Thursday, March 3, 2011

Still Working Hard on Documenting America

Last night I spent nearly three hours in The Dungeon, writing on Documenting America. Having just written and type two new chapters over previous days, I decided to spend last night expanding some chapters that were either newspaper column length or that I started years ago but never really completed.

The three I picked were chapters I drew out of a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to his Virginia colleague Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816. [Note: A couple of transcriptions of this on the Internet erroneously have the date June 12, 1816.] Kercheval had written Jefferson, asking for his opinions on changing the Virginia constitution. Kercheval thought certain parts of it were not as good as they should be, and seems to have been one pushing for a constitutional convention. But, the Virginia constitution was Jefferson's baby, having been based on his own work. Heck, he may have even written most of it. What would Jefferson think about his baby being revised?

Jefferson wrote back in detail, saying he agreed with most of what Kercheval did (which must have been based on something Kercheval wrote in his letter; haven't seen it yet) and so he didn't mind weighing in privately, but didn't want his views showing up in the newspaper. In his letter, Jefferson threw his "baby" under the bus, saying it was indeed time to change it.

This is such a good letter that I was able to draw three chapters from it, on the following themes:
1. Constitutions might be good, but they are not perfect, and should be subject to change at regular intervals. Flaws in constitutions are overcome by active participation in government by an informed citizenry.

2. The best republican government is that which includes the broadest possible electorate, the most equitable representation, and fairly frequent elections.

3. Public debt is a bad thing, because it results in higher taxes, which results in citizens having to work so much to pay their taxes that they have no time to participate in government.

This letter is, in my opinion, one of the most important documents from United States history. Everyone should read it, internalize it, and remember what Jefferson was saying. A good transcription can be found here. A scan of the original letter starts here and continues for several pages. The same Library of Congress collection says it has the Kercheval letter, but I checked it and it was signed by a Thompkins. Perhaps Kercheval published under an alias the pamphlet he sent to Jefferson, but Jefferson knew who he was.

Close reading of the Jefferson letter last night and today convinced me that I have some more work to do on these three chapters, not so much my analysis but the quoted portions of the letter. I've got a lot of overlap between the three chapters, and I need to separate them a little more. I guess that’s part of tonight's work.

Meanwhile, a little bit of easy browsing turned up more sources, outside the Annals of America. One of those is a collection of letters sent to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P Chase at the outbreak of the civil war. I skimmed a couple of them, and found good fodder for other chapters. The other is a series of letters written by Ebenezer Huntington from 1774-1781, when he was first a law student and then an officer in the Revolutionary War. I skimmed some of these too. They seem kind of drab, simple reports of what’s going on where this soldier happened to be. But drab during a war for independence is historical, so maybe I'll be able to use these as well.

So, the research continues apace. There's so much out there it’s almost frightening.

2 comments:

li said...

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David A. Todd said...

Hi Li. Thanks for the offer to help. I figured out that I could do it as a simple, undefined text box, and so just did.