Saturday, February 12, 2005

"Farther south, in the District of Columbia, I spent an hour outside the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building eating two peanut butter sandwiches and trying to make myself feel, with all its fullness, this brief moment of my presence in the nation's capital. History is a difficult thing to imagine. Is it a line in which our lives form a tiny segment? Or is it a massive live beast to whose hump we cling? Andrew Johnson, I recalled, had in early days proposed converting the Smithsonian into a national trade school offering courses of study in carpentry, dentistry, and plumbing. What kind of man had thoughts like that?"


"There are two kinds of historians: those who ascribe agency to vast impersonal forces, and those who give the credit and blame to individual humans. I hold the latter view, though I sometimes have to remind myself of it. I did this now. For a change, I had a plan, and I also had an advantage. Many had studied the scandal-torn presidency of Andrew Johnson; some had the backing of universitites and endowed foundations, but I had a secret lead all the others had overlooked. The lead concerned a set of Johnson papers that had been deliberately mislaid, and had stayed lost for over a century. I had reason to think I could find them. All I had to do was stay on task with an animal tenacity. Setbacks and reversals would come, but I would deal with them, drawing on my life's experiences and my bit of self-knowledge as needed."

Well, I'm off to east Tennessee with John H. Tolley, who's just left NY and is intent on making his name by writing a bio of Andrew Johnson. I'm only five pages in, but I have a feeling James Whorton's Frankland is going to be a whole lot of fun.

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