Kenneth Davis continues an enterprise begun in his bestselling America’s Hidden History: dispelling historical myths. He does so in a simple, direct way by unearthing factual events concerning white male figures from history, then narrating a version of those events. The stories he tells are engagingly colorful. There is little analysis; but there doesn’t need to be an in-depth thesis to accomplish his task. One reads a “this is what happened” approach to history; the superficialities of an affair told with excitement. His main theme is that the people whom we are supposed to idolize as heroic founders or leaders are flawed human beings, and sometimes actually pernicious human beings. It may not be sophisticated, but it is supported by the evidence he presents and can be an eye-opening experience if one has been taught to revere and mythologize our ancestors.
This particular project examines figures who lived between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Davis’s method is to open a chapter with a stirring incident; then connect that incident to a larger issue. He begins with the arrest of Aaron Burr, then explores the patriot’s checkered career culminating, with his alleged plans to raise a private army, invade Spanish territories, and set himself up as Governor or President. The historian moves on to “Weatherford’s War,” where the Massacre at Fort Mims launches a theme that becomes central to the book: the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans by white settlers and leaders. Davis does not idealize the Native Americans either. The author describes native massacres of whites with the same truthfulness that applies to white massacres of natives. In this section he also exposes the racist, bloody character of President Andrew Jackson in his dealings with slaves and Native Americans. The next chapter, “Madison’s Mutiny,” begins with a successful slave revolt led by Madison Washington on a slave ship that ended in freedom on the Bahamas. It provides a jumping-off point to illustrate slave ship mutinies and plantation revolts prior to the Civil War, in addition to presenting the revolution in Haiti. “Dade’s Promise,” the following chapter, describes the ambush of Major Francis Dade’s infantry in Florida. The event is then used as a way in to a discussion of The Second Seminole war, more on the culpability of US presidents (Jackson, Van Buren and war “hero” Zachary Taylor), and an interesting introduction of the sub-culture of “maroons” (escaped slaves who created hidden communities in Florida that cooperated with Native tribes). “Morse’s Code” focuses upon the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia and the associated screeds of inventor, Samuel Morse. It follows-up with the development of the nativist parties and organizations, connecting their anti-Catholic prejudices to those faced by John F. Kennedy when he ran for the presidency. After all of the blood and tears, Davis ends in nightly news fashion, with a human interest story. In “Jesse’s Journey” he portrays the difficulties overcome by Jesse Fremont as she travels from New York to San Francisco, to meet-up with her husband, the explorer John C. Fremont. Jesse later became famous in her own right as a writer. But the story is inserted largely because women have been ignored throughout the volume during its presentation of flawed white men.
Non-fiction readers will find in Davis something unusual: a light read that is also informative. There are no challenging theories; only myth-challenging narratives. Books like this are an antidote to the indoctrination one experiences in public school history classes. The goal of those institutions is to tell acceptable stories that produce patriotic citizens; not questioning minds. By revisiting US history (or any history) with a more skeptical eye, we are able to correct misperceptions of our past that occurred on the way to adulthood. Some critics feel that this form of education weakens the United States by cracking the perceived foundations of our country. On the contrary. Informed, intelligent citizens have a greater possibility of making unique, thoughtful contributions to our nation than do indoctrinated drones. It is more important to inspire a future of invention and possibility than to preserve a past of fable.
Davis, Kenneth C. A Nation Rising. Untold Tales of Flawed Founders, Fallen Heroes, and Forgotten Fighters from America’s Hidden History. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.