Don’t Know Much About® series creator Davis (America’s Hidden History, 2008, etc.) examines six little-known episodes that influenced American history.
By now the author’s formula is familiar—seize a small or misunderstood incident from America’s past, identify it as a precursor to or emblematic of a better-known event and use it to illustrate larger themes that have altered the nation’s course. Focusing on the period between Jefferson’s 1800 election and California’s 1850 statehood, Davis looks at Aaron Burr’s 1807 arrest for treason, the 1818 Creek attack on Fort Mims, the 1841 revolt aboard the slave ship Creole, the Seminole massacre of Major Francis Dade’s relief column in 1835, the Nativist inspired Bible Riots in 1844 Philadelphia and the harrowing journey of Jesse Fremont across Panama’s isthmus in 1849. In breezily entertaining fashion, the author does just fine when he confines himself to the details of each episode. Beyond that, these historical vignettes aren’t exactly revelatory. Even casual students understand the gap between America’s ideals and practice. For whom, any longer, is it news that America’s presidents have frequently abused their power, that the nation has sometimes made war for ignoble purposes, that our history is marred by various eruptions of religious strife, that slavery, our intolerance of immigrants, and our shameful treatment of Native Americans continue to haunt our present? The narrative suffers, as well, when Davis attempts comparisons to contemporary events. Readers may be persuaded that Jefferson’s pursuit of Burr is analogous to Nixon’s efforts to destroy political enemies or to the Bush administration’s so-called outing of Valerie Plame, but bald assertion makes neither proposition true. This is history-lite, misleading to those who know too little, harmless to those who know enough.
Mostly engaging but rarely edifying.