Making History

The best historical writings, whatever their subject matter, have certain characteristics in common. All display a deft mastery of primary sources, building up from a solid base of fact without allowing the data to drag them down into pedantry. They also bear on their faces both an open and honest viewpoint and objectivity. That is, the best historian is a writer of conviction and values who is yet able to view all sides of a question and to state opposing arguments honestly, the rarest of all faculties in modern discourse. Then, the best history must deal with high and not trivial matters. Finally, the best histories are relevant, not in the sense of pandering to the fashions of the moment, but in the sense that they give any intelligent reader food for thought about his own times.

These virtues are all splendidly marshaled in Requiem, the McDonalds' collection of occasional pieces on the early years of the American federal republic. Each of the 11 essays takes up a familiar and problematic question of those days—Shays' Rebellion, John Dickinson, the "middle party" in the Philadelphia Convention, the relation of the Kramers to capitalism, the ambivalent evolution of the doctrine of separation of powers, the rituals of 18th-century war in relation to the American War of Independence, the role of Alexander Hamilton, the legacies of Washington and Jefferson to the office of the presidency, and others. And each...

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