Archive for Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pair of history books proves both educational and enlightening

April 30, 2009

If there is one thing that I can’t understand it is the idea that “history is boring.” As far as I’m concerned, history is exciting and reassuring, too. No matter what is going on in the country or the world now, it has happened in a similar form in ages past. It is comforting to know that problems have been solved before and they can be dealt with again.

I recently read a pair of historical books that were educational and entertaining even though I knew how things would turn out. The first book, “A Magnificent Catastrophe,” by Edward J. Larson, dealt with early American political struggles and how decisions made then still effect the presidential election. The other book, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” by Kate Summerfield, told the story of a gruesome murder in Victorian England and the problems faced by those who investigated crimes. The latter book emphasized that crime is nothing new and that police officers have always struggled for respect.

“A Magnificent Catastrophe” deals with the presidential election in 1800, which ended up being decided by the House of Representatives and points to some of the problems with the use of electors rather than a simple popular vote majority.

President John Adams faced a serious challenge from Thomas Jefferson with such famous Americans as Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas McKean, Thomas Pinckney and Gen. Charles Coatsworth Pinckney vying for the top job.

The young nation, like an adolescent, was struggling to find its character. Afterall, the concept of the United States was unique and most European nations felt it would quickly fold. There were many fears in the U.S. and the rest of the world that anarchy such as the French Revolution could ensue. What the 1800 election proved was that the infant United States was a nation of law and order.

What I found most interesting was that politics in those days was far more vicious and bitter than today. Candidates were expected to promise jobs to get votes and what we now consider corruption was commonplace.

Communications were primitive, and it took weeks for messages to make it across the nation. Each state had its own method of selecting electors ranging from a direct vote to being picked by the senate or house. It took 35 ballots in the House of Representatives before Jefferson was elected. There was no revolution and the United States did what it always has done: moved forward in an orderly fashion.

“The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” is a far different book and deals with the dark side of human nature. It is a good murder mystery with many twists, turns and failures. It was a crime that nearly ruined the reputation of England’s top detective, Jonathan (Jack) Whicher, even though in the end, it was proven that he had arrested the right person.

A three-year-old boy was found missing from his bed and after a major search, the child’s body was found thrown in a privy with his throat cut. The shocking murder set a nationwide investigation and brought in Scotland Yard’s best investigator, Jonathan Whicher. He faced a variety of problems, which hampered his investigation. Initially, he had to deal with a lack of cooperation from local police agencies and also classism. His investigation proved that wealth and status wasn’t a factor when it came to jealousy, hatred and violence. The story includes hints of incest and adultery in a “fine” home.

For example, one of the key pieces of evidence found at the scene was a female undergarment. He was allowed to have it tried on by female servants, but not members of the family. The book also points out how little respect police officers received in those long ago days.

Yes, the crime was solved and the guilty party confessed, but I’m not going to give you any more details. This book is as a good “whodunit” as you will find on any library shelf. It is a timeline of improving police methods and the case also created great public interest in detective work and raised the popularity of the mystery novel. It is also a troubling book because the murder was as gruesome and unexplainable as any crime in the modern world. It is well worth reading.

Yes, I will admit that I love history. Books of this nature give us a great look at where we’ve been and how far we have come in the last two centuries. It also goes to prove something that I have long believed, which is we now live in the best time in human history. No matter what we face, with work and faith and it can be overcome. The best days for our nation and the world are ahead if we only learn from the mistakes of the past.

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