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The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History


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ISBN13: 9780691150277
ISBN10: 0691150273
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OneMansView, November 15, 2010 (view all comments by OneMansView)
A party of anti-history

This book is a very scattered, not altogether successful, attempt at getting a handle on the Tea Party political phenomenon (actual the aggregate of numerous Tea Parties) that dates from the election of Barack Obama. The book constantly rotates among snippets of statements and actions from the founding era, involving both the well-known and others, as well as injections of obscure facts, not necessarily uninteresting, like the origins of ballots; snatches of conversations that the author had with a variety of self-identified Tea Partiers; and the difficulties in getting the presidential Bicentennial Commission off the ground in the mid-1970s, which was a time when some of the Tea Party issues were fomenting.

According to the author, what unites the various Tea Parties is their reverence for the Constitution and belief that it unambiguously indicates the correct path for governance, a view referred to as “Originalism.” Their reason for being is to take government back from forces that are violating the sacred Constitution, mostly leftists of all stripes. The passion of the Tea Party is not to be doubted, yet they would not be the first group who has interpreted the Constitution to further an agenda. The demographics of the Tea Party are significant; they are older, male, white, and generally better off than average. Alluding to the actual Boston tea party, one of their main principles is “no taxation without representation,” which somehow seems to provide justification for their dislike of seeing government benefits directed to immigrants, ethnics, blacks, and others not favored. In addition, their misconstruing of the Constitution as a Godly document is used to support their contention that the Roe v. Wade court decision amounts to a desecration of the Constitution. Those sorts of views are what lead to the author’s overriding point that the Tea Party, contrary to what they may think, is profoundly anti-historical.

The author basically regards political positions based on some purist, idealistic view of the founding era as naïve, simplistic, ignorant, and self-serving. The founding period was one of great controversy and contentiousness, and that is reflected in the Constitution. Perhaps the Constitution was the best that could be achieved at the time, but the framers knew that it was a flawed document. They were right: its compromises and defects have had enormous ramifications since its signing, some of which remain. There was no one “original” intent - there were many. Several framers felt that the Constitution should be adjusted by succeeding generations, not to be looked upon as some sort of sacred tablet. Jefferson cautions, “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the proceeding age a wisdom more than human” - advice that does not fit with Tea Party originalism.

Furthermore, the US Constitution defines a framework to establish a government. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that establishes a policy blueprint for governments. Governments are formed as a result of elections and are kept on track by a system of checks and balances. It is completely ridiculous to suggest that some originally conceived government could possibly be adequate in the vastly more complex world of the twenty-first century. Just the fact the world operates in the context of a highly integrated, globalized economy essentially directed by vast conglomerations necessitates the existence of large, expert-driven governments, with the capability of picking up the pieces when things go wrong. Contrary to Tea Partiers, the founders were not prescribing a government for all ages.

A significant shortcoming of the book is the author’s minimal efforts to make Tea Partiers reconcile their slogans, principles, and positions with realities of the founding, the complexities of the world, or simple rationality. Perhaps colonialists could make the case of not being represented in Parliament, but how does that apply to the Tea Party? Being uber patriots, don’t they vote? Equally ridiculous are views that “Obamacare” represents some sort of government takeover of health care. They seem to have no understanding that the framers would have undoubtedly been aghast at the control of literally life and death by mega healthcare-providing corporations and huge insurance companies; it’s doubtful they would have stood idly by. Do corporations get a free pass by Tea Partiers? She does point out the absurdity of the advocacy of free markets by an organization, founded by a Tea Party sympathizer that invokes the name of Paul Revere in its cause. Also, Tea Party insistence that modern government forces irreligious policies on the American people totally ignores the clear original intent of the framers to keep religion out of government.

Moreover, the knee-jerk anti-government stance of the Tea Party seems profoundly undemocratic, perhaps un-American. The US form of government as laid out in the Constitution requires participation; it is clearly an original intent. Potshots from the sidelines screaming about unconstitutionality accomplish nothing. If Tea Partiers think that some policies of 1787 are what are needed in 2010, it is incumbent upon them to advocate and vote for such. If the majority decides otherwise, they must accede to that decision until the next election cycle.

The author’s suggestion that the Tea Party represents a “battle over American history” is overstated; more correctly, she says that the Tea Party has an “antihistorical” agenda. They certainly have put forth no serious historical interpretation. The notion that US history, at least recently, is one long deviation from a well-defined original intent is absurd, not to be taken seriously by any thoughtful person. There’s is an exercise in nostalgia, more wishful than realistic. It is difficult to escape the observation that the Tea Party represents the latest force of ignorance in US politics. The US political process has often been a battle between those who have a sense of what is best for the country taking into account current realities and those who have a self-serving agenda, often based on preserving privileged status or a return to some sort of simplistic, moralistic order. Furthermore, there is nothing “revolutionary” about the Tea Party, other than borrowing a few slogans from the past. Just what actual oppressive forces are they battling other than ones contrived in their own narrow minds?

Perhaps, this book has some value in that it somewhat puts the Tea Party in perspective. As stated, the author seemed to be unwilling to press her points with actual Tea Partiers. The biggest problem with the book is its disorganization, its scattershot approach, like it was hastily done. The best aspect of the book is the author’s various insights regarding colonial history and the clash between real history and originalism. As she says, “it’s possible to cherish the stability of the law and the durability of the Constitution, as amended over two and a half centuries of change and one civil war, and tested in the courts, without dragging the Founding Fathers from their graves.” One wonders if Tea Partiers will ever figure that out.
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cmottwoolley, November 5, 2010 (view all comments by cmottwoolley)
Jill Lapore's slim volume The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History is a masterpiece. As she demonstrates, to suggest as the Tea Party does that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence lie within the penumbra of Scripture and have one meaning only, forever, misapprehends what the Founders were about.

As Lepore notes, Sarah Palin speaking to Bill O’Reilly has said: “They’re [the Founders] quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” Though sometimes forgotten, the duty of all American citizens to "deliver up" fugitive slaves remains in the body of our Constitution to this day. This is not overlooked as Lepore recreates what it was like to be an eighteenth century American;not surprisingly, Lepore is glad she does not live in that century. Were its precepts today legitimate, this review would be an impossibility: women do not write books, for, according to one well known writer of that foregone era: " . . . a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Put another way, we live in the twenty first century and it defies the natural order of things to expect dogs to behave like women, though we can be given to understand that one Tea party member is convinced some animals have human brains.

Lepore writes: “Precisely what the founders believed about God, Jesus, sin, the Bible, churches, and hell is probably impossible to discover. They changed their minds and gave different accounts to different people . . . . That they wanted to preserve religious liberty by separating church and state does not mean that they were irreligious. They wanted to protect religion from the state, as much as the other way around . . . . if the founders had followed their forefathers they would have written a Constitution establishing Christianity as the national religion.”

This underscores Lapore's theme: our founders did not follow their forefathers; rather our founders brought forth a new nation, not, as the Tea Party intimates, a nation reborn. But this limited purpose is not enough for the Tea Party. That this is so is evident from discussions Lapore recounts with Tea Party leaders, a party which appears determined to go beyond the limited purpose of our founders. To illustrate the point, Lepore quotes Glen Beck “When you read these guys [the founders] . . . it’s like reading the Scriptures. It’s like reading the Bible.” Of such a trend in 1838, Lincoln said, “I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us.” Lepore is more emphatic. As to the dogmatism of absolutist Constitutional interpretation based on the God of the Bible Lepore says: “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.” She might have said as well that it is the stuff of John Brown.

In this regard, I was excited to see at the very outset of Ms. Lepore’s book words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his 1838 address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois: it may be the most provacative narrative of the American Revolution and the Constitution in our history. From that address, quoted by briefly by Lapore, it is evident our Constitution should not be understood to mean more than it does; same applies to the American Revolution itself. Lincoln's 1838 words, words of an American not alive in 1776 or 1787 – stand as a testament to the danger of reading into our founders purpose more than is warranted by historical fact; to do so imperils their accomplishments. Their purpose was to simultaneously break with history yet preserve it. While this may be ambiguous, so too are the founders. Jill Lepore captures this beautifully by citing two lines from a poem new to me: “O, let America be America again – the land that never has been yet.” In a word, the Tea Party would have us all believe we are what we are not in hopes we become what they, not the founders, envisage.

What Lapore demonstrates magnificently is the evolution of our Constitution and our never ending coming to terms with the Constitution's imperfections: the Constitution is not Scripture and cannot be understood to speak of things as such; at best it is an experiment in need of constant nurturing and revision. Unlike Scripture, we have it within our power at any time to amend the Constitution regardless of what God may or may not think about this. This was well stated by Lincoln himself in his Cooper Union Address:

Now, and here, let me guard a little against being misunderstood. I do not mean to say we are bound to follow implicitly in whatever our fathers did. To do so, would be to discard all the lights of current experience - to reject all progress - all improvement. What I do say is, that if we would supplant the opinions and policy of our fathers in any case, we should do so upon evidence so conclusive, and argument so clear, that even their great authority, fairly considered and weighed, cannot stand; and most surely not in a case whereof we ourselves declare they understood the question better than we.

Today we have no duty to "deliver up" slaves even though our Constitution says we do.

There is another recently published book Madison and Jefferson by Andrew Burnstein and Nancy Isenburg which underscores the teaching of Lapore. They write:

"The truth is his [Madison's] interpretation of the Constitution changed over the course of his lifetime, and original intent [the Tea Party doctrine] assumes that Madison’s views were permanently fixed in time. His earliest sense of what the Constitution should mean was expressed in his support for the Virginia Plan and the absolute negative, both of which were rejected. So which Madison do we claim was right? Madison at the beginning of the convention? Or Madison at the end? Or when he was writing his Federalist essays? In 1793, when Hamilton and he were engaged in combat in the newspapers as ‘Pacificus’ and ‘Helvidius,’ Madison deployed one of Hamilton’s Federalist essays against him. In the last stages of the Jay Treaty debate, Madison tried to say that original intent began with the ratifying conventions, and that meaning was not inherent in the Constitution itself but came instead through the exegis of the states, beyond Philadelphia. Madison resorted to this tactic only because the so-called original meaning contained in the Constitution that he had signed did not support his position on the Jay Treaty eight years later. Thus the only way to appreciate Madison’s constitutional thinking is to measure comprehensible changes in his view in response to specific political problems.”

Our founders’ changing understanding of the Constitution is manifest as well in regard to the power of Congress to create a national bank. In 1791, Madison and Jefferson contended Congress had no such power and that any suggestion by Hamilton to the contrary was tantamount to an overthrow of the Constitution itself. By 1812, when Madison was President in dire need of federal funds to wage war, he squarely reversed himself and maintained a national bank was indispensable.

As Lepore notes, the Tea Party makes much of the Tenth Amendment and insists that its command is clear and unambiguous. She explains, to a limited extent, the constitutional history of how the Tenth Amendment came to be. From this, it is evident the efficacy the Tenth Amendment, by design, is not what the Tea party would have us believe. This view is in keeping with most scholars, including Edward A. Purcell, Jr. who has written in Originalism, Federalism and The American Constitutional Enterprise:

“The Tenth Amendment, added shortly after the ratification in 1791, confirmed the Constitution’s inherent ambiguity on the federalism issue. The State ratifying conventions proposed a number of amendments to strengthen the states and restrict congressional powers, especially over such subjects as taxes, commerce, and the military. Although Madison supported their recommendations in order ‘to complete the Federalists’ ratification victory,’ Herbert J. Storing explained, he accepted ‘none of the amendments regarded by the opponents to the Constitution as fundamental.’ Thus, the Tenth Amendment, which affirmed the principle that the central government held only delegated powers, was artfully framed. Its original draft provided that ‘powers not expressly delegated to the United States’ remained with the states or the people. Madison, however, insisted that ‘it was impossible to confine a government to the exercise of express powers’ and that ‘there must necessarily be admitted powers by implication.’ Congress responded by eliminating the word ‘expressly,’ seeming thereby to sanction the principle of implied powers. In that final form, Madison announced, the amendment was ‘superfluous’ and ‘unnecessary.’”

One of the more disturbing features of the Tea Party’s insistence that we “discard all the lights of current experience,” and “reject all progress - all improvement” so as to give effect only to what the founders intended in the eighteenth century is manifest in compromise explained by Burnstein and Isenburg. This compromise is doubly ominous when one considers that Sarah Palin has no favorite founder but “likes” all of them. While drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had at hand George Mason’s famous Virginia Declaration of Rights. As they explain, both Madison and Jefferson looked up to Mason as a mentor and inspiration. Here is his Declaration of Rights: “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”

To the modern mind there can be no quibble whatsoever with how Mason framed Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. However, to the eighteenth century mind, as explained by Burnstein and Isenburg, Mason’s Declaration was highly objectionable:

“A protracted debate broke out. The Tidewater planter Robert Carter Nicholas protested its all-inclusive language that ‘all men are born equally free and independent’ could reasonably be interpreted as justification for the emancipation of Virginia’s slaves. Pendleton came up with compromise language, adding after ‘certain inherent natural Rights’ the phrase ‘of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any Compact deprive or divest their Posterity’ (italics added). Those few words quieted Nicholas and any others who needed to convince themselves that slaves, as property, had not entered into any compact or joined civil society.” Unquestionably, George Mason is one of our founders yet this willingness to entertain and accept the language just italicized must be and is anathema in the twenty first century. Why then insist the founders got it right? Decidedly, they did not; but they make no claim that they did; theirs was a more perfect, not a perfect, instrument. To the Tea Party, however, God's word and the Constitution are, per force, perfect.

Although Burnstein and Isenburg do not touch upon the fact, it bears noting that it is precisely this distinction (the italicized words above) which Justice Taney utilized in Dred Scott to explain why the Declaration of Independence was simply inapplicable to the Negro in America. He, like the Tea Party, insisted that one must interpret and enforce the words of our founders as written and make no allowance for what Lincoln called “the lights of current experience.”
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Lepore, Jill
Princeton University Press
Evangelicalism -- United States.
United States History Philosophy.
United States - Revolutionary War
United States - 21st Century
Political Ideologies - Conservatism & Liberalism
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American history
Political Science and International Relations
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The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History Used Hardcover
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Product details 224 pages Princeton University Press - English 9780691150277 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Juxtaposing the real patriots of yore (Adams, Franklin, Paine) with the faux patriots of today (Beck, Hannity, Palin), Lepore concludes that 'the Tea Party's version of American history bore almost no resemblance to the Revolution I study and teach.' It is something worse — it is 'anti-history.'"
"Review" by , "Lepore mixes in thoughts on the historian's craft, and in particular the misuse of history by the Tea Party, that two-year-old gathering of anti-tax, anti-Obama and, as Lepore shows, anti-history folks."
"Review" by , "A brief but valuable book . . . which combines [Lepore's] own interviews with Tea Partiers (mostly from her home state, Massachusetts) and her deep knowledge of the founders and of their view of the Constitution. The architects of the Constitution, she makes clear, did not agree about what it meant. Nor did they believe that the Constitution would or should be the final word on the character of the nation and the government."
"Review" by , "Of course, every generation refashions the past to its own liking. What Lepore finds remarkable about history as told by the tea party is that it is history that has dispensed with time. Past and present are conflated. The founders are right here. They are phantasms marching in the streets against Obamacare." --
"Synopsis" by ,

"Jill Lepore is a national treasure. There is no other writer so at home both as a trenchant scholar of American history and as an on-the-scene observer of our present-day follies. She etches the connection between past and present with a wisdom, grace, and sparkle that makes this book even harder to put down--if that's possible--than her previous work."--Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves

"No one writes about our Revolutionary history and its effects upon the shape of our culture and society today with more wit, verve, and sparkling intelligence than Jill Lepore. The Whites of Their Eyes offers the most compelling look we have so far at who we were and who we have become as a nation, and provides a cool and much needed context for the heated rhetoric of this 'new' reactionary moment."--Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

"The Whites of Their Eyes shows Jill Lepore at her remarkable best--accessible, authoritative, and wise."--Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

"Modern Tea Partiers have thrown facts overboard and recast the Revolution in their own image: white, Christian, and ultraconservative. Lepore demolishes the Tea Party's founding fable with deep scholarship and devastating wit."--Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic

"The Whites of Their Eyes offers a lesson in what history actually is and how it seems constantly to be used and abused. Lepore is a superb writer."--Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

"This book gives an informed account of the ways contemporary references to the Revolution ignore, distort, run roughshod over, yet somehow attempt seriously to evoke the events of the past. It nicely represents Lepore's distinctive genius as a historian."--Jack N. Rakove, author of Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

"Synopsis" by ,

Americans have always put the past to political ends. The Union laid claim to the Revolution--so did the Confederacy. Civil rights leaders said they were the true sons of liberty--so did Southern segregationists. This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation's founding, including the battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to "take back America."

Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, offers a wry and bemused look at American history according to the far right, from the "rant heard round the world," which launched the Tea Party, to the Texas School Board's adoption of a social-studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation. Along the way, she provides rare insight into the eighteenth-century struggle for independence--the real one, that is. Lepore traces the roots of the far right's reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings. Behind the Tea Party's Revolution, she argues, lies a nostalgic and even heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past--a time less troubled by ambiguity, strife, and uncertainty--a yearning for an America that never was.

The Whites of Their Eyes reveals that the far right has embraced a narrative about America's founding that is not only a fable but is also, finally, a variety of fundamentalism--anti-intellectual, antihistorical, and dangerously antipluralist.

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