with a frisson of scholarship behind them.

    • jh Oct 5, 2010 @ 9:15

      What a cartoon version of the GOP. Do you honesty think a good many of your fellow Americans that happend to be Republicans have those traits?

      • Margaret D. Blough Oct 5, 2010 @ 11:53

        jh-I honestly don’t know any more. I grew up respecting the Republican Party, even though I have always been a registered Democrat.. I grew up in a county that had been firmly Republican since there was a Republican Party. My parents were both registered Republicans most of their lives. Pennsylvania has a magnificent history of Republicans who were great leaders (many were great politicians as well) such as Andrew Gregg Curtin, John Geary, John Hartranft, Samuel Pennypacker, Martin Brumbaugh, Gifford Pinchot, William Scranton Sr., Raymond Shafer, Hugh Scott, and John Heinz. I don’t think there would be room for any of them in the modern Republican Party, particularly a progressive like Pinchot. For most of my life, I routinely split my vote between the parties. I haven’t done that for years now since the positions that a Republican would have to take to prevail in the primaries would mean that I couldn’t possibly support him or her.

        To me, the Republican Party lost its moral claim to call itself the party of Abraham Lincoln when Nixon cynically adopted the Southern Strategy to capture the Southern white votes that fled the Democratic Party after it embraced civil rights and when Ronald Reagan trumpeted the cause of states’ rights where Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were murdered.

        • RJ Oct 6, 2010 @ 14:07

          The southern strategy. how much of that is really present in the current Republican Party? Both of my parents are in their 70s and from the South and have voted Democrat most of their lives. Their children who have moved into the middle class vote Republican. I have asked my parents on many occasions, why to you vote for a party that mocks your Christian beliefs? Why do you support a party that has no problem taking your tax dollars and funding abortions? Why do you support a party that talks about freedom and then passes laws controlling more of your life, as if you were a child?

  • Woodrowfan Oct 1, 2010 @ 17:37

    Last year I had a student who is a tea party supporter (middle-aged, returning to school). Nice person, did well in class, learned the material, etc. But, they had a real tendency to think in black & white and had a terrible time with nuance. They also could not understand that the politics of the 18th and 19th centuries was not the politics of today and insisted in trying to force Jefferson, Calhoun, Jackson, etc, into an early 21st century Democrat/Republican mold.

    • Rob Wick Oct 2, 2010 @ 8:42

      Anytime I give a speech, invariably someone will ask me if Lincoln would be a Democrat or Republican today. I tell them the story Don Fehrenbacher told about a question he was once asked. Someone asked him what Lincoln would say about busing. He replied that the first thing Lincoln would say is “what’s a bus?” I tell them there is no way to know what party Lincoln would belong to, since he’s not here to tell us.


      • Woodrowfan Oct 3, 2010 @ 10:11

        As I once heard someone answer the question of what would Lincoln say if he were alive today, “He’d probably scream ‘get me out of here’ since we buried him 140 years ago.”

  • Matt McKeon Oct 1, 2010 @ 16:58

    John Adams was obviously a socialist Marxist…wait a minute.

  • Fraser Oct 1, 2010 @ 16:16

    And like the Bible people invariably find that the Sacred American Texts show the founders thought exactly like them. Even a lot of people who want to amend the Constitution do so on the grounds that they’re restoring The Real Meaning.

  • Colin Woodward Oct 1, 2010 @ 13:00

    We had a joke in grad school that anything after 1877 was “current events.” I haven’t read the book, but I need to read something by Lepore.

  • J. L. Bell Sep 30, 2010 @ 17:48

    Prof. Lepore’s speaking about the topic of this book next week (7 October) at the Old South Meeting House in Boston.

  • James F. Epperson Sep 30, 2010 @ 17:01

    I think I will buy this as well—thanks for the tip, Kevin!

    • Rob Wick Sep 30, 2010 @ 17:11

      Agreed. This is on my already sagging list of books to buy. Thanks for the heads-up Kevin.


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