In To America, Stephen E. Ambrose, one of the country's most influential historians, reflects on his long career as an American historian and explains what an historian's job is all about. He celebrates America's spirit, which has carried us so far. He confronts its failures and struggles. As always in his much acclaimed work, Ambrose brings alive the men and women, famous and not, who have peopled our history and made the United States a model for the world.
Taking a few swings at today's political correctness, as well as his own early biases, Ambrose grapples with the country's historic sins of racism, its neglect and ill treatment of Native Americans, and its tragic errors (such as the war in Vietnam, which he ardently opposed on campus, where he was a professor). He reflects on some of the country's early founders who were progressive thinkers while living a contradiction as slaveholders, great men such as Washington and Jefferson. He contemplates the genius of Andrew Jackson's defeat of a vastly superior British force with a ragtag army in the War of 1812. He describes the grueling journey that Lewis and Clark made to open up the country, and the building of the railroad that joined it and produced great riches for a few barons.
Ambrose explains the misunderstood presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, records the country's assumption of world power under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, and extols its heroic victory of World War II. He writes about women's rights and civil rights and immigration, founding museums, and nation- building. He contrasts the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Throughout, Ambrose celebrates the unflappable American spirit.
Most important, Ambrose writes about writing history. "The last five letters of the word 'history' tell us that it is an account of the past that is about people and what they did, which is what makes it the most fascinating of subjects."
To America is an instant classic for all those interested in history, patriotism, and the love of writing.
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Simon & Schuster
November 13, 2002
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Excerpt from To America by Stephen E. Ambrose
Ulysses S. Grant was the most popular American of the nineteenth century, both at home and abroad. According to historian Geoffrey Perret he was even more popular than Abraham Lincoln. As no one held a plebiscite during the century, it cannot be proved. And what about Jefferson Jackson Or, my wife insists, Mark Twain
To the people of the nineteenth century, Grant was the only Union general who beat Robert E. Lee, so he was the Man Who
Won the War. But after being at or near the top to his contemporaries, Grant in the twentieth century fell precipitously. He became "Butcher Grant." To the nineteenth-century mind, he was the President who tried to bring about reconciliation with the South, but by the twentieth century his presidency was so disgraced by scandal that Americans ranked him at the absolute bottom of all the Presidents, behind even Andrew Johnson.
The cause of such extraordinary shifts in opinion was certainly not anything Grant did, or did not do. His record is his record. No investigative reporter or historian uncovered documents showing that President Grant had conspired to do this or that, or that he secretly used his positions to enrich himself, or to commit any other criminal or immoral act. Historians teaching the American history survey courses in the twentieth century denounced General Grant for his drinking, his recklessness, his wanton disregard for the lives of his troops, his appalling waste of the tools of war, his bullheaded insistence on attack, and more. They taught that President Grant ran a corrupt administration that was guilty of widespread financial scandal, that abandoned the newly freed African Americans to the mercies of their former owners, that turned the care of Native Americans over to do-gooder religious types, who knew nothing and learned even less, and otherwise was a disgrace. Worst of all, Grant turned the party of Lincoln from one of hope for the common man and for the newly freed slave into the party of big business. Those of us sitting at the professors' feet absorbed what they said and went out to teach it ourselves.
The historians were enunciating and sharpening the public's changed perception of what Grant had done, and why. Before World War I, people regarded Grant's losses in battle as regrettable but necessary. But after the losses incurred between 1914 and 1918, Grant came to be regarded as a general who was no different from Field Marshal Douglas Haig, or Joffre, or Ludendorff, or any of the other generals who want only to sacrifice their men's lives for their own glory. No longer were Grant's losses inevitable, yet suffered in a good, indeed a supreme cause -- they were after 1918 regarded as inexcusable. Instead of praise, they brought on Grant's head calumny.