Monday, November 1, 2010

America's Hidden History

America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation
© 2008 Kenneth C. Davis
272 pages

"The stories that unfold in these six chapters, which span a period from the Spanish arrival in America to George Washington's inauguration in 1789, were selected because each plays a central part in shaping the nation's destiny and character and each, in some way, belies the American myth. For the most part, these are tales that the textbooks left out."

Kenneth C. Davis is best known for the Don't Know Much About series, but has recently broken away from that to pursue interests in general American history. This book is one of his first projects in that field, and consists of six sections on early north American history, starting from Spanish colonization efforts and finishing up with the establishment of the Constitution following Shay's Rebellion. Davis begins with "Isabella's Pigs", the story of Spain's discovery of the Americas, the plague that follows, and the establishment of North America's first colony (St. Augustine) which predates the English landings by a century and which was founded on the rubble of a French colony which the Spanish conquistadors savagely razed in a fit of Inquisitorial pique.  "Hannah's Escape" follows, tackling the theocratic Puritans and the first Indian wars in which we're introduced to lady scalpers. "Washington's Confession" jumps us into the Seven Years' War, following young George Washington's early career (which seemed to consist of bumping into French people wandering around the woods,). "Warren's Toga" and "Benedict's Boot" are set in the revolutionary period, one detailing the attempts of the revolutionaries to ground their desire for a Republic in the legacy of Rome, while the other follows the career of Benedict Arnold -- the prideful, aggressive, and ambitious man who was hailed as a hero and traitor both to the American cause, who is honored by a statue of a boot. The last section, "Lafayette's Sword", covers Shay's Rebellion and its unintended consequence on the  formation of the American union.

America's Hidden History is a breezy read: Davis' publishing history as a writer for lay audiences serves him well here. There's a great deal of interesting trivia to be picked up here, and the general tone is daring, flirting with iconoclasm. The Puritans and founding fathers are depicted as idealists who generally ignored their ideals: the Puritans, wanting to set a good example as Good Christians (as opposed to those naughty Spanish), establish vaguely theocratic governments which are cruel to their people and wage war  against the surrounding natives, while the founding fathers beat their chests, urge for war,  and channel Cicero in protest against British aristocrats daring to rule them, but put furiously put down rebellions of the disenfranchised (like Shay's) without missing a beat. Overall the book is good light history, best fit for those with a casual interest in early American history who want something fun and interesting to read. Davis gives ample background for his stories and is generous with first-hand sources, but the book isn't a sweeping or detailed history. It's kin to the  Great Tales from English History series.

Related:

  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. As soon as I read of Isabella ordering the Spanish to bring pigs with them to the new world, I winced, knowing the devastation they caused from reading Charles C. Mann's excellent work.
  • People's History of the American Revolution, Ray Raphael. Davis is far more cautious than Raphael,  but People's History examines the disconnect between the founding fathers'  motives for independence and the common laborers and artisans' motives. 
  • Great Tales from English History, Robert Lacey
  • Great Tales from English History (Volume II), Robert Lacey

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