Monday, March 17, 2008

America's Hidden History

I love reading about history. Any kind of history, really. I think it's important to keep the history of the world alive, because the same social problems tend to keep coming back over and over and solutions can often be find through the positive or negative examples of our past. I especially tend to drift towards books like this one, America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women & Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation. Without being precious about, author Kenneth C. Davis has endeavored to bring to light true stories from the American past that don't get a mention in the history textbooks and, as a result, have been lost in the shuffle. He's not, thankfully, purporting to blow your mind with a revisionist history. He's providing pieces of a larger whole.

The book, in six parts, tells the story of America from its first discovery by European explorers to the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States. But rather than a dry discussion of social forces and the upheavals of history, Davis talks about people, flesh and blood people, and the unintended consequences of the decisions they made. He also talks about economic realities that illustrate the reason why such decisions are often made.

In Part I, Isabella's Pigs, Davis talks about the formation of Spain and the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish, putting the blame for the epidemics that decimated the native populace on the recommendation of Queen Isabella that Columbus take pigs on his voyage as a food source. Pigs breed prodigiously and feed a host of people (and, he points out, are an easy meal to prove that the eaters are not Jews--the religious war in Europe transferred to America all too smoothly), but also carry diseases that wiped out people and animals for centuries. The religious war I mentioned set the stage for bloodshed in America, not just between the Spanish and the natives, but also between the Spanish and the French, the true first pilgrims of America--Huguenots escaping persecution.

Part II, Hannah's Escape, paints a stark picture of the danger of life on the American frontier, telling the story of Hannah Dustin's escape from her native kidnappers and how that "Puritan resolve in the face of danger" propaganda was created by Cotton Mather. It also tells the story of Ann Hutchinson's trail; condemned as a witch, she is also indirectly responsible for the creation of Harvard University. Once again, religion and economics take the stage as forces which move history forward, and the greed with which both can often be wielded.

Part III is Washington's Confession, in which Davis shows how a young George Washington, who had never seen military action, made a poor judgment and inadverdantly started the French and Indian War. It shows a nationalism among the colonies for mother England, and how that was tempered by a war with France and the harsh realities of the country itself. My own theory has always been that all wars start because of economics and trade; here we're presented with a war that was fought in many places over the world, and all began because George Washington and his rich planter friends wanted to develop real estate.

By Part IV, Warren's Toga, things are much changed in the American relations with Britain, and a revolution begins that was agitated not by the idealists we're presented with in history class, but by rich, landed men like John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who seethed at the heavy taxation of the crown and wanted to keep their money to themselves. Davis makes an excellent point of saying that many of our founders, including Washington and the Lee family, became idealistic patriots mainly because their rights to make money and develop land (which King George had forbidden after the French and Indian War in an attempt to keep the peace), while the lower classes of America wanted a break with England because the heavy taxes and legislation used to keep Massachussetts in line led to mass unemployment. It takes an economic crisis to unite the people.

Part V tells the story of Arnold's Boot, giving Benedict Arnold his due as a brilliant military commander and dashing war hero who made a terrible decision. Arnold betrayed America, but again we can see economic reasons leading up to his decision, as well as a personal campaign waged against him that he felt forced his hand. Davis is very smart here not to try and justify the decision Arnold made, but to make the decision seem realistic, even inevitable, and unfortunate.

Finally, there is the aftermath of the Revolution in Part VI, Lafayette's Sword. Economic depression followed, and unemployment continued, and events like Shays' Rebellion illustrated how powerless America was as a confederation of states. The federal government was created not as an ideal of sharing power--many of the framers of the Constitution were against democracy, characterizing it as mob rule--but in order to tax states to keep a central government (and a central army) alive. Davis especially makes sure to point out the hypocrisy of some of the people involved, such as Samuel Adams, who went from thinking Revolution a just cause to proclaiming it a hanging offense.

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of Don't Know Much About History, the best single-volume American history I've read. That book was clear, direct, surprising, and informative. In this book, he is a little unfocused, jumping around in each chapter from time to time to fill in the pieces. I like the style, but I'm a hardcore history nerd, so I realize some people might get lost occasionally. But it's a valuable book precisely because it's about people and reality and social forces, and not a series of things just happening. The one thing that kind of infuriates me about some history books is that they can often be a collection of events with no chain to link them. Davis knows that everything that happens is built on something that came before. The unintended consequences that shape our lives, keep money in power, and keep prejudices alive. And he makes it not just important, but readable.

Full disclosure: I got this as an advance copy, but haven't been asked to promote it. The book doesn't come out until 29 April.

Originally posted at the Spring Reading Challenge (2008).

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