Archive for October 28th, 2010

A Whiter Shade of Pale

In 2010, nationwide polls reported that people who identified themselves as sympathetic with the Tea Party were overwhelmingly white, although estimates varied, and the Tea Party didn’t appear to be much whiter than, say, the Republican Party. Whatever else had drawn people into the movement, some of it, for some people, was probably discomfort with the United States’ first black president, because he was black. But it wasn’t the whiteness of the Tea Party that I found most striking. It was the whiteness of their Revolution. The Founding Fathers were the whites of their eyes, a fantasy of an America before race, without race. There were very few black people in the Tea Party, but there were no black people at all in the Tea Party’s eighteenth century. Nor, for that matter, were there any women, aside from Abigail Adams, and no slavery, poverty, ignorance, insanity, sickness, or misery. Nor was there any art, literature, sex, pleasure, or humor. There were only the Founding Fathers with their white wigs, wearing their three-cornered hats, in their Christian nation, revolting against taxes, and defending their right to bear arms.

In eighteenth-century America, I wouldn’t have been able to vote. I wouldn’t have been able to own property, either. I’d very likely have been unable to write, and, if I survived childhood, chances are that I’d have died in childbirth. And, no matter how long or short my life, I’d almost certainly have died without having once ventured a political opinion preserved in any historical record. Except that none of these factors has any meaning or bearing whatsoever on whether an imaginary eighteenth-century me would have supported the Obama administration’s stimulus package or laws allowing the carrying of concealed weapons or the war in Iraq. Because I did not live in eighteenth-century America, and no amount of thinking that I could, not even wearing petticoats, a linsey-woolsey calico smock, and a homespun mobcap, can make it so.

“What would the founders do?” is, from the point of view of historical analysis, an ill-considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too. Jurists and legislators need to investigate what the framers meant, and some Christians make moral decisions by wondering what Jesus would do, but no NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it. People who ask what the founders would do quite commonly declare that they know, they know, they just know what the founders would do and, mostly, it comes to this: if only they could see us now, they would be rolling over in their graves. They might even rise from the dead and walk among us. We have failed to obey their sacred texts, holy writ. They suffered for us, and we have forsaken them. Come the Day of Judgment, they will damn us.

That’s not history. It’s not civil religion, the faith in democracy that binds Americans together. It’s not originalism or even constitutionalism. That’s fundamentalism.

—Jill Lepore, The Whites Of Their Eyes


When I Worked

October 2010
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