I was first introduced to Edmund S. Morgan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, by reading his short biography The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop last year as an assignment for class. I enjoyed his writing style so when I spotted American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America on the shelf of new books at my local library, I had a feeling it would be right up my alley.
The book consists of a collection of essays, many previously published, but a few new ones as well. Morgan’s goal in putting together this book was to focus on more ordinary people, so while there are chapters discussing Ben Franklin and George Washington, the majority of chapters focus on people who are probably less well known to the population at large.
Though there were times throughout the book that I was not sure I completely agreed with what was written, getting into that is not the purpose of this review. In most cases, I feel I would need to do further research before I was even sure I disagreed.
So the purpose of this review is to tell you that I highly recommend it. If you enjoy reading about the early history of our country then you will probably enjoy this book. It is relatively short and a fairly easy and quick read. If you want to read an interesting history book without feeling like you are giving up the next month or two of your life, then this book is for you.
While I enjoyed the whole book, chapter 2, “Dangerous Books,” and chapter 13, “The Power of Negative Thinking: Benjamin Franklin and George Washington,” were my favorites.
Chapter 2 discusses the impact reading various sources had on the Puritans and how reading them caused some people to question or alter their religious beliefs. Within the chapter, Morgan also discusses the larger impact reading can have, even in today’s world. He points out, rightly, that too often people believe that if others would just read this or that, then they will automatically be in agreement with whatever the first party wants everyone else to believe. He makes the point that as long as people have access to libraries and primary sources, however, they will be able to read not only the “good” but also the “bad.” Morgan says that “libraries will remain the nurseries of heresy,” but by doing so “they will, in fact, preserve that freedom which is a far more important part of our life than any ideology or orthodoxy . . .”
In order to preserve freedom, we must take the risk that a reader somewhere might become unduly influenced by a book espousing beliefs contrary to all we hold dear. In chapter 13, George Washington is quoted as writing, “I am persuaded the great mass of our Citizens require only to understand matters rightly, to form right decisions.” I am with G.W. on this one. Knowledge is power, and also dangerous, but we just have to trust in people to discern for themselves what is right.