Wish I’d Been There


T HE AMAZINGLY SCRUPULOUS RECORDS WE HAVE OF ANNE HUTCHINSON’S TRIAL in early November of 1637 tantalize me into wishing I could have been there. Hers was a religious culture and ours is pluralist and secular, but the troubling issues from back then have analogies now. In facing state (John Winthrop) and church (John Cotton), she represented dissent against establishment. As so often since, neither side looked good, and, from other angles, both sides made a case. They fought over the cove-nant of grace and the covenant of works, ideas almost incomprehensible to many to-day. Yet they are signal issues about liberty and license versus law and responsib-ility, and remain alive.

Why go to Europe for Joan of Arc when in America someone on trial also claimed to have heard voices? That is, instead of sticking to the letter of the text, she claim-ed the spirit spoke directly. What are claims of authority even now? How much do we, must we, live by the book? And there are classic woman-man issues here. With -out question, her accusers-prosecutors-judges-sentencers, who were one and the same persons, and who banished her, were harder on her because she was a woman,not a mere dissenter or heretic.

The personalities draw me: Anne Hutchinson—gifted, charismatic, often wild, destined to be killed in an Indian massacre. John Winthrop—judgmental and yet enthralled. John Cotton—half leaning toward Hutchinson but not daring to be caught there. Here was a combat of minds and spirits more interesting than massa-cres or wars; it still haunts.

                                                                       Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone

                                                                        Distinguished Service Professor,

                                                                        University of Chicago.


T hree centuries ago Pemaqutd was a vast, vaguely bounded expanse of Indian tribal lands centering around what is now the town of Bristol, Maine. It fronted on no fewer than fifty miles of Atlantic littoral and incorporated scores of offshore islands such as Georges, Monhegan, and Damariscove.

It was—and is—permeated with unrecorded, unrecognized, unsubstantiated, for-gotten history. Unquestionably it was the real birthplace of New England and the northeast U.S.A. Fishermen from England had at least summer settlements there decades before the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod; in fact their handouts saved the Pilgrims from starvation, but the Peinaquidians seemed to prefer anonymity to avoid attracting competitors to their locale.

Take me hack to the Pemaquid of about 1650. I’d like to have a long chat with honest old Samoset, “Lord of Pemaquid,” “Lord of Monhegan”—the Indian who brought his friend Massasoit to Plymouth Colony in 1621 and immortalized him-self by greeting the Pilgrims in passable English: “Much welcome, Englishmen.

Much welcome, Englishmen.” He had picked up his English accent in exchanges with countless British fishermen, captains, and explorers on his home ground at Pemaquid . His life spanned the whole era of the exploration and settlement of Maine.

As one of the few recognized on-the-spot participants in and observers of New England events, he would be capable of putting into perspective and giving a vivid review of what actually transpired in his province; he might give the earliest New England history an entirely new slant, even though he entertained a conviction that the white man, with his insatiable appetite for dried codfish, was a little eccentric. He alone could reconstruct the authentic Pemaqiiid scene covering a period that I, as a longtime summer resident, would like to have witnessed.

                                                                                 W. Storrs Lee, retired,

former Dean, Middlebury College.



O N MAY 18, 1675, A HANDBELL RANG FROM THE EAST SHORE OF LAKE MICHIGAN. It was the only sound that afternoon in all the vast wilderness of lake and hills and forest, and it marked the passing of a Jesuit Father, Jacques Marquette. His great and stirring mission among the Illinois Indians had come to an end on Easter morning when he celebrated mass before five thousand of them. They had stood in rings around him in an open field —old men, chiefs, and warriors, with women and children on the outer fringe. No Indian had ever experienced anything like that service: if not all of them were con-verted, all were deeply moved. The young men escorted Marquette and his two French companions from their town to the head of Lake Michigan to say farewell. They did not try to keep him with them but begged him to come back when he was able. They knew that he was very ill, and had been desperately so when he had returned the fall before to winter with them according to his promise.

His canoe, paddled by Pierre Porteret and a voyageur, Jacques Largillier, followed d the eastern shore. When, days later, they came to a stream beside a small hill, Mar-quette told them to stop there so he could end his life on land. All winter, besides other ailments, he had suffered from dysentery; now it was a raging, bloody flux.

When he died, one of the men whispered the names of Mary and Jesus in his ear as he had asked. The other rang the bell. I wish I might have been there to hear those small and lonely notes. They marked the end of the most spiritual and also down-to -earth of all the Jesuit missionaries, and also the end of a simplicity and faith that were not to be reborn in America.

                                             Walter D. Edmonds, Concord, Massachusetts.

Author of, most recently , The Night Raider.


Maybe it’s my Quaker ancestry ( on the paternal side) that has me choosing personally to witness a small jewel of a thing that happened in nascent Pennsylvania on February 27, 1684. Back then, it seems, Quakers were not altogether immune to the witch-mindedness of their day; and here was an elderly woman, doubtless psychotic, on trial for witchcraft. William Penn, creator of the colony and emporarily a resident there, lent his proprietary presence and took part in examining the accused. “Art thou a witch?” he asked her. “Hast thou ever ridden through the air on a broomstick?” The poor old thing insisted that indeed she had. Penn told her in effect that he knew of no law against it and recommended that the jury dismiss her. So they found her guilty not of witch craft but merely of having the “common fame of being a witch” and set her free

To have been there would have shown one what must have been the most benevolent poker face ever seen. Further, this was probably the most civilized thing to have occurred on the North American continent since Columbus’s landing—a spontaneous leap ahead of the terms of the time. And for relish, I don’t doubt the old lady hobbled away pretty huffy about not having been taken seriously.

                                                      J. C. Furnas, author of Fanny Kemble,

                                                             winner of the 1984 George Freedley award

                                                             of the Library of Performing Arts.


I would like to have been in the British ranks on the Plains of Abraham on the morning of September 13, 1759, at the moment when Wolfe’s British army defeated Montcalm’s French forces. Rarely have single battles proved decis-I’ve to history, but those that have so proved were usually enormously decisive. Wolfe’s victory was one such engagement.

Although more war would follow, that battle essentially ended the French empire in North America, an empire that had contended with the English colonies over the course of one hundred and fifty years for the culture, the economy, the native inhabitants, the soil, and the soul of North America. Wolfe’s victory ensured that North America would be mostly English-speaking, but it also, because of British imperial policy, ensured that a French culture would survive in a British Canada.

British Canada was one of the many causes of the American Revolution that result-ed in an independent United States. American opposition to, and then friendship with, British Canada figured in many major events in American history, from the westward movement to the Civil War, to the titanic struggles against Germany in the twentieth century.

The language we speak, the culture we embrace, the American history we study, and the policies our government follows today, we owe in part to that fateful engagement west of Quebec city.

                                               Franklin B. Wickwire, Professor

                                                             of History, University of Massachusetts

                                                                                  at Amherst.




Consequently, I would like to have been there when Kidd buried his treasure, when HMS Vulture docked in New York and the fleeing Benedict Arnold had his interview with Sir Henry Clinton, and when Jack Kennedy had his date (if he did) with Marilyn Monroe. I would be rather gripped by watching Squanto brief the Pilgrims on how to cope with the New England winter; and seeing John Adams,

as our first ambassador to our ex-king, try to make conversation with that d-d-d-difficult old m-m-m-monarch; and Peter Cooper nursing his little teakettle, the Tom Thumb, in the race with the horse. Or Lincoln wisecracking at a cabinet meeting.

But most of all, I would like to have been at Lexington Green on the morning of the nineteenth of April, 1775. It might be possible to discern who actually firedfirst, a question argued ever since, but what interests me much more is the spirit of the moment, the attitude of the British officer, Major Pitcairn; of John Parker, the militia captain; of the disciplined but ignorant Redcoats, of the farmers, and of onlookers. It’s one thing to be part of history, but rather different, ordinary, horrible to be there and be hit. All over quickly, they say, whereupon the drums pick up the beat and the fifes play and the files parade off to Concord and the rude bridge of Emerson’s hymn. Even so, long ago, in the Roman Empire; on the Belgian border when the Uhlans heaved up the gates of a village and paraded in; all over the world since time began. Tum-ta-ta-tum, and we march. Maybe the drums are a bigger menace than the weapons.

                                                             Oliver Jensen, one of the founders of

                                                                                  American Heritage magazine.


July 8, 1776, was a warm, sunny day in Philadelphia, and as the hour of noon approached, people began to gather in the statehouse yard. Residents mingled with others who had traveled from the surrounding countryside. Although one observer commented, “There were few respectable people among them,” those present in-cluded Mayor Samuel Powel, other city officials, and some members of the Continental Congress . As the yard began to fill, the people waited patiently, their eyes occasionally seeking the platform of the crudely constructed structure erected in 1769 for observing the transit of Venus.

The crowd had become restless when, shortly after twelve, Philadelphia’s sheriff, William Dewees, arrived and climbed the observatory stairs followed by his acting deputy, Col. John Nixon. As Dewees approached the railing and prepared to speak, the people quieted. “Under the authority of the Continental Congress and by order of the Committee of Safety,” he began, “I proclaim a declaration of independence.” Colonel Nixon then stepped forward and proceeded to read the document.

The people listened attentively as he read, and when he had finished, they demonstrated their approbation with three hearty huzzahs. There was little comment as the crowd dispersed. Some followed the speakers to the courthouse, where the document was again read, and then observed as the king’s arms were removed first from the courthouse and then from the statehouse. Others made their way to Armitage’s tavern to while away a few hours. For most of them the Declaration was not new, for it had been published in the Philadelphia newspapers two days earlier and again that morning.

It was not until evening that the city properly celebrated the momentous decision that had been announced that day. It was a pleasant night, the sky filled with stars, and great bonfires were lighted throughout the city. The arms of King George III were taken out to the commons, placed on a pile of casks, and burned as the crowd watched and cheered. All through the night the bells of the churches tolled, remind-ing the people that they had been witnesses to the beginning of a new era in Amer-ican history.

                                                      Silvio A. Bendini, Keeper of the Rare

                                                             Books of the Smithsonian Institution.


T HERE IS ONE SUPREME EVENT that I’d like to have witnessed: the Constitutional Convention, and more specifically the unrecorded deliber-ations of the Committee of Detail and especially the Committee of Eleven that submitted its report on August 24, 1787. The central issue, which would be resolved only by force of arms in the Civil War, was defined by George Mason of Virginia: it was whether the general government would have the power to “prevent the increase of slavery.” In August it appeared that the convention faced a non-negotiable conflict over the future of American slavery. We know the bare details about the adoption of the three-fifths compromise, the slave-trade extension clause, and the fugitive-slave clause. But we know very little about the actual deals made or the meanings attached to such crucial words as migration, commerce, import-ation, and such persons.

As an inside witness at Philadelphia I could easily test Staughton Lynd’s hypothesis that a secret bargain was struck by the two deliberative bodies: the North win-ning the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest in exchange for the three-fifths representation of slaves. Despite all that has been written on the subject, these agreements, which ran counter to so many vital regional interests, are still the great-est mystery in American history. They go far beyond the somewhat limited issue of black slavery. An understanding of what really went on in Philadelphia ( and possibly New York) would enrich our understanding of negotiated compromise between irreconcilable forces—clearly an issue of continuing importance. It would also tell us much about the nature of the federal Union and the validity of conflict-ing interpretations that led to America’s greatest internal crisis.

                                                                                  David Brion Davis,

                                                                                  Sterling Professor of History,

                                                                                  Yale University

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