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Lynne Cheney is a very gifted writer. She is, of course, the “2nd Lady” (wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney). But she is also a distinguished scholar with impressive credentials, including a Ph.D. in British Literature. She served as the Chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993 and is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Over the past six years she has published a series of very good children’s books on topics in American history.

I think the two best are Washington (published in 2004), and We the People, which just came out this month.

When Washington Crossed the Delaware is subtitled “A Wintertime Story for Young Patriots.” With a clear, direct narrative, Ms. Cheney sets the scene of the beleaguered American army which had been driven from New York and forced to retreat through New Jersey into Pennsylvania. She talks about how desperately the Americans needed a victory – in order to give everyone some hope that they could eventually defeat the British. She mentions Tom Paine, who marched with the American army as they retreated through New Jersey and includes the famous line he composed on the march, “These are the times that try men’s souls. . .”

The paintings that accompany Ms. Cheney’s text are wonderful. The illustrator was able to visit the site of the crossing, consult with local historians and witness a winter re-enactment of the crossing. The attention to detail shows. You can feel the cold. Your eye is involuntarily drawn to the figure of Washington, warming himself by a fire on the New Jersey shore of the river.

After the army is assembled, you can see Washington’s impatience and determination as they set out towards the Hessians soldiers who have occupied Trenton. He had hoped to attack before sunup, but now would be attacking shortly after dawn. The narrative mentions that both 19-year-old Captain Alexander Hamilton, and 18-year-old Lieutenant James Monroe took part in the crossing and the attack on Trenton. Monroe was badly wounded leading a charge against the Hessians, when they managed to get two of their cannon into operation. Hamilton went on to be a signer of the US Constitution and served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington. Monroe would be elected our fifth President in 1808.

Following the surrender of the Hessians at Trenton, Washington continued his offensive by launching an attack on the British regulars a few miles northeast of Trenton at Princeton. In that battle, Washington personally rallied his troops and led them to within thirty yards of the British lines. It is miraculous that he survived the volleys of musket fire, but when the British line broke, he joined in the pursuit.

The twin victories at Trenton and Princeton lifted the spirits of the Continental Army and patriots throughout the colonies. For the first time, the American army had defeated British regulars (and German mercenaries) on the field of battle. There would be many more battles and several years of trials, but the character and commitment of General Washington were brilliantly displayed.

Perhaps the best part of this book is that although it is pitched towards elementary students, the story will appeal just as much to older students. First graders will be captivated by the full-page color illustrations and enjoy having the text read to them. Third/Fourth graders will probably be able to read it for themselves. Each two-page spread includes a quotation from an eyewitness/participant in the battle.

When Washington Crossed the Delaware
is a hardback, 40 pages, and is available for $16.95, directly from Greenleaf Press.

– Rob Shearer, Publisher
Greenleaf Press

PS: You have to love the picture of Lynn Cheney with a group of students on the back cover!

PPS: I’ll have a complete review of We the People in another newsletter.

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Two wonderful examples of the principle that history is best taught through biography just came across my desk. The first is a collection of 56 short sketches of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The second (by the same author) has short biographies of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution. More details below:

signersThe Signers by Dennis Brindell Fradin

The 56 men who dared to sign their names to this revolutionary document knew they were putting their reputations, their fortunes, and their very lives on the line by boldly and publicly declaring their support for liberty and freedom. As Benjamin Franklin said as he signed his name, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately!”

Many of the names are familiar: John Hancock and John Adams of Massachusetts, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, for example. But many of the other 53 have been largely forgotten. This book is an excellent example of the principle that all good history is based on biography. Reading the varied stories of these men’s lives communicates more about the character and lives of the colonists than any textbook. They are presented here in an even-handed fashion, with frank acknowledgment of the difficulties faced by some, especially after the War for Independence was concluded. Several made costly financial mistakes which reduced them to poverty and, in one case, debtor’s prison. But many went on to live rich lives with families, most serving in a variety of positions with state and local government.

The biographies are arranged by state, and a brief profile of each state is provided, along with summary statistics on the wives, children, and death dates of each of the signers.

This is an excellent way to study the Declaration of Independence and the War for Independence. The text is easily accessible to upper elementary students and will be an interesting read for students all the way through high school. I learned a number of fascinating details which I had not known before.

The signers were profiled in several biographical collections from the mid-1800’s, including the volume by Benson J. Lossing written in 1848 and reprinted by Wallbuilders in a facsimile edition. That volume is an important one, and worth reading, but written very much in a mid-Victorian style and tone. It has a tendency to baptize as many of the signers as possible and ignore or obscure even their smallest failings.

This 2003 volume probably does not give enough attention to the faith of the Signers, but it never challenges or denigrates it. All in all, this is a very valuable book, well worth reading.

foundersThe Founders by Dennis Brindell Fradin

Which signer of the Constitution (from a small state) said (to the large state representatives): “I do not, Gentleman, trust you.”

Starting with the delegates from Delaware, who played a critical role in resolving the impasse between the small states and the large states, this collections of biographies is a tremendous help in understanding the history of the writing of the US Constitution. Like their companion volume on the Signers, Fradin and McCurdy give us clear, sober pictures of the 39 men whose signatures are on the federal charter. This is a very valuable resource.

I can’t resist tempting you with a few provocative questions:

George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both signed, but so did 37 others. Do you know who the last surviving signer of the Constitution was, and when he died?

Who represented Rhode Island at the Constitutional Convention? (answer: no one, they feared being absorbed by the larger states and boycotted the convention. Rhode Island also held out on ratifying the Constitution, becoming the last of the 13 colonies to do so in May of 1790 – which was more than a year after George Washington’s inauguration as the first President!

Once again, a book that proves the value of biography in studying history!

– Rob Shearer
Publisher, Greenleaf Press
Directory, Schaeffer Study Center

Patrick HenryAside from the fact that the title has a marvelously poetic rhythm to it, this is a thoroughly delightful classic children’s biography by an accomplished children’s author. Jean Fritz has written dozens of biographies and a number of very good works of historical fiction. Although its been in print for quite a while, this biography of Patrick Henry remains one of her best.

May 29th is Patrick Henry’s birthday and the “hook” on which she hangs her narrative. She begins by describing what life was like in Hannover County, Virginia in 1736, the year that Patrick was born (four years after the birth of George Washington). She describes his childhood (much time devoted to hunting, fishing, and exploring the wild Virginia forest), his education (taught at home by his father, who had a university degree), and tells some amusing anecdotes remembered by his friends (he was fond of dunking them in the creek by tipping over their canoe!).

Fritz describes Patrick’s improbable introduction to the practice of the law. As a young newlywed in his 20’s, he was helping his father-in-law run an Inn and Tavern. Most of their business came from the quarterly sessions of the county court which Patrick found a fascinating source of entertainment. At 24, he decided that he would like to try his hand at lawyering. This isn’t as improbable as it sounds. Henry was a serious intellect and once the subject of law caught his interest, he applied himself rigorously to mastering it. After “reading the law” for a year, he passed an oral examination by three lawyers in Williamsburg and was licensed to practice in the colonial courts.

Fritz then describes the first big case that established Henry’s reputation as a gifted orator and a legal mind to be reckoned with: the “Parson’s Case” of 1763. A group of Virginia parsons appealed a Virginia colonial law which converted the obligations of their parishioners from payment in tobacco to payment in cash. When the price of tobacco tripled, the Parsons felt they had been cheated and they appealed to the King of England. The King obliged them by vetoing the Virginia law and ordering the colonials to pay up. The Parsons then sued their parishioners for damages and back pay. Patrick Henry, age 27, took the case of the parishioners. Here’s Fritz’s description of what happened at the trial:

“Patrick Henry straightened up, he threw back his head, and sent his voice out in anger. How did the king know how much Virginians could pay their parsons? he asked. What right did he have to interfere? . . . The crowd sat transfixed . . . He talked for an hour. What about the parsons? he asked. Were they feeding the hungry and clothing the naked as the Scriptures told them to? No, he said. They were getting the king’s permission to grab the last hoecake from the honest farmer, to take the milk cow from the poor widow.”

The jury awarded the Parsons damages and back pay – but set the amount at one penny for each Parson.

Two years later, age 29, Patrick Henry was elected to the House of Burgesses, the legislature of the colony of Virginia. His first speech was a denunciation of King George and Parliament’s imposition of the Stamp Act – taxes on the colonies, imposed without their consultation or consent. He denounced the King in such strong language, that the king’s defenders rose to their feet and shouted, “Treason!” Patrick Henry’s reply was, “If this be treason, make the most of it!”

Ten years later, in 1775, age 39, Patrick Henry delivered his most famous speech. Henry had had enough of the King’s treatment of the colonists. He perceived correctly, that the King had already dispatched troops from England to force the colonists to pay the taxes he demanded.

“Gentlemen may cry peace, peace,” he thundered, “but there is no peace. . . Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Patrick bowed his body and locked his hands together as if he, himself were in chains. Then suddenly he raised his chained hands over his head. “Forbid it, Almighty God!” he cried. “I know not what course others may take but as for me –” Patrick dropped his arms, threw back his body and strained against his imaginary chains until the tendons of his neck stood out like whipcords and the chains seemed to break. Then he raised his right hand in which he held an ivory letter opener. “As for me,” he cried, “give me Liberty or give me Death!” And he plunged the letter opener in such a way as it looked as if he were plunging it into his heart.”

Dramatic, no? The crowd went wild.

Virginians responded by electing Patrick Henry to be their governor for five consecutive terms. He was succeeded by Thomas Jefferson.

Patrick Henry went on to oppose ratification of the Federal Constitution in 1788 because it lacked a Bill of Rights.

He retired from politics in 1796 at the age of 60. I LOVE Fritz’s description of Henry’s life after politics:

“He lived just as he liked to live — knee-deep in dogs and children. Dorothea added eleven children to the family and, of course, by this time there were grandchildren too. Patrick encouraged all of them to go barefoot. He didn’t like to see children in shoes until they were six or seven years old and he believed that, if possible, they should avoid the inside of a schoolhouse until they were twelve. Nature, itself, was the best teacher, he said, and in his old age, as in his younger years, he took every opportunity to enjoy it. Come a nice spring day and Patrick Henry might be off to the wood, one child in the saddle before him and one behind. Or he might be walking down to the river, trailed by a string of children and dogs. Or he might be simply sitting in the shade of the huge old orange osage tree that spread its branches over most of the front lawn. He’d have some children with him, or course; his fiddle would be handy, and beside him would be a bucket of cool spring water with a gourd for drinking.”

This is a delightful book. A wonderful biography of a true American original. Patrick Henry, Virginia gentleman.

You can order the book directly from Greenleaf Press by clicking here.

-Rob Shearer,
Director, Schaeffer Study Center
Publisher, Greenleaf Press

Professors and practitioners of history will tell you that the only way to really understand historical events or historical figures is to read original sources. If you want to know about Luther or Lincoln, your best course of action is to read what they wrote – unfiltered if possible, in the original editions if you can, and in their own handwriting best of all.

Part of my lifelong fascination with Martin Luther came from the marvelous year I spent poking around in the archives of the State of Hesse in Germany, where many of Luther’s letters are preserved. Holding in my hands a stack of letters written by Luther made the Reformation real in a way that nothing else ever could.

Two unique books appeared this year which skillfully incorporate the benefits of tangible, original documents. The first is Lincoln: The Presidential Archives. The second is David McCullough’s 1776: The Illustrated Edition.

Lincoln archivesThe new Lincoln book is the one that came to my attention first. It was published in September of this year. Chuck Wills is an accomplished author and he does an excellent job outlining Lincoln’s life and political career in nine chapters. The text is interspersed with hundreds of photographs and shots of newspaper headlines and front pages. But what really sets this book apart is the inclusion of facsimile reproductions of original documents. About a dozen are included, each Lincoln archives interioron a tinted separate heavy-stock sheet slipped into a translucent pocket at the appropriate place in the books narrative. With the chapter discussing Lincoln’s boyhood and education, there is a reproduction of a page from his “sum book.” In the chapter on his marriage and young family, there is a reproduction of his marriage license to Mary Todd. In each case, holding an original document (even it is only a well-crafted facsimile) makes the historical account richer, nearer, more tangible and provokes a more visceral, emotional response. It makes Lincoln much more real, much less abstract. The text is written on an adult level (though certainly not too advanced for high school students), and many students will need some help in absorbing and understanding the historical documents, but I can’t think of a better way to introduce students to the raw materials of history and historical research. For anyone with a historical sense of who Lincoln was (and the text and photographs will give it to you), seeing a flyer for a play at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and then seeing the “wanted” poster issued in the manhunt for Lincoln’s assassins produces a profound effect. For anyone with an interest in Lincoln, I highly recommend this book – especially if your students have an interest in understanding how historians conduct their research. Note: 2008 will be the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. I know its a cliche to study Lincoln around President’s Day, but 2008 will be a special year. Here’s a list of the historical, facsimile documents included in the book:

  • a leaf from Lincoln’s string-bound childhood sum book
  • Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s marriage license, 1842
  • Patent application submitted by Lincoln in 1849
  • 1860 campaign banner for the Republican ticket
  • First letter carried over the plains by the Pony Express with the news “Lincoln elected,” November 8, 1860.
  • Letter from Mary Todd to Abraham sent during her tour of New England in the fall of 1862
  • Lincoln’s original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863
  • Telegram from New York City to Lincoln with news of the Draft Riot, July 13, 1863
  • Telegram from Sherman to Lincoln presenting him with Savannah as a “Christmas gift,” December 25, 1864
  • Telegram from Lincoln to Grant encouraging him, February 1, 1865
  • Poster advertising “Our American Cousin” to be performed at Ford’s Theater April 14, 1865
  • Broadside offering rewards for the capture of Lincoln’s assassins

Click on the books title, Lincoln: The Presidential Archives, here or in the text above to order directly from Greenleaf Press. The price is $40.
1776The second book of this type is 1776: The Illustrated Edition by David McCullough, just released from the publisher this October. I LOVED this book when it first came out. The narrative focuses on a single year and takes us month by month, week by week, often day by day through the events of the remarkable year. McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. He’s a brilliant writer and historian. His historical books read almost like novels and are perfect examples of the importance of the maxim, “above all, tell a good story.” With a new introduction by David McCullough, 1776: The Illustrated Edition brings 140 powerful images and 37 removable replicas of source documents to this remarkable drama.

1776bIn 1776, David McCullough told the story of the greatest defeats, providential fortune, and courageous triumphs of George Washington and his bedraggled army. In 1776: The Illustrated Edition, the efforts of the Continental Army are made even more personal, as an excerpted version of the original book is paired with letters, maps, and seminal artwork. More than three dozen source documents — including a personal letter George Washington penned to Martha about his commission, a note informing the mother of a Continental soldier that her son has been taken prisoner, and a petition signed by Loyalists pledging their allegiance to the King — are re-created in uniquely designed envelopes throughout the book and secured with the congressional seal.

Both a distinctive art book and a collectible archive, 1776: The Illustrated Edition combines a treasury of eighteenth-century paintings, sketches, documents, and maps with storytelling by our nation’s preeminent historian. Like the Lincoln book, the inclusion of facsimile originals makes everything much more real. For your students, the original sources are a way to help them understand the rich reality of the past. For any history buffs among your family and friends, this would make an excellent gift. The hardcover, slipcased edition with source documents is $65, but worth every penny. Click the title anywhere in the review to order direct from Greenleaf.

– Rob Shearer
Director, Schaeffer Study Center
Publisher, Greenleaf Press

War for Americaby Piers Mackesy

I’m not sure exactly why I picked this book up recently, but I’m awfully glad I did. It was orginally  published in 1964 and then reissued in papeback by the University of Nebraska in 1993 – the copy I picked up from the sale table (in excellent condition) is apparently from the first print run – the book must have had a charmed life in its warehouse and retail odyssey.

Short version: an account of the American Revolutionary War from the British perspective.

Long version: the war for American Independence was a global, difficult, frustrating, maddening conflict. Complicated beyond belief for the British due to the difficulties of communication — with her far-flung outposts in America, the Carribbean, Gibraltar and India.

Surprise insight: The details of a navy dependent on winds and sails must be grasped if one is to understand how the events of the American Revolution unfolded. The British Army in the colonies (as well as elsewhere around the world) was totally dependent for supplies, transport and artillery support upon the British Navy’s command of the seas. Which is why the intervention of the French fleet in the conflict in 1781 was decisive. When the British Navy lost supremacy in the Caribbean and then in the Atlantic off Chesapeake Bay, disaster ensued.

Given the impossible burden of communcation and supply by sailing ships, it is a wonder that the British were able to hold out at all. Intervention by the French in the conflict was foreseeable, perhaps inevitable. When the Spanish Bourbons joined the French Bourbons, England was in trouble. When domestic unrest, first in Ireland, then in England itself broke out, the position of the crown became almost desperate. When the Dutch went from ally to enemy and a credible threat to invade England developed in the summer of 1779, it suddenly dawned on me why we were able to trap the small detachment of British army regulars at Yorktown in 1781 and force their surrender. The British were more than a little distracted. And all this time, I thought Washington and the continental army had out-generaled the entire British army – with just a little bit of help from some French volunteers.

That, of course, is an excellent illustration of the problem of bias in historical accounts. American textbook accounts of the American Revolution keep the spotlight exclusively on the Americans.

The reasons for the French intervention require some understanding of both the Seven Years War (known to us as the French and Indian War) 1756-1763 and of the longer Second Hundred Years War which involved global conflict between French and British colonial empires around the world (see my earlier post on all the world wars).

Final, intriguing lesson from Professor Mackesy: The extreme difficulty experienced by the British Army in restoring civil authority in the rebellious colonies. They could almost always defeat the Continental Army (and always defeated the Colonial Militia), but they could never establish control of the colonies they conquered and re-conquered. As an example, here is Mackesy’s description of the Continental commander in the South, Nathaniel Greene:

As long as Green’s army survived, a seeminly inexhaustible supply of militia rallied to it on the battlefield, while irregulars roamed the British foraging areas and terrorised the loyalists. Decisive vicyory could have broken the cycle. So might the weariness and exhaustion of the rebel militia, if the British army remained in being. But from indecisive victories, the British regiments could never recover. Nearly six years earlier [British General[ Murray had prophesied the danger: ‘if the business is to be decided by numbers, the enemy’s plan should be to lose a battle with you every week, until you are reduced to nothing.’

In the end, this is largely what happened.

Rob Shearer
    director, Schaeffer Study Center

postscript: for another recent, intriguing review, see Tom Donnelly’s review of Mackesy in the September 2006 Armed Forces Journal.