As a historian, it is imperative that I stay up to date on the latest scholarship. However, I also find it interesting to read what earlier historians wrote. Several years ago, I was in a bookstore that specializes in older publications and found Our First Century: Being a Popular Descriptive Portraiture of the One Hundred Great and Memorable Events of Perpetual Interest in the History of Our Country, Political, Military, Mechanical, Social, Scientific and Commercial: Embracing also Delineations of All the Great Historic Characters Celebrated in the Annals of the Republic; Men of Heroism, Statesmanship, Genius, Oratory, Adventure and Philanthropy by R. M. Devens.
Man, they really knew how to title a book in those days. In short, the book, published in 1879, chronicles the first hundred years of United States history. My favorite part of the title is “the One Hundred Great and Memorable Events” in our nation’s history. What did historians in 1879 think was important? I have read different passages of the book and have been surprised by some of the choices. These are some of the more interesting chapter titles.
“Appointment of the First Minister Plenipotentiary, from the New Republic to the English Court” – an entire chapter about John Adams meeting King George. Interestingly, there is just as much about this as the Articles of Confederation, our first government.
“Greatest Defeat and Victory of American Arms in the Indian Wars” – one section of this chapter is called “Death Knell of the Savages”.
“Death of George Washington” – an important event but one that is not covered much today. I believe that the life of a person is more important than their death, unless their death affects history directly.
“Total Solar Eclipse at Mid-Day” – which I am sure was important on that day, but I am not sure why it would be included in a book about the history of an entire nation.
“Career, Capture, and Execution of Gibbs, the Most Noted Pirate of the Century” – a pirate that I have never heard of, but he most have been a bad ass.
“Sublime Meteoric Shower All Over the United States” – is something else that past historians found important but may be fading into history now.
“Expected Destruction of the World” – is something I cover in class. William Miller predicted the end of the world in the 1840s. It didn’t happen. Here’s some advice. If you start your own religion and want to predict the end of the world, then predict it to happen a long time in the future. When it doesn’t happen, you won’t be around to take the heat.
“Invention of that Wondrous Piece of Mechanism, the Sewing Machine” – a lot of fingers were happy about this.
“Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, by Lieut. W. F. Lynch” – was it important? I don’t know.
“Murder of Dr. George Parkman, a Noted Millionaire of Boston, by Prof. John W. Webster, of Harvard College” – Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations is a great book about this event and the profession of history.
“Brilliant Musical Tour of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” – Who was Jenny Lind, and did she sound like a nightingale?
“Appearance of the Marine Monster Known as the Sea-Serpent, Along the Atlantic Coast” – already looking for monsters in 1851. Bigfoot would be proud.
“Unrivaled Performance by Paul Morphy, the American Chess Champion” – eat your heart out, Bobby Fischer.
“Astonishing Feats of Horse-Taming Performed by Mr. John S. Rarey” – sometime between the firing on Fort Sumter and the Battle at Bull Run, the horse whisperer showed up.
Are these important? I reckon everything that has happened in the past is important.