A historian focuses on a remarkable event in 1847 to illuminate a broader discussion about U.S. aid to other nations.
In his latest narrative history, Puleo (American Treasures: The Secret Efforts To Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address, 2016, etc.) begins in Ireland. As a famine caused by failed potato crops led to countless deaths, diseases, homelessness, and desperate measures to leave the country, American officials and other citizens were captivated by the plight of the Irish. However, at this time, the U.S. government had never become involved in what today would be termed “foreign aid.” Furthermore, the logistics of how to gather money and food and how to transport the donations to Ireland were daunting—but not insurmountable. Puleo includes many exemplary individuals within the narrative, but there is one clear hero: ship captain Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced seafarer who was inspired to do what he could to ameliorate the death and pestilence destroying Ireland. Throughout, the author portrays Forbes as unselfish in his motives, a man seemingly without ego. There is no doubting Forbes’ heroism, as he left his family to risk his life to serve as captain of the USS Jamestown, a refurbished warship filled with lifesaving foodstuffs. The voyage from the Boston port to the Irish coast involved more than two weeks of rough waters and other perils. As Puleo shifts the focus periodically to Ireland, he writes about Theobald Mathew, a minister who tried to maintain hope among a dying populace while pleading with authorities in England to demonstrate compassion. While the narrative thread of English-Irish hostility could be a book on its own, the author effectively shows how “the events of 1847 have served as the blueprint and inspiration for hundreds of American charitable relief efforts since, philanthropic endeavors that have established the United States as the leader in international aid in total dollars.”
An uplifting historical account of humanitarianism with lessons in this increasingly isolationist time.