HISTORY BY THE LETTER (a review of The Boisterous
Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America From Discovery
Through the Civil War  by Brion Davis and Steven Mintz,
BY LOUIS P. MASUR
February 15, 1999 - The Nation
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
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
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