The Puritans left behind so full a record of what they thought and did that scholars cannot resist the temptation to make the most of it.
In France, where Franklin had lived from 1776 to 1785, he had won an extraordinary place in the public mind. The French had lionized him to the point of absurdity – or so at least his colleagues in the American mission thought.
History, at its best, always tells us as much indirectly about ourselves as it does directly about our predecessors, and it is often most revealing when it deals with episodes and phenomena that we find repulsive.
Cotton Mather is one of those classic figures of American history who can't be left out. One has to explain him or explain him away, redeem him or denounce him.
Few words in any language carry such a load of meaning as 'honor.' It is an old word, unchanged even in its spelling from classical Latin to modern English. Spoken or written, it does not seem to require much explanation; most people think they know what it means.
The starting point for the new history, both in Europe and America, has been the record of births, marriages, and deaths, which most literate societies preserve in one form or another. In colonial America, surviving records of this kind – as of every other kind – are most abundant for New England.
In 1787, many Americans were convinced that the 'perpetual union' they had created in winning independence was collapsing. Six years earlier, in the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen state governments had surrendered extensive powers to a congress of delegates from each state legislature.
The first English settlers of North America knew they were making history. New Englanders in particular were so sure of it that they started writing their own accounts of themselves as soon as they got here.
Why consider debates in the English House of Commons in 1628 along with documents on American developments in the late eighteenth century? The juxtaposition is not capricious, because the Commons during this period generated many of the ideas that were later embodied in the government of the United States.
So many able historians have worked over seventeenth-century New England that one would think there was little left to be learned from the people who lived there – fewer than 100,000 at the end of the century. Seldom, apart perhaps from the Greeks and Romans, have so few been studied by so many.
What was the American Revolution? The people who joined to carry it out had different views of what they had done.
Both European and American historians have done away with any conceptual limits on what in the past needs and deserves investigating. The result, among other things, has been a flood of works on gender history, black history, and ethnic history of all kinds.
When Landon Carter, a Virginia plantation owner, read the Declaration of Independence two days after it was issued, he wondered whether its ringing affirmation of equality meant that slaves must be freed. If so, he confided to his diary, 'You must send them out of the country, or they must steal for their support.'
The men and women who occupied the east coast of North America between 1607 and 1800 have been more closely scrutinized than any other collection of people in American history.
Apart from the intrinsic interest of the complex system of beliefs the Puritans carried with them, their lives give a clue to what it meant at the beginning to be American. And the level of scholarship dealing with them has reached a point where it can address the human condition itself.
Washington presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and is often credited with its success. But he had no known part in drafting its provisions.
Between 1776 and 1789, Americans replaced a government over them with a government under them. They have worried ever since about keeping it under. Distrust of its powers has been more common and more visible than distrust of the imperial authority of England ever was before the Revolution.
The American Revolution was carried out in the name of the people, and it was supposedly 'We, the people,' who created the government that Americans still live under.
Vox populi vox dei: the voice of the people is the voice of God. The slogan was useful for those who first attempted to substitute the people for God as the source of political authority. Their attempt was ultimately so successful that God no longer seems to be needed in government.
The southern colonists were not preoccupied with their own historical significance and mostly did not bother even to make the records of births, marriages, and deaths that they required of themselves by law. Nor did they write accounts of what they were up to for the benefit of posterity.
The difference between eccentricity and originality in historical studies is often difficult to detect at first encounter. When a radically new interpretation of a large segment of history makes its appearance, time is needed to sift the evidence.
Everybody knows that Alexander Hamilton was a founding father of the United States, a young father to be sure: only thirty at the time of the Constitutional Convention and just turned thirty-eight when he left behind his brilliant career as Secretary of the Treasury.
Franklin was the best known of the Founding Fathers. His death could not go without some sort of official notice. The House of Representatives, after listening to a brief tribute by James Madison, voted to wear badges of mourning for two months and then got on with business.
In 1595, by order of the Privy Council, the English armed services abandoned the longbow and fought with muskets for the next two centuries and more. Nobody is sure why.
The musket could not be aimed except in a general direction; a bow in the hands of a skilled archer could regularly hit and kill an enemy completely beyond musket range.
Most historians don't much like generalizations. Indeed, they make a trade of showing that this or that generalization about the past will not work here or there or then.
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.
The preoccupation of American historical and literary scholars with the New England Puritans must seem to outsiders like an obsession.
Who would think it possible to redirect historical scholarship by explaining what Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence?
It is hard for anyone who discovers George Washington not to write about him, perhaps because he is so hard to discover and such a surprise when you do.
By 1892, enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England. They were a part of the past that was best forgotten: a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries.
The famous convention of 1787 met in Philadelphia to define the additional powers needed to enable Congress to do its job effectively. Instead, the convention proposed a brand new national government.
The American world had – seemingly, at least – become a Jeffersonian world by the election of 1800, which placed Thomas Jefferson in the presidency. Jefferson had been Hamilton's rival in the new government's early years, and Hamilton has figured in the public memory almost as much for that rivalry as for his positive achievements.
The three hundredth anniversary of the Salem witch trials of 1692 comes at a time when witchcraft commands a scholarly attention that would have been puzzling in 1892 or even in 1792.
It was not necessary and might even have been disadvantageous for a government to claim a direct personal commission and communion of the kind God had given some rulers in the Old Testament. A working government might need the support of the Church but not of God Himself in a voice from on high.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; Madison wrote not only the United States Constitution, or at least most of it, but also the most searching commentary on it that has ever appeared. Each of them served as president of the United States for eight years. What they had to say to each other has to command attention.
The men who founded and governed Massachusetts and Connecticut took themselves so seriously that they kept track of everything they did for the benefit of posterity and hoarded their papers so carefully that the whole history of the United States, recounted mainly by their descendants, has often appeared to be the history of New England writ large.
When historians of early America turned from the pursuit of past politics, they devised a category known in the academy as 'social and intellectual history.' In it, they stuffed nearly everything except politics on the assumption, which the anthropologists assured them was correct, that it would all fit together. Somehow it did not.
The musket, always a muzzleloader, took minutes to reload; an archer could aim and fire up to a dozen arrows in a minute. Muskets required continual cleaning and repair; bows were quickly made and easily maintained.
In America, we may acknowledge Washington and Lincoln as great men, and probably Franklin and Jefferson and maybe Franklin Delano Roosevelt and possibly even several more, but we would probably disagree about precisely what it was that made them great, what it was that enabled them to give a lasting direction to the course of events.
There is something about guns that inhibits understanding. It is not just that they can put an end to argument. They somehow generate beliefs that are obviously contrary to observable fact.
Thomas Paine, so celebrated and so despised as he traveled through the critical events of his time, has long appealed to biographers. Paine was present at the creation both of the United States and of the French Republic. His eloquence, in the pamphlet 'Common Sense,' propelled the American colonists toward independence.
The colonial period has been the proving ground in America for the new social history, which concentrates on the ordinary doings of ordinary people rather than on high culture and high politics. Unfortunately ordinary people, almost by definition, leave behind only faint traces of their existence.
Americans, perhaps more than most people, have pondered the question of who they are and what their country is.
Cotton Mather's publications in his own lifetime amounted to more than 400 titles, and his magnum opus, on which he labored most of his life, remains unpublished: a commentary on every verse of every book of the Bible. Anyone who leaves that kind of record behind issues an irresistible invitation to historians.
Throughout his long career, Washington earned the adulation not merely of ordinary people but of the other luminaries whom we now hail as 'founding fathers.'
To make a successful film from a successful play is probably much more difficult than making one from scratch, just as any carpenter will tell you that it is more difficult to restore an old house than to build a comparable new one.