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America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation

Kenneth C. Davis, Collins, 288 pp., $26.95

Kenneth C. Davis has become a successful “brand name” author, in part by being a member of a species that often seems to be disappearing from academia: He is a history generalist in a world increasingly populated by narrowcast specialists. His first book was the relatively scholarly Two-Bit Culture: The Paper – backing of America. But he then embarked on his hugely popular Don’t Know Much series, as in Don’t Know Much About History (the title comes from a Sam Cooke song), followed by geography, the Civil War, the Bible, the universe, mythology and, finally, the catch-all “anything.” A rather superficial question-answer atmosphere dominates these books, but in this, his ninth outing, Davis offers relatively painless brain expansion about the past via a narrative that is well researched and compelling.

Focusing on the British colonies that became the United States, Davis chooses key characters—many predictable, some not—to tell the story of the Founding Fathers, with a few mothers added. He does not pretend to be comprehensive. Rather, his account is gloriously anecdotal, highlighting the human factor, and thus by its nature episodic.

The book’s six parts exhibit a measure of chronology. First, Spanish exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries: Queen Isabella told Columbus to haul pigs on board for his second voyage. “Those pigs kept Spain’s conquistadors alive as they laid waste to the Americas—and the pigs also possibly introduced some of the diseases that wiped out whole native nations,” Davis asserts. Next, the settling of New England, where Davis emphasizes the religious intolerance by the dominant Puritans of Quakers and Catholics—not to mention intolerance of American Indians claiming portions of the land. Then, with the nascent nation seeking home-grown leaders, comes the education of George Washington as a young soldier: He led his troops on a “murderous raid” that nearly ended in his death but instead forged his resolve and ultimately led to the presidency. And there are the rebellious activities of oft-ignored figures: Joseph Warren (a physician and vital leader of the Massachusetts patriots) and James Wilson (he helped broker the “three-fifths” constitutional compromise on slavery).

“This hidden history of America’s beginnings reveals a drama that is often appalling and far from noble or tidy, but also consistently remarkable,” Davis says. Right he is, and grateful to him historians and readers alike should be.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.