History by the Letter

History by the Letter

Whatever else the investigations of the President have uncovered, they have yielded thousands of sources–transcripts, letters, memos, audio- and videotapes–which Americans have devoured wi


Whatever else the investigations of the President have uncovered, they have yielded thousands of sources–transcripts, letters, memos, audio- and videotapes–which Americans have devoured with glee. Documents of all sorts, in fact, are more widely available than ever.

As the Starr report demonstrated, the Internet increasingly serves as a distribution center for a variety of texts. It offers nearly immediate access to newly released material and features countless sites that contain unedited historical sources. The Library of Congress alone will have millions of texts and artifacts digitized and online by the year 2000. Although documents arriving at 52,000 bytes per second deprive readers of the feel and smell of coarse and musty pages, as a result of the Internet more people than ever will have access to the materials out of which we understand and interpret the American past.

There is something inviting about primary sources: Through them we establish an original relationship with the past. They allow us to hear the voices and sense the textures of another time and place. They also serve as a medium through which the past continues to resonate in the present. Examining the sources, historians glean those facts with which they begin to construct their narratives. A novelist can invent facts but a historian must find them.

Yet the documents do not speak for themselves; we make them speak. Shelby Foote, novelist and historian, often quotes John Keats’s declaration that “a fact is not a truth until you love it.” Turning facts into truths, moving from document toward meaning, is the essence of the historian’s craft. It is what makes history so compelling. It is the reason there can never be a single “definitive” work on a subject. And it is the flashpoint for controversy. In the past decade, the most contentious public debates about the past have pivoted on the selection, interpretation and presentation of texts and artifacts in two Smithsonian exhibitions–“The West as America” and “The Enola Gay.” The facts, whether westward migration or the dropping of the atomic bomb, are not at issue, but the larger truths about these events are deeply contested.

To say that we make documents speak is not to say that we can make them say whatever we like. A novelist such as Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, can brilliantly explore the tensions between what he calls “happening truth” and “story truth” and, in pursuit of the latter, encourage us to disregard the facts as culled from the documentary record. “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth,” writes O’Brien. Historians, of course, must stay true to the evidentiary record. We cannot invent or bury or twist the facts to fit our preconceived notions. The truths that we communicate must be grounded in the documents.

Too often, however, scholarly anxiety over lack of evidence and nervousness about moving beyond the surface of the text prevent historians from pursuing larger truths. As Annette Gordon-Reed has shown in her examination of historians and the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship, such evidentiary qualms can serve to mask ideological agendas. To get from known facts to historical truths leaps must be made, and the best historical writing hovers somewhere between going too far and not going far enough.

Wherever the journey leads, it begins with the documents, and the choice of them is itself part of the interpretive process. “The art of research,” observes a detective in a recent movie, “is the ability to look at the details and see the passion.” It will come as a surprise only to those who envision history as a neutral, objective science that when each of us looks at the same details we uncover different passions and that our passions in the first place guide us toward certain documents and away from other ones.

Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman have always had a passion for American history. For decades the two millionaires, one the head of an investment brokerage firm and the other the president of Rite Aid and managing director of Morgan Stanley, have separately collected manuscripts, books and prints. They have also sought to advance a conservative political agenda. Gilder is founder of the Manhattan Institute, a think tank devoted to promoting free enterprise and private initiatives. The institute has the ear of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and has exerted considerable influence over reductions in government activity, the dismantling of welfare and the reconfiguration of public space in the city. Lehrman nearly defeated Mario Cuomo in the 1982 gubernatorial race, sought the nomination in 1994 and, most recently, served as co-chair of Phil Gramm’s Presidential Campaign Committee.

The two men have combined their resources to form the Gilder Lehrman Collection (GLC) of historical documents, housed at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library. In 1994 they established the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which, among other activities, provides fellowships for scholars wanting to work in the collection, supports lectures and exhibitions, and sustains the two most extravagant prizes in American history: the $50,000 Lincoln prize for the best book on the Civil War era and the $25,000 Frederick Douglass prize for the best book on slavery and abolition. Flashing cash and treating historians like young executives, Gilder and Lehrman have rapidly become influential players on the American history scene.

The mission of the GLC is to “collect, preserve, and study the historical record” of the nation, and The Boisterous Sea of Liberty presents some of the highlights of the collection. It is a measure of Gilder’s and Lehrman’s clout that Oxford University Press has published and widely promoted this handsomely produced volume and that David Brion Davis, the distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning Sterling Professor of History at Yale, and Steven Mintz, also a widely respected historian, have edited the collection. Looking at the volume and reading Davis’s panegyric to Gilder and Lehrman (he calls their collecting “philanthropic spending”), I thought of the old beer commercial in which the pool hustler makes a fabulous shot and declares that he’s “just showing off.”

What the volume shows off is a wealth of traditional documents that reiterate a familiar narrative of American history. While it purports to be A Documentary History of America From Discovery Through the Civil War, this anthology of 366 documents might better be subtitled Letters From Famous Men. The pre-Revolutionary documents include selections from Christopher Columbus, William Bradford, William Penn, James Otis and Benjamin Franklin. Of the 266 documents that carry the story from Revolution through Civil War, eighty-eight are by Presidents of the United States. And the bulk of the remainder are from well-known politicians and generals. Collections reveal the interests of collectors, and Gilder and Lehrman clearly have little desire to gather manuscripts and books by those outside the American History Hall of Fame. If this were a baseball-card collection, it would consist entirely of Mickey Mantles.

To their credit, Davis and Mintz recognize this difficulty and try to add some diversity and complexity to the GLC documentary record. The introduction and headnotes identify tensions and conflicts and allude to those outside the main avenues of power. The historians mention New World “Encounters,” refer to a “land of contrasts,” identify “the popular protests and upheavals of the age of revolution” and allude to the “antitheses” of the ideals of liberty, equality and democracy. “Ordinary farmers, small shopkeepers, and artisans” are mentioned. Few of the texts, however, speak to these issues or record the experiences of these people.

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty will be extremely popular among some readers because its documents contribute to a heroic narrative of responsible politicians laboring in earnest to address the nation’s problems. Here are the familiar words of Jefferson in regard to slavery (“we have the wolf by the ear & feel the danger of holding or letting loose”), of Andrew Jackson in response to nullification (“disunion, by armed force, is treason”) and Lincoln on race (“in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, [the Negro] is the equal of every other man, white or black”).

There is nothing wrong, of course, with letters and speeches written by members of a political elite. Some of the most important and moving words ever written, words that have changed the world, appear in such documents. That Gilder and Lehrman own original copies of some of these famous texts certainly makes their private collection priceless, but it does not add significantly to the conventional historical record. The two deserve more credit for using their resources to recover manuscripts from private collections and make them available to scholars, although it is unclear which documents in this anthology fall in this category.

The tone of the documents, whether they are known or unknown, is monotonous, and it is all too easy to succumb to the letter writers’ best intentions. Even Davis, for all his effort to acknowledge the dark side of American history, seems to get caught up in rose-colored readings of these texts. In his introduction, he quotes George Washington vowing in 1786 never “to possess another slave by purchase.” Yet the document as quoted in the book states, “I never mean (unless some peculiar circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase.” Much of the history of the nation is embedded in that “unless,” which Davis too casually omits.

It turns out that even the transcription of Washington’s words alters the conditions: In the actual letter, a facsimile of which appears in the volume, Washington uses the word “particular,” not “peculiar.” Words matter, and this difference transforms the meaning of Washington’s declaration.

The inclusion of selected outside material raises additional and equally troubling questions. If you are going to publish a book celebrating a collection, it seems logical that all the material should be from that collection. The Met does not sneak a Ben Shahn from the Whitney into its American Wing catalogue just because it does not have a good one. But that is precisely what Davis and Mintz do here, and they justify the action as insuring “an accurate and coherent view of a given subject.”

More than forty of the documents are from outside the GLC. Most of them are used to strengthen the pre-Revolutionary sections, where the GLC is especially weak. Even for the nineteenth century, which Davis concedes “constitutes the heart of the anthology,” it is the outside documents that provide relief from the numbing cadence of elite male discourse that suffuses the volume. Here is Susan Huntington in 1815: “Dear children! I tremble for you, when I reflect how dangerous is the path in which you are to tread, and how difficult the task of directing you in safety.” Here is Kale, one of the Amistad captives, writing in 1841: “If America give us free we glad, if they no give us free we sorry.” Here is William Smith, an immigrant, writing in 1850 about the transatlantic voyage: “The passengers being sea sick, were vomiting in all parts of the vessel.” Thus the inclusion of non-GLC documents in this volume ironically serves to highlight the lacunae of the Gilder Lehrman Collection itself.

With the incorporation of texts outside the GLC, the rationale for the volume disappears. Davis and Mintz want to provide an “interpretive anthology,” but the holdings of the GLC, impressive as they are, cannot begin to encompass the diversity, complexity and cacophony of American history. The scattershot additional sources that Davis and Mintz import to the book are insufficient to bring this anthology anywhere close to the claims they make for it.

And even with those documents brought on board, there are curious elisions and omissions. Spellings are often silently modernized, and ellipses sometimes mangle the text. To take a specific example, a section on “Nat Turner’s Insurrection,” Samuel Warner’s “Authentic and Impartial Narrative,” owned by the GLC, is included, while Turner’s own Confessions, apparently not in the GLC, is left out. There are other lost opportunities as well. Images from the GLC are dispersed throughout the volume but receive no commentary or interpretation at all. The Civil War section includes two photographs of African-Americans that help illuminate how the pressure for emancipation came from the “slaves themselves,” as the editors suggest, but readers of the anthology will come away thinking that Lincoln alone steered the ship of state across a boisterous sea toward emancipation.

The deeper problem, however, is not what Davis and Mintz do with the documents; the problem is the kind of documents that are available to them in the GLC. If asked to provide an anthology of American history using a variety of collections, they would undoubtedly produce a volume that offered a multidimensional portrait of America. But that was not their assignment. It was risky enough for them to stow on board some forty outside documents; any more and the voyage might never have left drydock.

The Boisterous Sea of Liberty offers passage in first class only. Most social and cultural historians, however, prefer the close quarters of steerage. Fortunately, there are other boats worth boarding for a documentary journey through American history: Peter Nabokov’s Native American Testimony, Linda Monk’s Ordinary Americans, Al Young’s We the People and Ira Berlin’s Free at Last. There is also a seaworthy vessel commissioned twenty years ago: Antebellum American Culture: An Interpretive Anthology. One of the best primary-source readers ever constructed, it navigates the tensions and ambiguities of the decades before the Civil War. It was edited by David Brion Davis with Steven Mintz’s help.

Gilder and Lehrman might also do some traveling in less-charted waters. If they surf the Net, they will find at www.bibliofind.com a first edition of Thomas Skidmore’s radical treatise The Rights of Man to Property. Compared with the tens of thousands of dollars they paid for a letter from Lincoln, it is a steal at $200.

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