Synopses & Reviews
"The United States has to move very fast to even stand still."
--John F.Kennedy, July 21, 1963
Americans are instinctively looking forward. So it's not surprising that so few have traveled the rivers of history transcribed in America since November 1773, when Samuel Adams incited New England merchants and shopkeepers to spill tea in Boston Harbor. They are unaware of just how broad and variegated are history's forms, how filled with adventure, drama, and color. Still fewer realize how much of that history has been set down on paper by both contemporary participants and observers--countless vivid, enlightened, can-did narratives penned by settlers, soldiers, traders, boatmen, gold seekers, runaway slaves, fur trappers, railroad builders, merchants, educators, preachers, civil rights activists, computer wizards, and politicians. The writers range from pioneers to presidents, from nurses to nabobs, from admirals to aviators, from engineers to environmentalists. "America is woven of many strands," Ralph Ellison wrote in his indispensable 1952 novel "The Invisible Man." "I would recognize them and let it so remain ... our fate is to become one, and yet many--This is not prophecy ... but description."
For too many, the word "history" implies an arid pedantry associated with dusty libraries and musty monographs. That association must be broken. History is not a matter of libraries but of life. At its best, history pulses with hope and despair, ardor and endurance, and the joy and sorrow of ordinary people everywhere. As editors of "Witness to America," we tried to bring home this point. We hope the book will contribute to an understanding of the variety, thevitality, and the fascination of that immense part of our historical literature that flows from the pens of the men and women who helped to make history.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked that "A man will turn over half a library to make one book." This bit of poetic license became a reality in the hands of our distinguished predecessors, historians Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins. It was these men who first compiled between 1939 and 1949 an anthology of first-person narratives titled "Heritage to America." Our "Witness to America" is modeled on that pioneering effort. Dissatisfied with traditional textbooks and the interposition of a ghostly curtain of interpretation between writer and reader, Commager and Nevins wanted American history to ring with the voices of history's eye-witnesses. These trailblazers hoped to help readers rediscover a collective heritage that seemed to grow more remote with each passing sunset. All the articles from the Boston Tea Party to World War II were selected by Commager and Nevins; we provided the contributions from the "Enola Gay" to 1999.
On its face, there is nothing radical about Commager and Nevins' approach to history. After all, generations of dedicated scholars have relied on the same narratives excerpted in "Witness to America" as primary sources: diaries, letters, newspapers, court records, travel journals, memoirs, popular broadsides, sermons, speeches, and random jottings people leave behind, in one printed form or another, for posterity to ponder. But instead of synthesizing these historical nuggets into our own narrative, we've decided, like Commager and Nevins before us, to serve them up raw. This approach was recently popularizedby Ken Burns' PBS "Civil War and Baseball" series, which used spo-ken diary entries to great dramatic effect. It allows people to feel what life was like when Patrick Henry burst into a classic bit of tidewater eloquence or when the horseless carriage was a dubious contraption in Henry Ford's Dearborn garage. "We go forth all to seek America," Waldo Frank wrote in his largely forgotten 1919 classic "Our America." "And in the seeking we create her. In the quality of our search shall be the nature of the America we created."
Of course, no single volume can embrace the totality of America within its covers, and this was not our intent as we expanded and revised "Witness to America." Our book is a smorgasbord of tasty dishes comprising the American feast, and we invite everyone to partake of it. We hope to whet the appetites of those with ready access to libraries to explore further on their own. For those without such access, we hope this book will suffice unto itself, a generous meal representative of the large body of writings, some of which are not widely available. We make no claim that this collection is the best" of anything, because best is too self-limiting a concept. We offer it simply as a fairly comprehensive harvest, representing what we ourselves have found the most illuminating and delightful, chosen to capture the interest and awaken the imagination of a broad swathe of readers. In making our selections we have applied various touchstones. The principal criterion, besides our insistence upon a reasonable accuracy and authenticity, has always been that of broad human interest. The volume is not for specialists, nor does not it fall into, or even approximate, the category of"collected documents" or "source books," of which large numbers already exist. Our hope is that it will afford instruction to students as well as pleasure to general readers.
No collection of personal writings, no matter how extensive, can provide a connected narrative of America's history. Many personal narratives are tangential rivulets. Reflecting more or less unique experiences, they lie somewhat apart from the general stream of affairs, or traverse it from an angle. So we have tried to supply some coherence, context, and integration. The book is divided into sections, each representing a different phase or era of American life. Within each section we have attempted to group narratives so that they have some relation to one another and so the section provides some overall conception of the era. Editorial additions (or italicized headnotes) provide background and offer a measure of continuity. We believe that the book can be studied from begin-ning to end without the reader feeling any glaring gaps. Surely that is sufficient, for had we added more, we would have found ourselves writing another general history of America, something we both had no interest in doing.
Our guiding principle in dealing with original texts has been to serve the general reader and the ordinary student, not to minister to the needs of scholars.
“Lest we imagine that the United States dropped full blown from the sky, here are the eyewitness accounts of those who were present at the creation. It reads like discovering a nations diary.” Joseph E. Persico, coauthor of My American Journey with Colin L. Powell
“The selection of first person narratives is superb, the connective passages are clear and convincing, and the overall effect is to transport the reader on an fascinating journey through American life.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winning author of No Ordinary Time
“These firsthand narratives and commentaries stretching from the Boston Tea Party to the Millennium are compellingthe gold dust of history.” Harold Evans, The American Century
“This continues a strong vivid thread in what Dr. Martin Luther King called ‘Americas Garment of Destiny. It should be required reading for every citizen.” Frank Keegan, Senior Editor, Express Times
“This is living history, wonderfully readable.” Donald L. Miller, author of City of the Century
“If you came from a distant planet and could have only one book to tell you what America is all about, you could not do better than this.” Michael R. Beschloss, author of Taking Charge
“Witness to America is a rich and rewarding journey through the history of the United States. . . . Ill pick it up again and again.” Tom Brokaw
“Witness to America reads as if it were todays news about unforgettable chapters of our history, told by those who lived it and those who observed it. Personal and perceptive, the book brings to life pivotal moments of drama, intrigue, challenge and triumph.” Steven Spielberg
“For both scholars and lay readers who like American history, this work will be an invaluable resource.” Booklist
In this newly updated edition, Douglas Brinkley, one of our most distinguished historians, brings together a stunning collection of eyewitness accounts that chronicles the American experience from the perspectives of those who participated in its making.
Witness to America includes nearly 150 works drawn from America's history, from the first shots of the Revolutionary War to the twenty-first century. From Patrick Henry's rousing "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" speech to John Brown's stand at Harpers Ferry; from Franklin D. Roosevelt's promise of a New Deal to Neil Armstrong's account of walking on the moon; from 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to Barack Obama's landmark speech on race: this sweeping volume brings the milestones in American history vividly to life.
Here are unique and revealing selections from such historical figures as John Adams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy, as well as influential individuals, among them Booker T. Washington, Charles Lindbergh, Ernie Pyle, Rosa Parks, and Betty Friedan. While many of the selections come from notable citizens, most are from ordinary Americans—schoolteachers, students, homemakers, pioneers, and soldiers—who describe the everyday events that have epitomized American life over the course of its history, indelibly demonstrating both the variety and vitality of the American character.
Witness to America sweeps across the vast territory that is our nation, illuminating the movements, ideas, inventions, and events that have shaped and defined us—from the Pony Express to the personal computer; from the frontier to the rise of suburbia; from farming to modernization and the information age. Within these pages discover the art of whaling, learn about survival on the Gold Rush trail, experience the glory and trauma of war, and glean new insight on the great leaders. Here are debates and speeches, diary entries, letters, memoirs, court records, and more—including many first-person accounts that make history come alive as never before, such as a powerful description of the atomic explosion from a correspondent on the Enola Gay and a young student's evaluation of the changing roles of women at her high school.
Witness to America is a fascinating, highly readable, and entertaining collection that shows us what America is and where it may go.
“Witness to America
reads as if it were todays news about unforgettable chapters of our history, told by those who lived it and those who observed it.”
“The selection of first person narratives is superb, the connective passages are clear and convincing, and the overall effect is to transport the reader on a fascinating journey through American life.”
— Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Team of Rivals
Called “a feast of a book” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Witness to America is a classic collection of primary source accounts covering the history of the United States, from George Washington to Barack Obama and everything in between. Originally compiled in 1938 by Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins and revised with Stephen Ambrose, Witness to America has been brought up to date by bestselling historian Douglas Brinkley (The Wilderness Warrior, The Great Deluge).
About the Author
Stephen Ambrose is the acclaimed author of more than 20 books, including the New York Times
bestsellers Citizen Soldiers, Undaunted Courage,
His multi-volume biographies, Eisenhower and Nixon, are classics. He is the founder of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
Douglas Brinkley has written, co-written, and edited eleven books on U.S. history and foreign relations, including major biographies of Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, and Jimmy Carter. He is also the author of the bestselling travel journal The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey and the award-winning American Heritage History of the United States. He is the director of the Eisenhower Center and Professor of History at the University of New Orleans.