(__Attention conservation notice__: just about 1100 words, plus some block quotes, on the systematic perversion of American history to serve ideological ends, and Jill Lepore’s remarkable stand for viewing our history through clear eyes.)
Let’s take it as an axiom, to begin, that the Constitution is not perfect. I’ll hand the mic here to Justice Thurgood Marshall, to whom Lepore handed it as well:
> The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the “more perfect Union” it is said we now enjoy.
> I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite “The Constitution,” they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.
The Civil War is refutation enough of the eternal wisdom of the Framers. The fact that the Constitution explicitly counts a slave as three-fifths of a human should have long since put to bed any rumors of its perfection. African-Americans are in a better position than most to recognize the Constitution’s defects.
Yet we accept the mythology that we’re dealt. In this country, the Constitution’s perfection, and the immortality of the Framers, is as close as we get to gospel (quite literally — see below). Everyone wants the Constitution for himself. Whenever someone wants to make a change to the existing order, the most resonant thing he can say about it is that it brings the U.S. closer to the perfection that lies latent within the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The [court: Brown v. Board] decision sought integration to bring us closer to the ideals of the Constitution, while at the same time parents in Boston who opposed forced busing declared Arthur Garrity’s decision the end of American liberty.
The history of the U.S. can in many ways be viewed as the history of misrepresenting our history. Everyone wants to make the story of the founding his own, so everyone has to find a way to mold the founding into his preferred shape.
Take, for instance, the famed “Christian nation” story. According to this story, the country was Christian at its founding, the Framers knew that religion is inseparable from good government, they knew that the purpose of government is to bring people closer to God, and the separation of church and state is a myth. In this Christian nation, Connecticut’s 1639 Fundamental Orders decreed that one of its purposes was “to mayntayne and presearve the liberty and purity of the gospell of our Lord Jesus.” Which is why it’s important to observe, as Lepore does, that
> Following the faith of their fathers is exactly what the framers did not do. At a time when all but two states required religious tests for office, the Constitution prohibited them. At a time when all but three states still had an official religion, the Bill of Rights forbade the federal government from establishing one.
Meanwhile, when conservatives insist that we read the Federalist Papers, they seem less insistent that we read the parts where the Framers were inveighing against the evils of standing armies — hence the part of the Constitution which embodies that revulsion by giving Congress the power
> To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years
That two-year limitation is in there expressly because the Framers thought — like many classical small-r republican thinkers over the centuries — that standing armies were a great evil.
Lepore’s ingenious little book is meant to revisit points like these: to remind us that the Framers by no means spoke with one mind and that when they did speak with one mind they often contradicted their modern interpretation; and to ensure us that if they returned to us today they would probably *not* be horrified by what we’ve made of their document. It was broken at birth. The U.S. has spent centuries trying to repair it.
Lepore interviews dozens of Tea Partiers on a cold day when they visited Boston (Lepore’s town — she’s a professor at Harvard) in early 2010. Every time a Tea Partier says something about what the Framers would have wanted, or how liberals are destroying America, she steps back as a good historian would and studies the truth of their claim. Liberals believe that America is always wrong, say Tea Partiers? You need to go back a ways if you want to find the first person to believe that about the U.S. Try Frederick Douglass:
> What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
If they’re even guilty themselves of hating America, liberals didn’t invent that hatred. Hating what the country stands for is as American as slavery.
So what the Tea Party advances is a strange kind of fundamentalism, in the literal sense of that word. Fundamentalism (the OED traces the word to 1923, when it was used to refer to American Christians) believes in returning to some original text which it believes to be flawless and true. Constitutional fundamentalists believe that they can find a single, true meaning in the original document, even though we know that the origins of that document were far from holy. The origin was a compromise between northern and southern states meant, for one, to keep the country from flying apart. (It did anyway, 70 years later). Yet this fundamentalism, for whatever reason, chooses to ignore the supporting texts and the all-too-well-documented history surrounding it.
Academic historians, for their part, have not helped. As Lepore notes, historians have long resisted the urge to “presentism” — the idea that you can naïvely map the past onto the present and draw some sort of easy moral. (One thinks of “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”) The academy has become more cloistered, and as a result has stopped engaging with the public on the great themes. Instead, when historians interact with the world nowadays, they tend to narrow the lens as far as they can and write little biographies. The last historian to engage with the great themes, says Lepore, was my hero Richard Hofstadter, of the magisterial [book: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life]; it’s truly a stellar example of the great-theme brand of history. “The historians will have a field day [with his The American Political Tradition And the Men Who Made It]”, he said, “but I am in hopes that some of the non-academic people will like it.”
Having largely left the field, historians have allowed all manner of charlatans to move in and define what our history is. The Texas School Board could leap in and define Thomas Jefferson — “who once wrote about a ‘wall of separation between Church & State’” — out of our history, and instead add Thomas Aquinas to the list of thinkers who inspired the Revolution. (Poor Thomas Jefferson. The man has been endlessly defined into and out of American history so many times since his death; see [book: The Jefferson Image in the American Mind] for the final word on this score.)
Lepore, with [book: The Whites of Their Eyes], has forcefully retaken the field. She’s a historian engaging directly with an anti-historical ideology. In a remarkably concise and deceptively simple way, it returns to the tradition of grand history. She clearly rushed it into print to engage with a current controversy, but didn’t skimp at all on historical rigor. It’s a treasure, and something you’ll want to hold in your back pocket for the next few troubled years.