Wood-Lepore Controversy, or Shooting Fish in Barrel

19 01 2011

In the last few days, a controversy has raged in the US historical blogosphere about a recent book on the place of the American Revolution in American social memory by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Lepore examines how political movements of both the left and the right have appropriated the memory of the American Revolution in recent decades. In the early 1970s, antiwar protestors and other left-wing groups associated themselves with the Boston Tea Party and the other acts of civil disobedience on the eve of the Revolution. More recently, the Tea Party, a right-wing force, has tried to lay claim to being the true heirs of the revolution. Lepore decries such attempts to harness the past to present-day political ends as fundamentally ahistorical.

Commenting on Lepore’s book in the New York Review of Books, historian Gordon S. Wood was extremely critical. He wrote:

America’s Founding Fathers have a special significance for the American public. People want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or how George Washington would regard the invasion of Iraq. No other major nation honors its historical characters in quite the way we do. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts to find out what a historical figure of two centuries ago might think of David Cameron’s government in the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington about our current policies and predicaments. Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now.

It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an expert at mocking. Her new book, which mingles discussions of the present-day Tea Party movement with scattershot accounts of the Revolution, makes fun of the Tea Party people who are trying to use the history of the Revolution to promote their political cause.

Wood’s basic message is that instead of mocking the errors of historical interpretation made by Tea Party political activists, Lepore should have tried to figure out why Americans continue to connect present-day political controversies to the values of the “Founding Fathers”.

I’m inclined to agree with Wood on this point. For an academic historian like Lepore to point out all the errors made by Tea Party members, none of whom are historians by trade, is like shooting fish in a barrel, which is apparently an activity some people actually do (see picture).

Wood’s rebuke of Lepore has generated many blog posts by academic historians (see here, here, and here) reports in the commercial media (see here) and a Facebook page.