Book Review: Chipping away at history


The popular conception of America's history is fraught with inaccuracies, hidden agendas and out-and-out falsehoods and like a story that gets told and retold, facts become distorted. Two books that recently crossed my desk hope to change that pattern.

Both (mainly) deal with the period of American history that is probably the most celebrated, and the most misunderstood, that being the nation's founding.

The first book, "Why the Turkey didn't Fly," by Paul Aron, provides a lively romp through the country's past via the symbols that have become synonymous with the U.S.: Uncle Sam, the bald eagle, the American flag and even the Declaration of Independence.

The second book, "Benedict Arnold: The Traitor Within," explores the darker side of America's birth through the life of the man who has come to symbolize betrayal, but who, according to author David C. King, has been maligned by past historians and those seeking to obfuscate Arnold's heroic deeds during the Revolution in order to make his later treasonous acts appear even worse. Arnold, while in command of West Point planned to turn it over to the British and when the plan was exposed he joined the enemy and was commissioned by the British army as a brigadier general.

In both books the authors reveal just how many layers of myth and misinformation there are covering these symbols.

For example, the Declaration of Independence most Americans are familiar with -- the one on display in Washington, D.C. -- was not the original document approved by the Continental Congress, but rather a handwritten copy created days after Congress approved the original, which has since been lost.

As Aron peels back the layers of America's most famous images we are sometimes left with little information on their actual origins, but then often times that's the historian's plight. Facts are sometimes hard to come by, especially when dealing with things associated with the mythos of the country's founding.

In Arnold's case, we do have a lot of facts as to the who, what, where and when, but not so much as to the why.

Arnold was born in 1741 into to a well-to-do Norwich, Conn. family, but following the death of several siblings and his father's dissolution due to drink when Arnold was still a teen, the comfortable life he had expected didn't happen. Instead Arnold had to work hard for his fortune and fame. Prior to Arnold's treasonous actions he was considered by Gen. George Washington to be one of his greatest field commanders, and he performed heroically in a number of military actions, including at the Battles of Saratoga, in New York (1777), which many consider the turning point in the war against the British. He was severely wounded in the leg twice in battle, but it seems it was his wounded pride that was at least partly to blame for his undoing. While he was great in battle, he was not so good when it came to politics and self-promotion and on several occasions Arnold suffered at the hands of his enemies (who happened to be fighting on the same side as Arnold).

But King believes it was more than pride, or money, that turned this American hero into a turncoat.

According to King, a major contributing factor in Arnold's treason may have been his second wife, Peggy Shippen, who came from a Loyalist Philadelphia family. While other writers have determined that she only had a peripheral role in Arnold's treachery, King believes she was much more deeply involved in the plot.

Although both authors rely heavily on prior historians' work, they both are great at condensing information to tell their subjects' stories in engaging and easily readable ways.

This is true especially in the case of Aron's book, which is beautifully packaged in words and images and packs in a lot of interesting information in a short amount of space.

These books, while enjoyable, also help us understand the nation's past, both good and ill, and help chip away at a history covered in myth.


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