"When he has given his neighbour a chance he thinks he has done enough for him," George Santayana wrote of the American in 1920. "It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America." For "coddling socialism", read "social democracy", any hint of which has a socialist stink in conservative nostrils. "This is America!" yelled Rick Santelli of CNBC from a Chicago trading floor in February 2009, during the rant that inaugurated the Tea Party. "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbour's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" Santelli's analysis went further than Santayana's, suggesting a route for the American's reluctance to do anything for his neighbour beyond giving him a chance: "If you read our Founding Fathers, people like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson - what we're doing now in this country is making them roll over in their graves."
Not so, says Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor who knows the origins of the term "Founding Fathers", of the phrase "roll over in their graves" - and much else besides. "The reason Rick Santelli thinks Benjamin Franklin would be rolling over in his grave", she writes, is that Franklin's essay "The Way to Wealth" has been read "as if Franklin were the Founding Father of free enterprise". But the essay, written for the benefit of an impoverished yet spendthrift nephew, was partly an exercise in parody, its central speech composed of proverbs from Franklin's long-running lampoon Poor Richard's Almanack. For the purpose of addressing his wastrel nephew, he made use of such proverbs as "Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise", but Poor Richard's Almanack also offered such sentiments as "The Poor have little, Beggars none; the Rich too much, enough not one".
It is only by removing the words and actions of the 1770s from their context, and by ignoring all kinds of obstacles, that you can make them do what you want them to, politically, in 2010 - or 1976, during the bicentennial celebrations, when the American Revolution was invoked by left-wing activists and historians. This is the argument of Lepore's gripping, persuasive, higgledy-piggledy, and finally limited book. When the Tea Party prints on its paraphernalia Jefferson's line "The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants", its members have forgotten - if they knew to begin with - that this was a favoured slogan of Timothy McVeigh, and that the Oklahoma bombing took place on 19 April 1995, the 220th anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
So, while there is dispute about the meaning of the revolution, everybody agrees it is worth having on your side. The Tea Party of Christine O'Donnell and Rand Paul alludes to the Boston Tea Party of 16 December 1773, when a large group of men, "dressed in the Indian manner", dumped £10,000 worth of tea in Boston Harbour in protest against the Tea Act. The intended effect of using this example is to give the tangled disputes of today the (perceived) black-and-white clarity of the past: Obama is George III or Lord North; the bailout is the Tea Act (levied to bail out the East India Company).
But as the Tea Party-pooping Lepore explains, "the revolution has been put to wildly varying purposes", its legacy or ancestry claimed by federalists and anti-federalists alike, the Union and the Confederacy, Southern segregationists and civil rights activists. For Martin Luther King, writing in 1961, the Boston Tea Party was not an anti-tax protest, as it is for the Tea Partiers, but "a massive act of civil disobedience".
The failure of analogies, and the revolution's resistance to de facto co-optation, is due to the peculiar situation of America in the 18th century. And although Lepore, the author of two outstanding books about the period, concedes that you can fish "almost anything" out of the debate about sovereignty and liberty, that "almost" is important: "Glenn Beck once said that George Washington was opposed to socialism." As left and right manipulate the truth to suit their own ends, Lepore develops a justly irreverent portrait of the revolutionary era as not worth having on your side in an age of (putative) racial and sexual equality.
To say that I wished the book were longer is not, as it might appear, an unmixed compliment. At its present length, it gets the reader only so far: not far enough. Lepore gives less space, and far less cogent expression, to her recommendations for good historical practice - "the study
of history requires investigation, imagination, empathy and respect" - than to her attack on the Tea Party's "historical fundamentalism". And even this falls slightly short. Bernard Williams once complained that Robert Nozick had successfully disputed certain claims about personal identity but failed to show "why we believe them"; similarly, Lepore exposes flaws in logic and historical understanding without explaining why, and how, they came about - why people have come to think as they do about the revolution. Or, to put it another way, she is alert to the dangers of history becoming propaganda but blind to the dangers of historiography attempting to become journalism.
The Whites of Their Eyes: the Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History
Princeton University Press, 224pp, £13.95
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer