When historian Jill Lepore stumbled on a letter from John Adams about the lies of American history, it brought to mind her own youthful brush with the Revolutionary spirit. Her new book, The Whites of Their Eyes, is out now.
One freaky day last spring, I came across two old documents, which isn’t what was freaky: I read a lot of old documents, every day; that’s what historians do. But these two, together, gave me the creeps, like when the phone rings and there’s no one there. The first was a letter. I found it in the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I had gone looking for it, because although I’d seen parts of this letter quoted all over the place, willy-nilly, I wanted to see the original, and read the whole of it. On April 4, 1790, John Adams wrote to Benjamin Rush, complaining that when the history of the American Revolution was written, it would be a travesty. I was writing a book about the Tea Party’s version of American history and hearing people on the far right argue that the Revolution was fought for the sake of free enterprise or to establish a Christian Nation and that the Constitution was divinely inspired, made me think about Adams’s grim prediction: “The history of our revolution will be one continued lye from one end to the other.” He went on: “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical Rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrised him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation and War. These underscored lines contain the whole fable, plot and catastrophy.”
Crabby John Adams was jealous of everyone—Benjamin Franklin most of all—and Rush had been critical of George Washington’s command during the war. So the letter comes across, now, as bitter and invidious. But this, too, Adams predicted. “If this letter should be preserved and read an hundred years hence,” he wrote, “the reader will say ‘The envy of that JA could not bear to think of the truth’ He ventured to scribble to Rush, as envious as himself, blasphemy that he dared not speak when he lived.” Adams had an uncanny foresight, and he often wrote with posterity in mind, which can make reading his papers unnerving: he was forever writing as if addressing some future historian. “Dear You,” his letters always seem to begin, which always makes me, sitting in an archive, blink, fidget, and look over my shoulder. “Who? Me?”
The second document was a photograph. When I got home that night, I realized I couldn’t put off any longer a task I had been dreading: going through some old photo albums I have. The Tea Party, I believe, has its roots in a battle over the Bicentennial when no one could agree what story to tell about the nation’s unruly beginnings. The Revolution’s 200th anniversary fell during some of the saddest days of the Civil Rights movement, of Vietnam, and of Watergate, and overlapped, too, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and the shootings at Kent State. The country was a mess. Even the federal government’s American Revolution Bicentennial Commission wondered, “What is there to celebrate?” The reactionary history of the Revolution endorsed by the Tea Party today—“the whole fable, plot and catastrophy”—is the far right’s answer to those painful years, as if the past were an ointment you rub on a wound, like butter on a burn.
I study the 18th century, which is why I spend a lot of time in archives reading yellowing letters, but I lived through the 1970s, so I figured I ought to mine my own memory. I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Bicentennial was a spectacularly big deal. In elementary school, we went on field trips to Boston. We walked the Freedom Trail. We dumped fake tea into the harbor. I couldn’t find pictures of any of that. But I did find a photograph of my brother, dressed as a minuteman, and one of me in costume, too. It is 1976. I am 9 years old. I’m wearing a dress of lemon yellow, calico. I sewed it myself. I cut a pattern out of tissue paper that rustled and crinkled like an autumn leaf. I gathered the skirt with a basting stitch and pinned it to the dress’ snug bodice, but then I botched the buttonholes, down the back. Buttonholes are too hard for 9 year olds. I’m wearing a mob cab, white and lacy, threaded with a yellow satin ribbon and, around my neck, a linen choker with a cameo I found in my mother’s dresser. I’m staring straight at the camera. I always did.
The Tea Party, I believe, has its roots in a battle over the Bicentennial when no one could agree what story to tell about the nation’s unruly beginnings.
Staring, now, at that picture, I thought about Adams, writing that letter, furious at the future for forgetting him. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the idea that I would forget childhood. Grownups, it seemed to me, never understood children, and I was sure, as children are, this was because they had forgotten what it felt like to be little. History will be one continued lie from one end to the other. It always is. I didn’t want to forget; I would will myself to remember, I would force myself. I used to try to burn memories into my brain, as if I could sear them there— this day, never forget this day, this minute, this joy, this terror—which is why I dreaded opening those albums. In every photograph, I look straight into the camera, staring, as if eyeing some future historian. Dear You. I have no idea what I was trying to tell me.
Jill Lepore is the Kemper Professor of American History at Harvard University, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and The Battle over American History.