Dancing to the Precipice by Caroline Moorehead

I just finished reading Dancing to the Precipice – The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin.

Lucie Dillon, the Marquise de la Tour was a French aristocrat born in 1770. Her father fought with the Americans during the revolutionary war. She was a lady in waiting to Marie Antoinette, witnessed the French revolution, and barely escaped being imprisoned and possibly guillotined. She and her family escaped France on a ship for America and ended up farming in upper New York state. Eventually they returned to France. She knew Napoleon and Lucie's husband was part of Napoleon's government. She was friends with the Duke of Wellington and had played with him as a child. You can see why the subtitle of this book is eyewitness to an Era.

Lucie wrote a memoir and Caroline Moorehead used it as the foundation for this biography. I found parts of the book fascinating and at times even riveting. At other times Dancing to the Precipice dragged a bit. It is a classic example of how a biography can educate you about a period in history. I learned a lot from Dancing to the Precipice about French history, the revolution and Napoleon and I definitely enjoyed reading it.

This is book number 34 for me this year. If you would like to see a list of all the books I have read in 2009 you can find it here.

How to be a Better Amateur Historian

Hackett Fischer

Last Monday I listened to a online lecture by Professor David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University. He has written several books of history including Washington's Crossing, Paul Revere's Ride and Champlain's dream. He was also my daughter's adviser at Brandeis. Professor Fischer's lecture was great. One of the things he talked about was how interest in History is growing among college students and among older people who are coming to History having studied and had careers in unrelated areas. That's me.

 I consider myself an amateur historian. I have always loved History. My college degree was in Computer Science rather than History because my parents always impressed on me how important it was to get a marketable degree and History was considered anything but marketable. So now that I am no longer working for a living but instead I am working at things I love, I have added Historian to my list of current 'jobs'.

At the end of the lecture Professor Fischer took questions so I submitted one. I asked if he had any advice other than reading books about how to become a better amateur historian. He said that Francis Parkman wrote an essay about being a historian  in which he said you should "Go there", "Do it", and "Write it". He recommended retracing the paths and locations of whatever you are studying. Professor Fischer inspired me and made me think that I should plan some historical travel trips and write about them.

It would be fun to retrace John Quincy Adams trip from Russia to The Netherlands as a 16 year old. Here in Nevada, Duke and I have explored some of the old pioneer routes. I should do some more reading about the pioneers and write about it. Do you have other suggestions?

What other ideas do you have about how to be a better amateur historian?

If you would like to listen to Professor Fischer's lecture it is available here.

Steamboat Ditch and the Tom Cooke Trail to Hole in the Wall

Back In February Duke and I hiked the Tom Cooke Trail to Hole in the Wall. This hike is on page 233 of the book Afoot & Afield Reno-Tahoe A comprehensive hiking Guide by Mike White. The trail starts right next to the Patagonia Outlet on the Truckee River and heads south and then west along the Steamboat Ditch to where the ditch goes through a tunnel.

If you are familiar with Reno you are familiar with the ditches but otherwise you are probably wondering what I am talking about. Reno has a series of canals that carry water from the Truckee river for irrigation. I wanted to know more about the Steamboat Ditch but had a hard time finding any information. The Reno library wasn't able to help me.

Finally today I went to the library at the Nevada Historical Society. The people there were incredibly helpful and I learned a lot.

As the Reno area was first being settled in the second half of the nineteenth century most ranches got there water by buying shares in a ditch company. About 130 miles of ditches were created in the Reno area primarily for irrigation. 

The last ditch company was formed in 1877. It was the Truckee & Steamboat Irrigating Canal Company. Trustees  hired Chinese labor to construct the 33 miles of canal. White laborers were angry and announced that they would drive the Chinese out by force. In spite of their threats the Steamboat Ditch was opened July 1, 1880. It took two years and $40,000 to build

The Steamboat Ditch starts at the Nevada-California Line near interstate 80 west of Reno. Water is taken out of the Truckee river and is carried in flumes and through canals to an area south of Reno near Steamboat Creek. On our hike we walked along the ditch to one end of a tunnel that was built through a hill above the river. It is a long dark tunnel and you can just see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Hile in the wall 003
Hile in the wall 005

During the winter if you ever take Interstate 80 into Reno you can see the flume for the Steamboat Ditch on the other side of the river. The icicles hanging down underneath the flume are beautiful.


There are other paths to hike along the canal and I am looking forward to exploring more of the Steamboat Ditch and learning more about it.

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts

I just finished reading Founding Mother – The Women who Raised our Nation by Cokie Roberts.
Founding Mothers gives a totally different perspective on the revolutionary era and the women who were a part of it. Here are a few tantalizing tidbits from Founding Mothers.

  • Eliza Lucas Pinckney was the mother of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney both of  whom were key figures in early American politics. In 1746 when Eliza was 16 she was left in charges of her family's plantations in South Carolina. She ran them for many years and figured out how to grow indigo commercially in South Carolina when no one thought it was possible. She led a long and heroic life and when she died in 1793 at about 70 her friend George Washington, at his request, was a pallbearer.
  • Not the only, but the most famous woman who fought as a man in the American revolution was Deborah Sampson. She served in the army for three years, fought in several battles and was only discovered after became very ill and almost died. She was eventually granted a soldier's pension by congress and after she died her husband received a special survivors' pension.
  • The British General Cornwallis said that even if he destroyed all the men in America, he'd still have the women to contend with.
  • Peggy, the wife of the infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold was an active participant in Arnold's spying for the British. She claimed innocence and escaped persecution.
  • Elizabeth Monroe the wife of James Monroe, the future president probably saved the life of the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. The Marchioness was in jail during the French revolution when James Monroe was an American diplomat in Paris. Adrienne Lafayette's mother and grandmother had both been beheaded and she was expecting the same fate. "Elizabeth Monroe, in the official American carriage, went to the prison where Adrienne Lafayette was held and asked to speak to her. That show of interest resulted in the Marchioness's release."

I've added Founding Mothers to my list of books read in 2009. I'm working hard to finish the traditional books in my reading pile  so I can start using my Kindle 2 when it arrive in the next day or two. I can't wait!

The Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer

I received Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer for Christmas. After reading and enjoying A Perfect Union I thought I would take a break from reading history. Not because I am bored with history… the more history I read the more I want to read – but I am interested in lots of things including science and Soul Made Flesh is about the brain. But it turns out Soul Made Flesh is about history – the history of science and  medicine. This shouldn't have been a surprise to me since the subtitle of the book is The Discovery of the Brain — and How it Changed the World. I devoured this book and I learned a whole bunch of stuff I knew nothing about.

I learned about Aristotle, Plato and Galen and their theories of the soul and the body, I especially enjoyed learning about the English Civil war and the late 1600's when people were leaving England to settle in North America. The scientific discoveries during this period were extensive. It is fascinating to see how the civil war opened up the possibility of doing experiments to prove theories.

The central story of Soul Made Flesh is the story of Thomas Willis and his contemporaries in the Oxford Circle, Boyle, Wren and Petty. As England got rid of King Charles and as Oliver Cromwell took power Willis and friends developed the technology to study the brain –  preservatives, microscopes and injections. I always think of Sir Christopher Wren as the architect of St Paul's cathedral but he performed the first successful injection. I knew about Boyle's law (P1*V1*T1=P2*V2*T2) from physics class but I had no idea that his experiments led to an understanding of the function of the lungs.

In 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne Willis who was a royalist was able to complete his study of the brain and publish his book "The Anatomy of the Brain and the Nerves". It went through 23 editions and "well into the nineteenth century it would be required reading for anyone who would call himself an expert on the brain." Amazingly the illustrations were all done by Christopher Wren.

 Surprisingly (to me) Soul Made Flesh also gave insight into the seeds that were being planted for the American revolution. Cromwell's New Model Army was " a new experiment in democracy". Thomas Locke was a student of Willis. He is also the reason so few people today know about Willis.  Although Willis completely revolutionized and corrected man's understanding of the brain he still used completely ineffectual treatments on his patients. He based his description of the brain on observations but it was Locke and his friend Sydenham who based their practice of medicine on what they could prove through experiment worked. "Anatomy, Locke and Sydenham declared, "will be no more able to direct a physician how to cure a disease than how to make a man". It is really only recently that we have come back to a belief that understanding the anatomy of the brain can help us understand how to cure it's diseases. "Thanks to Locke philosophers stopped looking to the physical world to understand morality"

Thomas Locke went on to publish and become famous for his book "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding"  which made the argument that people were entitled to overthrow a leader who violated their natural rights. His writings and especially this principal greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson and our other founding fathers. 

I really enjoyed this book. Carl Zimmer is a great author. He makes complicated and diverse subjects fascinating.

A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation

I just finished reading Catherine Allgor's book,  A Perfect Union, Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation. Here are a few of things I found interesting:

  • One of Dolley Madison's biggest contributions was that she created ways for the men who were the American Government to get things done. In 1800 the congress had no structure or rules. The new government of the U.S. and the men who were a part of it believed that there was only one possible common good and that anyone who didn't agree with their view was wrong. People like John Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed that there should only be only one party in American politics.
"Unfortunately, two different camps believed this. To each one — the Federalists and the Republicans– the other party was a "faction," a source of danger and disorder and a very personal as well as national threat.  In such an atmosphere. legislators did not even tolerate a discussion that included difference."

Dolley didn't like conflict. She created friendships with everyone. She brought the politicians who thought of themselves as individuals and enemies together socially. She held weekly gatherings called drawing rooms and everyone was invited.

"In or out of the government, only at Dolley's events could political enemies get to know one another in circumstances that demanded the best of them. Government officials fought physically on the floor of congress, in their boardinghouses, and on the street; but they dared not strike one another with ladies present. ….. If for no other reason than this, the drawing room contributed to the construction of a workable government."

  • Two of the things that Thomas Jefferson detested most were " the English and political, intellectual woman."  Elizabeth Merry the English ambassador's wife during the Jefferson administration embodied these things. In contrast Dolley Madison was always very careful to be what woman of the time were expected to be, nurturing, polite and seemingly uninterested in politics. In fact she was a smart and very political woman.
  • Picture this 🙂 On June 1, 1812 when the House of Representatives was debating the resolution to go to war with Britain the Federalist tried to stop the war resolution with a filibuster.
 "The Republicans responded by throwing spittoons, a surprisingly effective move. The sudden clang of metal stopped the speaker in mid-sentence, allowing the Republicans to declare the delaying tactic ended."

  • Dolley stayed at the White House until just a few hours before the British marched into Washington and burned the White House. The true story of her staying until the large painting of George Washington had been saved is part of our identity as Americans.
  • Dolley created the "unofficial office" of First Lady.
"The First Lady answers the crucial need for the ceremonial in American politics; quite deliberately, the Constitution downplays the role of the ceremonial in its formula for a weak central government, ruled by law and not by personality."
"Ceremonial symbolism, which operates on emotional and psychological levels, unites people. In ordinary times, Dolley's performance supplied a kind of structure that allowed the government to function, unifying (or at least gathering) the branches of government and the individuals within those branches. Dolley also held the nation together in a time of crisis, and, by her ceremonial symbolism, allowed Americans, many of who might never leave the town of their birth, to imagine themselves as part of a larger entity— as citizens of the United States of America"

  • The author, Catherine Allgor is a fascinating woman. According to her biographies and interviews on the web she worked as an actress for eleven years and then went back to school to study history. She attended Mount Holyoke College and then got her PhD from Yale. In a short autobiography in 2000 after her first book Parlor Politics was published she said;
"Being a historian, I am conscious of dates and
anniversaries. Holding my first book in my hands this fall
would be meaningful moment enough. But it was exactly ten
years ago this fall that I sold my stuff, packed up my car
and arrived at Mount Holyoke. I had no idea of what "I was
going to do when I grew up," had never turned on a computer
or written a paper. And now a book"

I thoroughly enjoyed A Perfect Union. After reading so many presidential biographies it was fun to learn about a woman of the same period. Dolley was 8 when the declaration of Independence reached the town she was living in and she lived until 1841 when she died at 81. It was also fascinating to learn the key role she played in creating our country and to think about how many of her lessons and strategies are still relevant today.

Accomplishment in the Second Half of a Life

In the last year and a half since my Mother died I have thought more about my own mortality. Her death has focused my thoughts on what I want to do with the rest of my life.  Even though I am only 55 I think about the fact that I am getting old. I don't want my life accomplishments to be behind me.

 I just finished reading John Marshall – Definer of a Nation by Jean Edward SmithOne of the things that really struck me about Marshall and has struck me about all of the biographies I have read in the past couple of years is how many of the accomplishments of these great people happen in the later years of their lives. Granted, these accomplishments are often a culmination of the work of their whole lives. But they also take on new challenges as they get older.

For example in 1826 when Marshall was 71 he accepted an offer to edit the papers of George Washington.

In the McCullough Biography of John  Adams Abigail Adams wrote about her husband that  "Your father's zeal for books will be one of the last desires which will quit him." …as the 81 year old Adams eagerly embarked on reading a sixteen volume French history."

Adams and Jefferson began an exchange of letters in 1812 when Jefferson was 69 and Adams was 77. Jefferson's biographer R.B. Bernstein describes their correspondence as "one of the great correspondences in the history of American letters". In 1816 Jefferson wrote to Adams, "I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern."

James Madison was 66 when he worked with Jefferson and Monroe and others to found the University of Virginia.

I like writing, I like history, I like writing this blog. It seems to me that writing the blog is one way to improve my writing through practice. Writing about what I am learning is also a way to learn from my historical reading.  I am almost embarrassed to admit it but my dream is to write a historical book one day. I feel like I am just beginning on the learning but this year I want to write more and read more in order to move me toward that end.

I'd love advice on how to improve my writing and accelerate my learning.