Review by Bruce McKinney
One of the very interesting ways to discover the past is to visit a bookstore, in person or online, to look for books about an historical period, a subject, an individual or group of individuals that seem interesting enough to learn more about. Perhaps you are distantly related to someone your family has always discussed only in private, either from embarrassment, uncertainty or humility. The connection may be tenuous but nevertheless interesting. Perhaps a name showed up on your title search and you noticed in the local library or newspaper a mention of that name memorializing a local cemetery. These days, with just a little background, some personal initiative and an internet connection, you can move quickly into the historical details of almost any person, place or event that interests you. Perhaps you already know this but if you do you are still very much in the minority. Most book collectors still think the internet is primarily for email. That’s like using an Indianapolis 500 race car to deliver pizzas. It works but what a waste.
This month I read Gentleman Revolutionary by Richard Brookhiser, a great book about Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) who was both an important figure in the Revolutionary War period, member of the committee to “revise the stile” and “arrange the details” of the draft U.S. constitution, later its principal editor and writer of the preamble that most people recognize,
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”He later became an American representative in Europe, a witness to the French Revolution and upon returning home in 1798, witness to the fierce political battles between those who favored the states and those who favored a strong central government. At almost every page of this 221 page book (plus detailed notes) I found myself looking up a term in the Americana Exchange Database(ÆD). Then, when I started to use this book’s index, I found it to be a perfect roadmap to source materials in the Æ Database.
The Revolutionary War period and virtually all other historical periods, for that matter, are so steeped in myth that historians must often wrestle with the incompatibility of the actual facts with widely held perceptions. Often historians choose to be silent. One suspects there has been enormous pressure applied to historians who felt they had a clear case to make that Jefferson fathered more than the country or that Lincoln was a brilliant, if pragmatic, man who sometimes expressed views we no longer wish to remember. One advantage of writing about contemporary but less important characters would seem to be the historian’s ability to deal just with the facts and less with the myths.