Historian H.W. Brands wished to write an extensive multi-volume history of the United States. However, publishers bulked that it would not sell, so Brands came up with a plan to do what he wanted while satisfying the publisher’s preference for biographies. His solution was a sequence of biographies that would cover the history of America.
Recently, I finished listening to the chronologically first in the series The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. Overall, I judge Brands’ to be a good biography of Franklin; although, I preferred Carl Van Doren’s offering, despite its errors in attribution of works that Franklin published but did not write. To set context Brands’ book did include a wide range of people and events not explicitly Franklin. In doing so, I found that he gave a good overview of these critical externalities, but these were very high level brief summaries. However, such sign posts can be useful to identify interesting opportunities for learning more about a topic.
My own choice in readings to learn more American history is different and more voluminous. I am reading the definitive biographies of our presidents in order; currently reading Bemis’ volumes on John Quincy Adams. By definitive, I mean that I read all six volumes by Dumas Malone instead of a “popular” Jefferson biography by Joseph Ellis. I do supplement these with books on interesting subjects related to a president’s history—for example: biographies of related individuals such as Alexander Hamilton or Tecumseh; or books on a event such as the Panic of 1819.
Following my method, I have found the following general points:
- reading conflicting view points from principles contesting an event provides a richer understanding and offers wisdom for one’s own personal conduct in life;
- understanding past events in detail provides insights into current events and better policy options;
- our knowledge of past events is not always complete and expert historians will honestly disagree about the interpretation of the same incomplete facts;
- by presenting history in the context of an individual’s life, biographies communicate not only exalted events, but also the common in a context of a changing environment while providing perspective on what was ultimately important; and
- having a broad and deep understanding of history allows one to identify dishonest, or simply erroneous, appeals to history in political disagreements.
If you care about learning more history, how to you approach it?