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Documenting America: Lessons from the United States' Historical Documents

Documenting America: Lessons from the United States' Historical Documents

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Documenting America: Lessons from the United States' Historical Documents

194 pagine
2 ore
Jul 28, 2011


The United States is rich in documents, many which remain in obscurity, but which contain valuable information about the formation of this nation, while at the same time contain lessons for where we are right now. In Documenting America,a number of these documents are quoted in large blocks, the importance of the document explained, and relevancy for America shown. The documents selected cover the 18th and 19th centuries. The colonial era, the run up to Independence, the formative years, and the rise to the beginning of being a great world power are all herein.

Documents from the following historical persons are included: James Otis, Carl Schurz, John Jay, George Washington, Robert Rantoul, David Davis, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Cabot Lodge, William H. Seward, John Urmstone, William Bradford, Matthew Carey, Moses Austin, John C. Calhoun.

Jul 28, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

David Todd is a civil engineer by profession (37 years), a genealogist by avocation, an environmentalist by choice, and a writer by passion. He grew up in Rhode Island, where he attended public schools in Cranston and then the University of Rhode Island. In his adult life he has lived in Kansas City, Saudi Arabia, Asheboro North Carolina, Kuwait, and now northwest Arkansas since 1991. Along the way he acquired a love for history and poetry.He currently works at CEI Engineering Associates, Inc. in Bentonville, Arkansas. He is Corporate Trainer for Engineering, which includes planning and conducting training classes and mentoring younger staff. He is the senior engineer at the company, and hence gets called on to do the more difficult projects that most of the younger engineers don't feel confident to tackle. He has recently worked on a number of floodplain studies and mapping projects. He is a registered engineer in three states, a Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control, and a Certified Construction Specifier (certification lapsed).He has been actively pursuing genealogy for fifteen years, having done much to document his and his wife's ancestry and family history. He has been writing creatively for eleven years.

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Documenting America - David Todd



The United States is rich in documents. As a nation, we were formed relatively recently, well into the movable type era, when it became less expensive to create printed pages. Paper was getting cheaper. Ink was getting cheaper. Printing presses proliferated, and the cost came down. People wrote. Governments generated paper trails. Courts rendered lengthy decisions that were printed.

At the same time, the delivery of mail became more reliable and sending letters more affordable. With paper and ink less expensive, people wrote letters. And the recipients saved them. And years later someone collected them and, with those many printing presses about, printed them into volumes.

We have been relatively free of the forces that tend to destroy documents. War has barely touched our land, compared to what has happened in Europe and other places.

By documents I mean any original, paper item that had an effect on the nation: shaping policy, driving culture, improving intellect, establishing and then changing our society. Subjects could be government, education, politics, religion, social issues, and more. These might be official government documents, but not exclusively so. They are works of politicians—speeches and letters. They are works of clergymen. Political pamphlets and newspapers come to mind. Court decisions, both majority and minority reports, are certainly part of this.

And I’m not thinking of the well-known documents. The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Gettysburg Address, Washington’s Second Inaugural Address—these are so well-known and studied that I don’t want to repeat them. So I’m thinking of those documents on lower tiers of our historical consciousness. They are important. Historians consider them, but they seldom receive much direct attention from those who are not professional historians.

I am not a professional historian. I have no more training in history beyond basic elementary, secondary, and university history classes. I have, however, remained a student of history throughout my life, more so the older I get. Maybe that’s good. I take these historical documents at face value. Perhaps I’m less able than would be a professional historian to evaluate them in terms of their importance at the time they were created and made available to the public. But then, perhaps I am more susceptible to the wow factor. I look at something like Thomas Jefferson’s July 12, 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval (Chapters 19, 20, and 21) and say Wow! The United States Congress needs to reread this right now and learn from it. Or I read Carl Shurz’s speech to the Massachusetts legislature on April 19, 1859 (Chapters 3 and 4) and say Wow! How come I was never made to read this for a history class?

Look at any history book. It’s analysis. It’s filtering. It’s an interpretation of history, not just presentation of the facts. Someone else has done the work of reading original documents, deciding which are important for the student or citizen, and interprets them. Later history book writers may go back to the source documents, or they may look only at the previously written history book, making the new book a derivative work, further removed from the source materials, with new opinions derived from previous opinions.

None of this is wrong. We need these types of books. It’s an approach, and in the right circumstances is the right approach, due to the sheer mass of documents to be found, read, cross-checked, and understood.

After all, this book does the same thing. I take a handful of original documents, take excepts from them, suggest something you should pay special attention to, and claim it can somehow guide this nation today. It’s distillation and interpretation, in part by what I select and in part by what I conclude and suggest.

My goal, however, is to spur you to find and read the original documents. That’s why I give a good-sized quote from the originals and not too many more of my own words. If you read this book, but don’t seek out and read the originals, I will have failed in my main goal.

We need not fear the source documents. They are not that difficult to read, especially when a modernized text (modern spelling, punctuation, and paragraphs) is available. C.S. Lewis spoke about this.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. …Now this seems topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. [Introduction to St. Athanasius ‘On The Incarnation’]

In general I indicate which document I’m quoting, but don’t always give where you can find it. This is true for the documents by the better known people in our history. All of these documents are easily findable in the Information Age. Source citation purists will not like this. But to me, whether you find a document at the Library of Congress website in a scan of an original, handwritten letter, or whether you find a scanned book of someone’s collected works, or of a magazine or a political pamphlet, or whether you find a transcription somewhere, matters not. Find the document. Read the full work. Absorb what it says. Understand how it might have contributed to the United States’ development. Apply it to today.

I did not have a road map in mind as I selected documents for including in this book. I started with James Otis’ argument against the Writs of Assistance, a document I found fascinating, and went on from there. Now that the book is together, I can see that I have over-weighted the period from 1783 to 1820, formative years for the new nation. This wasn’t intentional, but perhaps is an indication of my interests as I pulled things together for this book.

For the most part the text is modernized. Spelling is changed to what we use today; not always, however. Punctuation is changed a little. During the era when many of these documents were written they tended to use commas as breath marks, rather than merely to set off subordinate clauses or items in lists. Those extraneous commas are mostly kept. Modern practice for paragraph divisions tends to be as much for ease of reading as for changes in subject matter. I’ve kind of split the difference between those two. Often in the old documents they tended to capitalize important nouns in the middle of sentences. When I have thought to, I’ve kept those. My modernizing of the text is not rigorously applied. Mostly I modernize, but you will find a few occasions when I have not.

So jump in and enjoy this journey into a few of America’s documents.

Chapter 1

The Only Principles of Public Conduct

James Otis, 1761

Before the British colonies in America had their revolution, relationships between colonial leaders and British officials were strained. America was now populated mostly by people who had never set foot in England. Some were fourth and fifth generation Americans. It was inevitable that the two lands would move toward separation. But when did it begin? The opening salvo may have been fired by James Otis fifteen years before independence was declared.

I was desired by the Court to look into the books and consider the question now before them concerning Writs of Assistance." I have accordingly considered it, and now appear not only in obedience to your order but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town who have presented another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. …I will to my dying day oppose with all the powers and faculties God has given me all such instruments of slavery on the one hand and villainy on the other as this Writ of Assistance is.

"I was solicited to argue this cause as advocate general, and because I would not, I have been charged with desertion from my office. To this charge I can give a very sufficient answer. I renounced that office, and I argue this cause for the same principle and I argue it with the greater pleasure, as it is in favor of British liberty, at a time when we hear the greatest monarch upon earth declaring from his throne that he glories in the name of Britain, and that the privileges of his people are dearer to him than the most valuable prerogatives of his Crown, and it is in opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which, in former periods of history, cost one king of England his head and another his throne. I have taken more pain in this cause than I will ever take again, although my engaging in this…has raised much resentment. But I think I can sincerely declare that I cheerfully submit myself to every odious name for conscience’s sake, and from my soul I despise those whose guilt, malice, or folly has made them my foes. Let the consequences be what they will, I am determined to proceed. The only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a…man are to sacrifice estate, ease, health, and applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of his country.

These…sentiments in private life make the good citizen; in public life the patriot and the hero. I do not say that when brought to the test I shall be invincible. I pray God I may never be brought to the melancholy trial, but if ever I should, it will then be known how far I can reduce to practice these principles which I know to be founded in truth.

[James Otis, arguing against the Writs of Assistance before the court in Boston, 1761]

Oh my: It almost doesn’t matter what the issue at hand was. What stirring words these are, spoken at the outset of colonial resistance to the tyranny of Parliament and King George III. If this was covered in my history classes about four decades ago, I missed it.

Anyone want to define patriotism? How about good citizenship? Otis has done it as well as anyone could, I think. The patriot and good citizen holds to the only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a man: to sacrifice estate, ease, health, and applause, and even life, to the good of his country.

It was February 1761. Parliament had passed the Writs of Assistance, which were blanket search warrants intended to more rigorously enforce the Navigation Acts in North America. Many in Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the Colonies, saw this as an illegal law, one that ran counter to the English constitution. Otis should have argued the case for the Crown, given his position, but instead took up the argument against this before the Superior Court in Boston. This defense made Otis a marked man in England, and, perhaps more than any other American at that time, he was denounced in Parliament and the British press.

Prior to discussing the legal merits of the Writs, he stated the reasons why he could not argue the case for the government, and so gave up his position. Otis’ convictions are impressive, but so must have been the preparations he made in his life to take his stand. He was able to say that he was arguing principles which I know to be founded in truth. Not I hope, or I think, or I pray, but I know. Years of study and practice and development of a philosophy of citizenship must have passed to give him confidence to do this. He didn’t search the web one day and make his argument the next.

Impressive as that is, his modesty is more so. Knowing he was in the right, he still feared he would not be up to following through with the task. So he publicly asked God that he would not be tested, but if he were, it will then be known how far I can reduce to practice principles I know to be founded in truth.

His words inspire. I renounced that office…. "Let the consequences fall

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