Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Historians Who Don't Know Their History

So, one of the books that made its way onto the go-away pile is the biography of James Monroe [2005], part of the 'American Presidents' series overseen by Arthur M. Schlesinger (Jr). I read several of these, feeling that I didn't know enough about several of our early presidents and being attracted by the fact that Garry Wills wrote the volume on Madison (which was excellent*), and that the whole was being overseen by Schlesinger (whose work, or what little I've read of it, is also both readable and impressive). Alas, the volume on Monroe was written by former senator Gary Hart, who I always thought wd have made a pretty good president (certainly better than Bush Sr. or Reagan) had he been able to exercise some self-control. But now, reading his book, I've come to doubt it. For one thing, he doesn't seem to know a whole lot about Monroe (as opposed to Wills, who knows an enormous amount about Madison). For another, a lot of what he argues isn't v. convincing -- e.g., his main theme that General Monroe was the first U. S. president to devote himself to national defense as his first priority (has there ever been a president who didn't obsess over national defense?).  Even more egregious is his claim that "Monroe . . . laid a groundwork for homeland security that would guarantee that no Americans would die on American soil from a foreign attack. That is, until September 11, 2001." (p. 82)

So much for "Remember Pearl Harbor"!

And, in a separate incident, a few days ago I was reading through the Kent paper and saw an announcement for an event held on Jan. 24th, the title of which was "The Life of Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1869".

Now, this might just be an example of the announcement gets Lincoln's dates wrong.** Twice. The event itself might have been a good one (speaker, discussion, visual aids) and I really ought to get down to the Kent museum one of these days. And it's timely, too, what with renewed interest in A.L. these days thanks to the Day-Lewis movie. But it's amazing what an effect little slips like that have.

--John R., who's been known to make egregious slips myself ("Gower").

*among other things, it completely undercuts the 'originist' or 'founders' intent' school of constitutional interpretation.

**he died in 1865.

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