A Column by Tony Smith




“If I was ever in a desperate situation,” (Stephen Ambrose declares), “I would want Meriwether Lewis for my leader.” When it comes to assaying American history, one could say the same for Stephen Ambrose.”

Malcolm Jones, Jr. Newsweek


Accordingly, the historians most appealing to me are those who offer biographical perspectives and provoke speculation regarding events that might have unfolded in ways that changed the narrative of historical circumstances. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN for example, in “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” suggests that despite his unmatched political skills, had Lincoln lived and delivered on his promise to reunite the Union after the Civil War without vengeance and an appeal to our “better angels,” Lincoln would likely have suffered the same fate as his predecessor Andrew Johnson: impeachment, led by the Radical Republicans intending to inflict punishment upon the South.  In “No Ordinary Time, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in WWII,” Goodwin offers a strong argument for the empathetic view of Americans struggling with The Great Depression from the perspective of Franklin Roosevelt’s personal battle with polio, as well as the childhood trauma experienced by Eleanor, channeling her intense personal pain into causes devoted to humanity, not only to Americans, but to others throughout the world.

Historian David McCullough produced seminal works on John Adams and Harry Truman; Adams the jealous, spiteful and contrary political genius and dour New Englander who played a significant role in the Revolution and events to follow, once remarking that “Thomas Jefferson loved humanity, but he hated people!” (Abigail was significantly more generous in her assessment of Jefferson—the best dinner companion she ever met.) Crucial to the story offered by McCullough is the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, born opposites-one a Massachusetts farmer’s son, the other a Virginia aristocrat and slave master. Adams embraced conflict; Jefferson avoided it. Adams had great humor; Jefferson, very little. But, according to McCullough, “they were alike in their devotion to their country.” (Amazingly, they both died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration Of Independence)

Truman, who believed that history should be taught through biography; a man perceived as a small-time party hack, yet a president who made some of the most momentous decisions in our history: The recognition of Israel, desegregation of the Armed Forces, the decision to use the Atomic Bomb, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, establishment of NATO, intervention in Korea, and the controversial firing of General Douglas MacArthur. Truman, whose origins were on the Missouri frontier, shaped by years of relentless brutal work; the plainspoken, “Give ‘em Hell Harry,” of popular memory, yelled out by a supporter in Bremerton, Washington, during the 1948 presidential campaign. Truman’s response: “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it is Hell.”

(As a child, held on my father’s shoulders, I well remember the appearance of Harry Truman from the caboose of a train right here in Libby, Montana).

Stephen E. Ambrose, author of “Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West;” biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, expert on the “D-Day” invasion and subsequent book entitled “Band of Brothers;” noted scholar of Crazy Horse, George Armstrong Custer, and the Battle of the Bighorn. Ambrose, who suggested that despite his enormous courage, leadership, and perseverance, Meriwether Lewis made a potentially fatal decision to split his party on the return journey from the Pacific Ocean in order to trace the headwaters of the Marias River, and who found himself encountered by a party of Blackfoot Natives, endangering the fate of the entire enterprise itself. Ambrose, speculating that Custer’s habit of walking over the bodies of his men whose lives were sacrificed needlessly for his own vanity in the American Civil War, and whose 1876 presidential ambitions drove him to his customary lack of caution at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, losing not only his own life, but around 260 members of the 7th Cavalry, including that of his  brother.

James M. McPherson, who condensed the trilogies of noted Civil War scholars Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote into one remarkable work entitled “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” filled with fresh interpretations and information, “puncturing old myths and challenging new ones,” an authoritative volume that made sense of the “Second American Revolution” one we call the Civil War, a war that transformed a nation and expanded our heritage of liberty.

Tim Egan, (my personal favorite), prolific author combining the best of history and conservation in “The Worst Hard Time: A History of the Dust Bowl,” “The Big Burn: The 1910 Fire,” “The Immortal Irishman: A Biography of Montana’s first governor, Thomas Meagher,” and “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Artistry of Edward Curtis,” who monumentally chronicled Native Peoples through photography across the American continent, and was a personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, George Bird Grinnell (who Curtis met on Mt. Rainer)  and many other prominent scientists.

Despite the political blather commonly fed to the American public these days, credible historians are ones not inclined to gloss over our own historical blemishes, including the ordeal of slavery, the treatment of American Indigenous peoples, WWII Japanese-American internment camps, and a State Department riddled with anti-Semitism throughout the war, to name just a few.

Doing the work of history, and imparting the social-emotional learning skills that transfer to the history classroom, requires, according to the research: (1) A strong level of Curiosity, (2) Humility, without “chronological snobbery,” i.e., creation of an intellectual climate particular only to our own age, (3) Patience and Persistence, (4) Compassion for the topic and circumstances in which the events took place, (5) and a healthy dose of Skepticism and a willingness to change ones views over time.

In the technological world in which we exist, are Americans willing to do the hard work and explore the past in order to have a fair degree of historical context for the future? Let us further examine the case in PART II of this series: ON READING!