Sarah Churchwell: The wilful ignorance that has dragged the US to the brink

The Tea Party version of the American Revolution is not just fundamentalist. It is also Disneyfied, sentimentalised, and whitewashed

Share
Related Topics

Here's a monumental historical irony: a moment in the origins of the United States that every American schoolchild learns to view with pride, the Boston Tea Party, has now become a symbol of our (inter)national shame. In one sense, it is difficult to know what to say in response to the utter irrationality of the Tea Party's self-destructive decision to sabotage the American political process – and thus its own country's economy, and the global economy.

Last week, while the US government was locked in stalemate and risked defaulting on its national debt for the first time in its history (and thus also defying the Constitution that Tea Partiers supposedly hold sacred, which declares in the 14th Amendment that it is illegal for Congress to default), Michele Bachmann instructed her followers not to listen to those who attempted to "scare" them with untruths that the US would default if it didn't raise the debt ceiling. When, of course, that is precisely what it would have done. But the Tea Party has never let facts get in the way of its belief system, and now that belief system is genuinely threatening the wellbeing of the nation they claim to love.

Mottos are supposed to express a philosophy: in so far as the Tea Party can be said to have anything so exalted as a philosophy, their motto is quite telling. They are one of the most inaccurately named movements in American political history, but that inaccuracy is itself emblematic of the party's adamantine ignorance. Any American schoolchild can tell you the motto of the historical Boston Tea Party from which they take their name and – they mistakenly believe – their inspiration: "No taxation without representation."

Impatient with those extra two words, evidently, the Tea Party has truncated this proposition to something simpler: "No taxation." Never mind that the US has among the lowest levels of taxation in the developed world, matched only by Mexico and Chile (are these the nations the Tea Party would like to emulate?). Never mind that the nation's actual Founding Fathers were perfectly prepared to pay taxes – they just thought those taxes should purchase them a democratic voice in their own government.

The motto that came out of the Constitutional Convention was not "In God We Trust": it was "E Pluribus Unum," out of many, one. The phrase "In God We Trust" emerged from the American Civil War, but it wasn't put on US currency until the Cold War, in 1955. The following year, the same year he signed the Civil Rights bill into law, Eisenhower made it the nation's motto.

In other words, In God We Trust is an act of revisionist history and retrospective religiosity, reinserting religion into our national history. But the attempt to create one from many has led to Civil War more than once (the American Revolution was a civil war), and parts of the South regularly seceding (the South and other states threatened to walk out of the Constitutional Congress, did secede in the 1860s, and revolted again in 1944, with the so-called 'Dixiecrats.')

Texas was forever threatening to secede. The Tea Party could secede with my blessing: E Pluribus Unum is clearly not a motto that they are prepared to embrace – despite their supposed reverence for the Founding Fathers and the American Constitution.

Anyone who followed last year's midterms and knew anything about American history already realised this. Tea Party candidates kept invoking semi-mythical figures such as Paul Revere, who was not a Founding Father at all: in fact, most of Revere's supposed story was a legend written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860 to rouse popular sentiment on behalf of the Union cause in the Civil War – in other words, to maintain the spirit of E Pluribus Unum and fight against divisive polarisation.

Tea Partiers love mentioning Thomas Paine because they think they share his "Common Sense" (otherwise known as a sense held in common) but they haven't bothered to read it, and are clearly unfamiliar with essays such as "Public Good", in which Paine wrote that, especially while at war (as America currently is, of course): "To have a clear idea of taxation is necessary to every country, and the more funds we can discover and organise, the less will be the hope of the enemy."

As Harvard historian Jill Lepore argued last year in her brilliant The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History, none of the people voting for the Tea Party candidates knows any of this because they haven't studied American history since grade school, when all American schoolchildren learn a simplified, cartoon version of the American Revolution (which we would never call the "War of Independence").

It is a Sesame Street version of the American constitution and politics, a myth that is being treated as the alpha and omega of our political and legal reality. This is one reason why it has a quasi-religious aspect: it's a myth of genesis, it's a creation myth about America that is just as simple as the idea that God created man and woman: the Founding Fathers created America.



The Tea Party version of the American Revolution is not just fundamentalist: it is also Disneyfied, sentimentalised, and whitewashed. It rests on a naïve, solipsistic and exceptionalist faith that for America it will all work out in the end, because America is "the greatest nation in the world". They take solace in tautology: America is great – this they know – because Fox News tells them so.

Their goal, as others have said, is to roll back the clock a century and more. In 1892, when the robber baron and corrupt financier Jay Gould died, Mark Twain wrote a scathing epitaph: Gould, he said, "reversed the commercial morals of the United States. He had put a blight upon them from which they have never recovered, and from which they will not recover for as much as a century to come. Jay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country."

It has been a century and we have surely not recovered: but we have managed to create an even mightier disaster. It remains to be seen whether we will recover, but it is long past time to stop making declarations of independence. We need to get back to work forming a more perfect union – or any union at all.

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
Andreas Lubitz runs the Airport Race half marathon in Hamburg on 13 September 2009  

Being sensitive to mental health need not lead us to downplay the horror of what Lubitz did

Will Gore
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing