Sunday, December 19, 2010


If anyone is still reading this, you may have noticed that I have completely failed to do anything for the past couple of months. I was reading "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," which is an excellent book, but it took me forever to read because the subject matter was so difficult. Then I ran out of blogging energy. So, we can start over, right? In the new year I'll just pick up where I left off. I'll start with pre-Civil War books.

Meanwhile, merry Christmas and I'll see you in 2011.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The New Republic

This week I spent some time at the Chronology of US Historical Documents, and read:

From George Washington: inaugural speeches, the first State of the Union address, and his farewell address. I learned that Washington really, really liked to use big words. The more the better.

Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality in the Napoleonic wars, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.

John Adams' inaugural address--which has possibly the single longest sentence I have ever seen. It's so impressive that I will post it below.

Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address.

I guess those aren't terribly interesting, but I'd never read them before and I certainly got something from them.

From John Adams' inaugural address:

On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak 12 with diffidence; but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope, will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that if a preference, upon principle, of a free republican government, formed upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the Constitution of the United States, and a conscientious determination to support it until it shall be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions of the individual States and a constant caution and delicacy toward the State governments; if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position, their various political opinions on unessential points or their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of equal laws, of justice, and humanity in the interior administration; if an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers for necessity, convenience, and defense; if a spirit of equity and humanity toward the aboriginal nations of America, and a disposition to meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us, and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations, and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe which has been adopted by this Government and so solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of Congress and applauded by the legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be otherwise ordained by Congress; if a personal esteem for the French nation, formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them, and a sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor and integrity of the people of America and the internal sentiment of their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to investigate every just cause and remove every colorable pretense of complaint; if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation a reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of our fellow-citizens by whatever nation, and if success can not be obtained, to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice as far as may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and maintain peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people, on which I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived; if elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country and of my own duties toward it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and intellectual improvements of the people deeply engraven on my mind in early life, and not obscured but exalted by experience and age; and, with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effect.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Federalist Papers: I did it.

Yes indeed, I managed to read the list of Federalist Papers that was my goal. There were about 20 of them, I suppose. At first they're fairly interesting, and then all the technical talk about exactly how a government should be run kind of gets to you and it turns into a slog, especially the parts that talk about checks and balances, and the powers of the president.

So, yay me! Here's a paragraph that caught my attention particularly, from #51 on checks and balances:

The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

So now that I've done that, I'll move on to post-Constitutional history.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Finally, a few Federalist Papers

OK, I'm officially declaring September to be Federalist Papers month until I read the ones on my list. I was pretty lazy again this week, and read 3 dystopian YA novels in 3 days instead of anything more strenuous. But I've gotten restarted and am developing a crush on James Madison. Here's what I've been reading:

A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, by James Madison, June 1785. Apparently somebody in Virginia came up with the bright idea of collecting taxes to pay salaries to ministers of certain Christian denominations. The result was this essay, which beautifully sums up the reasons for religious freedom. It's also, I think, a piece of evidence against current factions in the US which assert that our country was founded as a Christian nation (an assertion which also disguises Dominionists, who are actually seeking to establish one particular kind of Christianity in the government). Madison says, "Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish, with the same case, any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects; that this same authority, which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property, for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment, in all cases whatsoever?" Read the whole thing.

Letter to George Washington, by James Madison, April 1787, laying out his ideas for a Federal constitution before the convention gets started.

And the Federalist Papers! No. 1 is a sort of introductory essay to the series, by Alexander Hamilton. (He and James Madison collaborated on these and published them under the name Publius, no matter which of them was writing.) No. 10, by Madison, is apparently one of the most famous ones and has been widely commented on, and I must say there's good reason for it. It offers reasons why a republican government is the best system for dealing with factions wishing to impose actions or philosophies on all the people. This is another one that I'm going to tell you to read. In No. 14, Madison argues that the size of the US is no bar to an efficiently working Federal Assembly; that in fact republicanism becomes more ideal, the larger and more diverse the country becomes. And in No. 15, Hamilton wants to convince you that the US has reached a crisis point; without a Federal government, the American experiment will fail.

I didn't actually set out to read practically nothing but James Madison this week. But I should do something like that; I'm nearly completely ignorant of his writings and they are turning out to be important and thought-provoking.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

This week, I was lame.

So I haven't got much to say for myself this time, except that I read a really good address on freedom of religion and I need to do better. My excuse is that I just started a new job and my brain is kind of fried. So, until next week...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Week 3 of Revolution Month

This is the first time I've run into anything by George Washington, so that has been fun. I've managed to misplace my book, so I can't look up everything I've read this week--and that wasn't much. Here's what I remember:

The draft and final version of the Declaration of Independence.

Some arguments about the Declaration, and a piece by Thomas Jefferson about it, laying out his thoughts for the next steps to be taken.

A couple of letters by John Adams--the famous one to his wife, saying that July 2nd would be celebrated forever, and another one.

A speech by George Washington to the troops when they were ready to revolt over lack of pay.

An essay describing the speech and the effect it had.

A letter from Washington to Congress about his desire to retire and his thoughts about the future, with special regard to the debts (moral and monetary) owed to the men of the army.

Now I'm done with the war and ready to move into debates over the Constitution. My particular goal is to read some of the Federalist papers, and, I suppose, the Anti-Federalist papers too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Week 2 of the Revolution

I tried to tackle quite a bit of Revolutionary stuff this week. Besides some proceedings-type things from the Continental Congresses, here are some of the highlights:

"Remember the Ladies" letters between Abigail and John Adams. This famous letter from Mrs. Adams reminds her husband that as long as they're going to talk about independence, they ought to remember that women would like some too. Adams replied with a light-hearted attempt at fobbing her off, but I was surprised to learn that at the same time, he wrote another letter to James Sullivan pointing out that there was no real reason to exclude women from the vote.

Thomas Jefferson's 1774 essay "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," which was educational but I don't have much to say about it.

John Adams' 1776 piece "Thoughts on Government"--more of a letter than a real essay, but lays out a system of checks and balances and has a lot of good stuff to say.

At this point in my Founding America book, everything becomes a reaction to Paine's Common Sense, which of course I had never read. So I went and found it. It's not a difficult read at all, and has a lot of very good sense in it (although the first chapter attacks the English checks and balances system). If you're looking to read just some of the really important selections, this is a good one to include.

And I also read several more speeches from Native American leaders--I particularly liked one by Pontiac. Of course they were not concerned at all with all that independence stuff, but with the power struggles between the French, English, colonists, and themselves.

This week it's on to the Declaration of Independence and the war.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

There is way more Revolutionary stuff than I can manage to read.

There is no way I'm going to manage to even get a handle on the Revolutionary era in a month. But I'm trying. So this week I read:

The rest of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography. Who knew that he was such a lovable guy? Franklin is just fun to read. The autobiography actually doesn't even get close to the actual Revolution; it stops just as he's realizing that colonists and the English government are really not going to be able to get along no matter how much they talk. He has a lot to say about the corruption and arrogance of the English.

An interesting thing I noticed about Franklin was what a smooth operator he was. When faced with a problem, he liked to find a solution that made everybody happy without having to fight about it. One small example he gives is on a military expedition for the colony's defense. The chaplain complains about how the men never show up for daily prayers (which is required). Instead of punishing the men or anything else, Franklin suggests that the chaplain become steward of the rum ration and dole it out after the prayer meeting. Problem solved! He did stuff like that all the time.

Franklin often talks about how he got to be so agreeable. As a youth, he liked to argue and debate, but eventually realized that if he spoke more softly, he was much more popular--and got more support as well. This is a recurring theme (and a very 18th-century one); later in the book he describes a lawyer of his acquaintance, who loves nothing better than to dispute and argue. He says "He had some reason for loving to dispute, being eloquent, an acute sophister, and, therefore, generally successful in argumentative conversation...[but] in the course of my observation, these disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them."

Oh, for a Benjamin Franklin in today's political arena....

I also started looking through a book I picked up at Barnes & Noble, which is a collection of documents from the Revolution through 1789. It's huge, and I'd like to read all of it, but it will take me a long time. Baby steps! I started at the beginning with Thomas Hutchinson's Address of the Governor of January 6, 1773. This is a speech that really kicked off revolutionary fervor, as Governor Hutchinson calmly and reasonably explained to the Massachusetts Assembly the obvious (to him) reasons why Americans could not have a voice in Parliament. As the speech was reprinted in newspapers and plunged the colony into an uproar.

Benjamin Franklin had been living in England for 15 years by 1773, trying to work with the English government on behalf of America. The English persisted in believing Americans to be disloyal, despite all Franklin could do to persuade them otherwise. He published a humorous essay called "Rules by which a great empire may be reduced to a small one" in September of that year, pointing out that the way the English treated Americans was ideal for turning loyalists into revolutionaries. The time for humor was soon over, but this was before things got ugly.

Next up is an essay my Thomas Jefferson called "A summary view of the rights of British America." I bet it won't be so fun to read as the Franklin essay.

And for your enjoyment, here's a nice little revolutionary video for you.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Time to start reading about the Revolution!

I dropped the ball last week, but I'm back! This week wraps up a month of colonial reading, and we're moving on to the Revolutionary period. I'm going to call that 1750 - 1789.

In the last couple of weeks I've read a whole lot of very short things out of the Annals of America. I'll just list some of the more interesting bits:

Attempts to Christianize the Indians, by Jonas Michaelius, a Dutch Reformed pastor. This depressing essay discusses possible ways to convert the Indians, particularly taking the children away and raising them in white households. He is irked by the way this backfires because the families want their children back.

John Cotton's sermon On the Divine Right to Occupy the Land, which says that no one has any right to take over another people's land unless God tells them to, and how to tell which case you are in.

More cheerfully, there was the Forefathers' Song, a wry commentary on colonial life dating from about 1630.

About then I got bored with the early 17th century and moved up to 1693, to Increase Mather's essay on the Insufficiency of Evidence Against Witches. He and his son Cotton were deeply involved in witch trials, but Increase acted as a restraining influence. Here he asserts that the evidence for witchcraft must be at least as strong as for any other crime, and decries the methods of torture that were commonly used to force confessions and so on. He particularly attacks ducking (throwing people into the water to see if they would sink or swim) as a diabolical superstition.

Then I jumped up to the 18th century and read a few things by Benjamin Franklin, who acts as a breath of fresh air. I am getting quite fond of him. I read a newspaper essay called The Speech of Polly Baker, a fictional speech by a woman on trial for bearing illegitimate children (which wasn't actually illegal). Then there were some of his preliminary thoughts on a sort of union of some colonies, and an essay on educating the Indians, the gist of which was that the Indians seemed perfectly competent to educate themselves.

I also skimmed a couple of famous sermons: A Model of Christian Charity, which was something of a pattern for the Puritans to live by, and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which I'm still working on. I find old sermons extremely difficult to read.

So that's it for my colonial reading--now for some Revolutionary material. What have you read in the last couple of weeks?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Week 3 of Colonial Month

This week I tried just going through the volume of Annals of America. It's full of short pieces, so I got several read even though I didn't spend much time on it.

On the Value of Colonies to England is a tract published anonymously (probably in 1607), listing reasons to establish colonies and proposing that public companies be created to sponsor colonizing groups. Much of it boils down to "everyone else is doing it and we've got to keep up."

Starving Time in Virginia is a selection from John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia. Parts are reports from various people, and parts are from Smith himself--though apparently he was not always strictly truthful. It starts with the 'starving time' in 1607 and continues through 1614. This account is where we get the story of Pocahontas saving Smith's life.

A Sermon Encouraging Prospective Colonists by William Symonds. This sermon justifies England's colonial ambitions. (1609)

Another piece from John Smith, describing the colonies as a profitable choice, where a colonist may earn a comfortable living if he works at it. (1616)

The Mayflower Compact (1620). Only a few paragraphs long, this compact was supposed to serve as an interim arrangement whereby the Puritans agreed to govern themselves until a charter could be drawn up. The charter never materialized and the Compact remained in force until the Plymouth colony was folded into the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1691.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Week 2 of Colonial Month

So here we are starting a second week. I didn't get as much done this time, but I did go over to my Annals of America set and start reading the first volume. I got the set from the library donation table a couple of years ago, and it had clearly spent some serious time in a basement, but the price was right! Here's what I read:

Christopher Columbus' description of his "Discovery of the New World" (this is a letter to Lord Rapheel Sanchez, a patron, dated March 1493). He describes finding several islands, which he named San Salvador, Ferdinanda, Isabella, Juana (now Cuba), and Hispaniola, and expresses confidence that Cathay is right next door. He also describes the people and the lay of the land, and claims that most of them continue to think that he is a god.

It never ceases to amaze me that the explorers felt so entitled to lay claim to all the lands they saw. "Nice country--we'll take it." Sure, there were people living there, who clearly had a society going on, but no worries. And he thought he was taking over bits of China, which was an empire itself. It's just strange to me.

The First Charter of Virginia, from King James I to the London and Plymouth Companies, 1606. This charter lays out how much land the companies may have, how they will govern it, and what they may do.

I also read the first half of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which is quite an enjoyable read, so I recommend it--Franklin had a sharp sense of humor.

And I finished the sermon from last week--I'm glad I did, the last bit was more interesting than the rest and I kind of enjoyed it.

What have you been reading?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Kick-off time! July is Colonial History Month.

Happy 4th of July! And it's time to start reading. This is going to be week 1, and as you read some things you can post here about them. I thought I'd better get a little head-start, so here's what I've been reading this week:

Some speeches by Native American leaders. Oratory was naturally very important in Native American cultures, and important speeches were memorized and handed down. The Dover Thrift book Great Speeches by Native Americans collects some of these and they are really enjoyable reading. I read about five from the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest in the collection was given by Acuera, of the Timucua people, and was addressed to Hernando de Soto:

Others of your accursed race have, in years past, poisoned our peaceful shores. They have taught me what you are. What is your employment? To wander about like vagabonds from land to land, to rob the poor, to betray the confiding, to murder in cold blood the defenseless. No! With such a people I want no peace--no friendship. War, never ending War, exterminating War, is all the boon I ask.

You boast yourself valiant, and so you may be; but my faithful warriors are not less brave, and this too you shall one day prove; for I have sworn to maintain an unsparing conflict while one white man remains in my borders--not only in battle, though even thus we fear not to meet you, but by strategem, ambush, and midnight surprisal.

I am lord in my own land, and will never become a slave of a mortal like myself. Vile and coward is he who will submit to the yoke of another when he may be free. As for me and my people, we choose death--yes! a hundred deaths--before the loss of our liberty and the subjegation of our country.

Keep on, robbers and traitors: in Acuera and Apalachee we will treat you as you deserve. Every captive will we quarter and hang up to the highest tree along the road.

Acuera of the Timucua people c. 1540

A few letters from the Puritans. I read a 1630 letter from John Winthrop to his wife Margaret, who was still in England, telling her how the Massachusetts Bay Colony was getting along in its first weeks. It was quite nice to see that they had agreed to "seek spiritual communion" with each other on Mondays and Wednesdays.

I read an interesting letter from Roger Williams, an exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who established Rhode Island as a religiously tolerant society. He wrote to the town of Providence in 1655, giving his views on the subject--evidently not everyone agreed with his radical idea.

There was also a rather awful 1692 letter from Cotton Mather to his uncle, discussing some local witch trials and an earthquake in Jamaica.

I've also been trying to read one of the earliest recorded sermons from Plimouth colony, given by one Robert Cushman in 1621. The introduction is quite interesting, talking about the situation in America and expressing some intriguing ideas about the future of Christianity in the new country. The actual sermon, though, is quite long and dull, and a powerful reminder of the fact that Puritans habitually heard preaching for hours at a time on Sundays. I don't know if I'll manage to finish it.

Several people have told me that they don't know where to start in order to find primary sources to read. My first suggestion is to ask at your friendly neighborhood public library! The librarian will be more than happy to show you what's there, and any library will be sure to have something. You can also look at the links to online collections I have put up at the top right corner; there is a vast amount there and it's fairly easy to navigate.

Here are some book titles with relevant content you may be able to find at your library:

The Annals of America is a huge collection of primary sources in American history, arranged chronologically--it's published by the Britannica folks. Just grab a volume and page through it!

Letters of a Nation is a collection of American letters, arranged by topic and chronologically.

The Great Speeches of Native Americans I mentioned above is a great resource.

The Library of America collection is a great resource, but doesn't really get started until the Revolutionary era. American Sermons contains several important colonial texts, though.

I hope those titles will be helpful.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Monthly Themes

OK, now we're looking good! Alicia Dimmitt of Blogs and Blings did me a huge favor and designed this background for me. I think I owe her cookies.

A few people have suggested to me that it might be nice to have monthly themes, to give us some direction and make it easier to discuss what we read. I had a difficult time dividing things up into 12 units, and I'm probably the wrong person to do that since the whole point of this project is that I need to learn more about American history. But here are my divisions, and if you hate them, please suggest improvements. Or weigh in on the whole theme idea.

Colonial period: pre-1770
Revolutionary era: 1750-1789
Federalist period: 1789-1815
Jacksonian era: 1815-1850
Civil war era: 1850-1865
Westward Expansion
Gilded Age/Immigration
World War I/Prohibition era: 1914-1929
The Great Depression: 1930's
World War II
Cold War/post-1950

I could spend a little time gathering reading suggestions for each month, if that would prove helpful.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Welcome to the American Primary Sources Challenge

The goal of this challenge is to get us all a little more educated in American history by reading primary sources. The rules:

1. The challenge will run from July 4, 2010 to July 2, 2011.

2. Participants may join in at any time. Comment on this post to join.

3. Each participant will read a primary source document weekly (if it's really long, feel free to work in weekly chapters or segments). The weeks will start on Sundays.

4. If you're not American but want to participate, read your country's historical documents!

5. I'll put up a weekly post telling what I've read. You can leave a comment telling about what you read. I'd love to have discussions.

American history has always been one of my worst subjects. I hardly studied it in school, and didn't read much after that. I always mean to read the Federalist papers or Lincoln's speeches, it just never happens. But if I have a challenge to live up to, I think I'll get much closer to learning something about my country--so here we are.

We are not going to be reading history books here, though. We are going to read primary sources--texts produced in the time we are studying. (If you are studying Eleanor Roosevelt, a letter from her is a primary source; a biography of her life is a secondary source.) You may read diaries, news accounts, letters, oral narratives, poems, sermons, essays, speeches, folksongs, almost anything. And you may study anyone or any time period in American history. I plan to try to move fairly chronologically, but it won't be all that rigid.

On the side menu, you will find a few links to massive collections of every sort of American historical texts you could desire. Between those and your friendly neighborhood public library, I think we can all educate ourselves for nothing. Join me!

I'm still getting up and running, so the look of this place will improve considerably over the next week or so. I'll have a button to put up too. Thanks for your patience.