Simon & Schuster has asked me for a list of my speeches about Seward, which turns out to be a long list. While looking for them on my old computer, I came across these remarks at Seattle Prep in early 2014. I post them in case they might help others understand why and how I write books, and indeed help students as they research and write their own papers. They end with a bit of a “teaser” for the Stanton book, coming some time next fall. “Mr. McCarthy,” in the first line, is my good friend Andy McCarthy, head coach of the Seattle Prep mock trial team.
Good morning. As Mr. McCarthy said, I write history books: biographies of American leaders. When students ask how I do this, I sometimes say that it is like writing a twenty-page history paper, and then another, and then about fifty more such papers. “Oh my God,” you are thinking, why would ANYONE want to do such a thing?” I want to talk a bit about WHY before getting to the HOW.
There are different views of history: some believe that all that matters are immense impersonal forces. I have a different view: that individual men and women matter. William Boeing, Bill Gates, Howard Schultz: Seattle and the world would be different if these men had not lived.
When I was a high school student, I thought that all the important books had been written. If I wanted to know about Woodrow Wilson, I could find a book, or several books, and there it would all be. I now have the opposite view: that most of the books remain to be written. Before my book on John Jay, the only decent biography of him was written in 1935. Jay needed a new book: and there are hundreds of important people and topics in history that need new books.
A while back I was in the library, and I opened up a book about Charles Francis Adams. The first section of the book was by Henry Cabot Lodge. This is how Lodge starts:
“No man who reflects, certainly no one who gives rein to his imagination, can approach even the slightest attempt to tell the story of a man’s life upon earth, whether it be his own or another’s, without feeling that he is doing so in obedience to one of the overruling impulses, one of the deep-seated instincts of humanity. He cannot escape the vision of the successive generations of men as they pass by in long procession recounting, each in its turn, the lives and deeds of those who have gone before.” Lodge then talks about how even before there was WRITING there were tales and songs, and those tales were about the lives of men and women of the past. Lodge continues: “the biographies, the recorded lives of men, whether brief or copious, whether resting on a few allusions or filling volumes of minute detail, are not only the material of history, but are each and all the picture of a human being, of a human soul, in its short and troublous pilgrimage from the cradle to the grave. If we look upon them with considerate eyes, there is NOTHING of equal interest and importance in the whole range of the great literature of knowledge.”
Well. My books are not quite THAT important, but that is why I write: in my own small way to try to tell the life stories of the great dead.
OK, OK, I hear you saying but how do you do it? What tips do you have as I work on a history paper?
Start with the bibliography. Obviously that is not, at first, a list of books you HAVE read but rather a list of books and sources that you MAY read. So if you decide to write about Henry Cabot Lodge, you can look at American National Biography, and find a good list of prior books there. Do not worry too much about proper bibliographical form but LIST them in your bibliography, then figure out where you can find them. Here at your school? In the Seattle Public Library? At the University of Washington? My current bibliography on my current subject, Edwin Stanton, is about forty pages long.
Drill through the secondary sources to the primary sources. When you are reading a book, look at the notes to see what other books and sources it is based upon. Add those to your bibliography. For Lodge, many of his papers are at the Massachusetts Historical Society: you are not going to get there for your history paper. But Lodge’s letters to and from Theodore Roosevelt, a key source, are in the printed letters of Roosevelt, available at various local libraries.
Primary source work is, I must admit, often difficult and dull. Many of you know Nora Genster; she helped me last summer at the Library of Congress reading some of the letters to and from and about Stanton. These letters are NOT printed; they are just letters, in the often bad handwriting of the people who wrote them. And often times you are not reading the original letters; you are reading microfilm copies of the letters, made to save the original letters from the wear and tear of people reading them. Perhaps most difficult, however, is that often the letters are not that interesting or important. It is frustrating: my man John Jay spent many evenings with Benjamin Franklin. Did Jay write down, in his letters, some of Franklin’s stories and jokes? No: Jay seemed almost immune to the charm of the great Franklin. Nor did Jay write descriptions of Paris and London, as he saw them in his travels; his letters are often deliberately dull.
Take good notes. I take notes on my laptop, with the date first, so it is easier to put them in chronological order. One entry in my current Stanton chronology reads: “6 Mar 1861: Stanton to Lincoln with cc of papers to nominate Crittenden. Graves 326 citing AL Papers LC check.” In other words, in the Graves book, at page 326, I found a citation to a letter from Stanton to Lincoln with the papers to nominate Crittenden to the Supreme Court. The original letter, I think, is in the online Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress website; but “check” tells me I need to check that.
Organize and edit the chronology. I do not always, as I am reading, take notes in date order, but I always do soon thereafter. The chronology enables me to see where there are contradictions: where different secondary sources assert that the same event was on different days; where they give different interpretations to the same letter. It also allows me to see connections: oh, on the same day that Stanton was dealing with the Crittenden nomination he was also dealing with McClellan. My current chronology for Stanton is over a thousand pages, and it is still far from done.
Start writing before you stop researching. As you start writing the paragraphs and pages, you will find that you have gaps in your research, things you need to look up in the library. Midway through my Jay book, I realized that I needed more material about what Paris looked like when Jay first arrived there: back to the library.
Perhaps most important: tell a story. I do not mean that you should make it up, that history is just fiction with footnotes. No: the story has to be grounded in the facts, in the primary sources, in order to be history. But good history arranges the facts so that they TELL A STORY, a story that engages the reader in the characters and events.
Think about it this way: assume that your reader was not a teacher, someone who HAS to read your paper, whether she likes it or not. Assume your reader is some fickle consumer, who could read your paper or read any of dozens of other papers. Write so that your reader WANTS to read your paper rather than all those others.
I gather that at least some of you have learned some about Edwin Stanton, and that some of you have questions. let me talk about him a bit before taking your questions. Stanton was born in Steubenville Ohio in 1814. Steubenville was one of the largest towns in Ohio in 1814; well sited on the Ohio River, the interstate highway of the era. Stanton had a hard youth: his father died when Stanton was only twelve; he could not complete college because he needed to make money for the family. He read law, became a lawyer, married, but his wife died five years after their marriage.
He moved to Pittsburg, became a leading lawyer there, married a second time, to the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer there. They moved to Washington, where he became a leading national lawyer. My favorite of his many cases was his defense of Daniel Sickles in the murder of Philip Barton Key. There was no question that Sickles had killed Key; he had done so in broad daylight, in Lafayette Square in Washington, and immediately turned himself in to the authorities. And there was no question of the reason: Sickles had just learned that Key was having a love affair with his wife, the lovely Theresa Bagioli Sickles. But Stanton and the other lawyers argued temporary insanity; they also argued that the killing was self defense, against an assault on the marriage bed.
In December 1860, late in the Buchanan administration, in the midst of the secession winter, Stanton became attorney general. His main role was to advise Buchanan that it would be illegal—would be treason—for Buchanan to abandon the federal forts in the South. Stanton went back to private practice in March 1861, when Lincoln became president, and Stanton was quite critical of the early fumbling of the Lincoln administration. It was thus curious, at least, that Lincoln turned to Stanton in January 1862, when he needed a replacement for the incompetent Simon Cameron as Secretary of War. But that is what Lincoln did, and it was a brilliant appointment, for Stanton was a brilliant secretary of war.
The secretary of war did not lead men into battle; but he ensured that there WERE men to go into battle, by recruiting. And he ensured that they had shoes on their feet and uniforms on their backs and guns in their hands and bullets in their guns. Secretary Stanton also ran what we would call “homeland security”; arresting suspected spies, and for that matter in some cases hostile newspaper editors. Stanton similarly played a major role in what we would call “public relations”; putting out “press releases” about battles. And he played a major role in the election of 1864, getting soldiers to the polls.
When Lincoln was killed, Stanton more or less took over for a month: reporting the news, running the investigation into the assassination, and running the last few weeks of the war itself. He initially worked well with the new president, Andrew Johnson. But soon enough, tensions emerged, because Johnson and Stanton had different visions of reconstruction; Johnson wanted to let southerners run the South, while Stanton believed that there was a role for the federal army, at least until southern whites ceased to harass and indeed murder southern blacks.
Stanton was the reason that Johnson was impeached and nearly removed from office. Johnson demanded Stanton’s resignation; Stanton refused to resign; Johnson appointed another man as secretary of war. The House charged Johnson with violating the Tenure of Office Act, an act which basically said that the President could not, without Senate consent, remove any officer whose initial appointment required Senate confirmation. Johnson was acquitted, but by only ONE vote.
When Johnson was acquitted, Stanton finally resigned, and he did not live long thereafter. He campaigned for Grant in the 1868 election, practiced a bit of law, was nominated for the Supreme Court, but died in December of 1869 before he could join the Court.