Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University. She has written six books, including New York Burning: Liberty and Slavery in an Eighteenth-Century City, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, published last October. She is writing a book about Jane Mecom and her brother, Benjamin Franklin.
Why do you say that nothing in our history trumps the Revolution?
We as a nation are an idea. That idea is who we are. We’re an idea. It’s an awfully good idea, but it’s one that we have to keep thinking about and debating. Much in our politics comes from the founding era, but we don’t share a common religion, a common ethnicity, really a common language in many ways, or a common ancestry. We don’t have a whole lot of stories as a people to share. We have the immigrant story, and we have the story of founding the world’s first democracy. It’s important that we understand that our founding will always be debatable because ideas are debatable.
How much of our understanding of the Revolution is folklore, not fact?
The story of the founding is, in part, a folk tradition to be cherished. I mean, what we imagine about Paul Revere has very little to do with who Paul Revere really was or what he really did. You can think about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing that poem about Revere’s ride in 1860 or you can think about Grant Wood painting Midnight Ride in 1931, and you can appreciate their work as two wonderful pieces of American folklore. But neither has very much to do with what actually happened on the night of April 18, 1775, or even with what Paul Revere said happened when he finally wrote down the story of that night 23 years later. Longfellow’s poem and Wood’s painting are really important to who we are. They are a way for later generations of Americans to make meaning of those founding stories, and a way to tell them again. Every generation does that. That is not the same as finding political justification in the past.
Why should people study America’s founding fathers?
I believe in studying the past for its own sake, because it’s fascinating. That’s different from, say, the approach of a constitutional originalist. Let’s say I want to know what was behind the writing of the Second Amendment. I want to look at the constitutional ratification conventions. I want to look at the debates in Congress. Those are really interesting historical questions to me. But do I think those things speak across the ages to me about anything now? Yes and no. I really would like to know what James Madison thought about militias and the right to bear arms, but I don’t think James Madison can possibly tell me what to do about Glock semi-automatic pistols. He died a very long time ago. He was a brilliant and very important man, but he did not know about Glocks. He did not live in this world. I would like our legislators to debate what to do about Glocks, and I would like them to be answerable to the American people on that question, not to competing images of James Madison in their imaginations.
Do you think it’s destabilizing for us to be glorifying revolution all the time?
A nation founded in revolution wants to celebrate its past because the story is so thrilling and exciting and inspiring. Revolution is the idea that defines who we are. Nevertheless, to constantly look to a revolutionary past is to invite repetition of revolution. This is something that David Ramsay, a South Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention, writes about in the very first history of the American Revolution—that in the interest of domestic tranquility, a revolution has to know when to stop. Recalling the Revolution for political purposes is most commonly done by the left in an effort to be revolutionary. The right usually recalls the Constitution. But the Tea Party did both. Tea Partiers started with the Revolution then turned to the Constitution the closer they came to assuming a role in government.
Does the Tea Party’s concept of revolution resemble what you teach?
The Tea Party is many different things and it’s diffuse. A lot of people who are drawn to the Tea Party are concerned, genuinely and understandably, about the state of the economy, plain and simple. But the piece of the Tea Party that is about history uses the Revolution to argue for several things: that the Revolution was about establishing free markets; that it was about founding a Christian nation; that it was about drafting a constitution that would last the ages; that during the Revolution there was one big idea and everybody shared it. Those four features of the Revolution are represented especially by Tea Partiers preaching from a leadership position. But those four tenets have little to do with the Revolution that you read about in the archives.
What is the difference?
The Revolution was decades of intense political debate and struggle. One-third of the colonists were undecided. One-third were loyalists. One-third were patriots. Individuals over the course of their lives changed their minds many different times about how they felt. Ratification of the Constitution was closely fought. Some people on the right say that academic historians don’t pay enough attention to the role of religion as a force in American history, and that’s actually a fair criticism. But that’s not the same as saying the founders wanted a church-state relationship. They were fleeing that. They were opposed to that for all kinds of good reasons that we can see every day. The free markets thing? There were no free markets in the 18th century. That’s just wrong.
What do we fail to remember about the history of the Revolution?
The differences that take place over the course of several decades are extraordinary, not least of which is that by the end of the Revolution, all of New England has abolished slavery. That’s huge. We think of slavery, we think 1865, but in New England it’s all over by 1783. This is a time of tremendous and tumultuous change, not just in terms of the relationships between people and their rulers in England but between people, one with another. There is a domestic revolution, a revolution in family life, a turn from an authoritarian patriarch to an affectionate, companionate marriage. If you start in 1750 and then look at 1790, it’s truly thrilling. But that has nothing to do with health care debates today. That all happened several centuries ago. It’s not about now.
What’s your reaction when you hear people romanticize the Revolution?
People I talked to in the Tea Party said they wanted to go back to what the founders had. I understand that they want to find inspiration, but the teacher in me is like, wait a minute, no. Think about what going back to the founding era would mean. Imagine the physical state of your body. Imagine dying in childbirth, watching your children—so many children—die in infancy. Imagine the filth, the crowding, the disease. It is not a pleasant time. It’s not quaint. It’s just not. You can take important principles about the idea that we should govern ourselves, the consent of the governed, and how those inspire us and dictate how we understand our lives today. But you can’t pull these things out and then forget everything else. Recently, when congressmen read the Constitution on the House floor all the parts about slavery were cut. That’s understandable as political theater, but not as history. You cannot cut slavery out of our history. The story of liberty and the story of slavery cannot be told separately.
How did the stories get separated?
Over the course of the 19th century the story of slavery, especially in the North, was struck from the story of the Revolution. But as a pluralist nation, we have to be willing to have that pluralist history, even if some people find it uncomfortable. Because if we have the whitewashed history, then we haven’t got past anything. We’re moving forward with shackles on our feet. We’re shackled to a fiction. I don’t love that Benjamin Franklin’s father had a slave pen on his property in 1713. Franklin owned slaves at one point. I adore Franklin, but I couldn’t write a biography of him and take those things out just because they distress me. To erase them is violence to history. The people confined to that slave pen lived and died, every bit as much as Franklin did.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.