April 2003 Reads

February 13th, 2007

In American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Maier asserts that the historical context and basis for this famous document can be traced as far back as the 14th century English monarchy. From the origins of the Declaration of Independence, to the foxholes of Hurtgen Forest, here are this month’s reads.“…the regiment began to march, through the debris of the previous day’s battle. To Captain Robert Miller, the beach ‘looked like something out of Dante’s inferno’.” In Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, the story of the Allied forces’ struggle from June 7, 1944 (the day following the D-Day landing at Normandy) through the end of the war in the European theater in May, 1945 is told from the perspective of the privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who experienced it. This is a very absorbing read for anyone wanting to learn more about what war is like from a foot soldier’s and tanker’s perspective. These guys had to endure sub-zero temperatures (often with just the clothes on their back), dig foxholes in frozen ground, witness their buddies get killed, and endure all of the vividly depicted horrors of war. Ambrose relied on the thousands of personal interviews he conducted and collected during his lifetime, and excerpts from those interviews are liberally dispersed throughout the book, which I found very interesting. He even includes statements from German infrantrymen and officers who had to endure the retreat back from the Siegfried Line towards the end of the war. Many of the infrantry units profiled went through well over 100% turnover before the war was over. That’s right- more than 100%. You will view the concept “sacrifice” in a different light.

“The Declaration was at first forgotten almost entirely, then recalled and celebrated by Jeffersonian Republicans, and later elevated into something akin to holy writ, which made it a prize worth capturing on behalf of one cause after another.” In American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Maier provides a thorough and interesting read on the history of one of history’s most glorified documents. According to Maier, what began as a simple exercise in trying to compile some good material for her students at MIT evolved into a full-blown analysis of the origins, near-death, and return to near beatification of the Declaration of Independence. A quick primer on the Revolution is provided, focusing on the strong attachment that early Americans had to England and English laws, and the strong aversion that many folks had to separation from the mother country. A detailed account of the drafting of the documentant and the debate surrounding its editing and final publication is provided, which filled in a lot of gaps for me having focused much of my reading on the revolutionary struggle itself. Towards the end of the book, Maier provides a very good analysis of how Lincoln elevated the status of the Declaration to “Magna Carta status” during his political career, culminating in the Gettysburg address. I like American Scripture for several reasons. First, it is well written. Second, Maier succeeds in wiping the dust off the venerable document itself, providing an objective and well-researched account of the history of not only the document itself, but also the precedents and 18th century colonial thinking surrounding independence and liberty, which shaped Jefferson’s and the other contributors’ viewpoints. Along that vein, the text itself reads more like an investigative journal article for The Atlantic rather than a history book, which I appreciated immensely. Finally, I came away with a very strong appreciation for how difficult it truly was for Jefferson and his colleagues to sum up all of their grievances, desires, and vision for the country in one document, much less express it in so eloquent a manner.

As it is April, I thought it timely to review April 1865: The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox was not a foregone conclusion, even though the Confederate forces were all but destroyed. A number of Lee’s officers were promoting the idea of the army not surrendering at all, but rather dispersing and regrouping in the countryside as an outfit of guerrilla fighters who would harass federal troops and essentially terrorize northern civilians. As it turns out, our country was quite literally wrecked on a number of levels- economically, politically, spiritually, and physically. Winik points out that before the war, the country’s inhabitants still viewed themselves as a loose collection of states, a “union” of geographically and politically disparate peoples, and not a “nation” with a collective identity and shared sense of destiny. In Winik’s opinion, we did not start to forge a national identity until after suffering through the war and Reconstruction. He does a good job of illustrating how precarious a situation the nation found itself in at the conclusion of the war. April 1865 recounts the difficult decisions that faced Grant, Lee, Lincoln, Davis, and Sherman during the final days of the war. What I especially liked about this book was the attention paid to the backgrounds of each of these historical figures, which provided a human perspective to the dilemnas each of them faced. This is not your average Civil War read. I recommend it.

Entry Filed under: Book Reviews

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