I Wish I'd Been There


I would most like to have been once in the presence of George Washington. In that rich lifetime were many revealing moments, but my choice would be March 15, 1783. Britain had conceded the military triumph of the American colonies. Fighting had ceased. But despite the promise of impending peace, a binding treaty was not in place. Washington held warily to “an old and true maxim that to make a good peace, you ought to be prepared to carry on the war.” Yet to his dismay, throughout his officer corps, the indispensable backbone of the army he must hold intact, raged such anger against the indifference of Congress to their needs that an ugly proposal of mutiny bad won support. Washington called a meeting and addressed his malcontents in person. He asked for their continued patience with Congress, implored them not to sully their glorious achievement by a disgraceful act, and promised his intervention on their behalf. As he read his remarks, he paused. He took out his spectacles and begged his audience ‘s indulgence while putting them on, observing that he had grown old in their service and now found himself growing blind. That gesture, an officer remembered later, “forced its way into the heart.” And Washington prevailed. It was a quintessential Washingtonian gesture, genuine but also studied, for he had mastered the histrion-ics as well as the dynamics of leadership. It was one of his great moments, and to have been there would have been one of mine.

                                                                        George F. Scheer,

                                                                                  free-lance historian, editor

                                                                                  and author of several works

                                                                                  on revolutionary America.


I would like to have witnessed the decisive moment when the amendments of

the Bill of Rights were adopted, when freedom of the press, of speech, of religion, of assembly and all the other citizen rights were set into the Constitution. Without this affrmation of the rights of individuals as against the power of the state, our country might have taken a far different course. The twentieth century has shown that although literacy has increased in most of the countries of the world, as in our own, even the educated citizen is helpless if there are no established and widely accepted curbs on the power of the state.

                                                      Millicent Fenwick, Ambassador to the

                                                             United States Mission to the United

                                                             Nations Agencies for Food and Agricul-

                                                             ture and former U. S. Congresswoman.


My wish would put me in Thomas Jefferson’s study when he got his come-uppance as a bird watcher. The President, a dedicated naturalist, was a sub-scriber to The American Ornithology, a pioneer work by Alexander Wilson (often called the father of American ornithology) and he had asked Wilson to identify a rare species that had mystified him for years. It was, he wrote, “heard..... but scar-cely ever to be seen but on the top of tallest trees from which it perpetually seren-ades us with the sweetest notes..... clear as those of a nightingale. I have followed it for years without ever but once getting a good view of it.”

Flattered at being appointed presidential adviser on birds, Wilson tried to track down the elusive singer and came to a disappointing conclusion. To avoid a kind of ornithological lèse majesté, however, he never informed Jefferson directly but noted in a volume of his Ornithology that he had been asked about a puzzling bird by a “distinguished gentleman whose name, were I at liberty to give it, would do honor to my humble performance.” And he identified the bird as a wood thrush, which, though a very sweet singer, is anything but rare or even uncommon.

Most bird watchers keep life lists of birds they have seen. I keep one of watchers. So I would like to have been with Jefferson as he read this and to have seen his chagrin at realizing he had succumbed to the watcher’s perennial weakness—an eagerness to puff up his list by making a rarity out of a familiar species. I’ve seen it happen with many birders, but a rara avis like Jefferson would be a notable addition to my list.

                                                               Joseph Kastner, editor. Author of

                                                                        A Species of Eternity, a history of

                                                                        early American naturalists


To have been a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition has long been one of my historical fantasies. To have traversed that vast and silent wilderness, filled with mystery, danger, and beauty, would have been —as Thomas Jefferson once figured it—equivalent to traveling backward in time, beyond the dawn of civilization, to confront unspoiled nature in a way that will never again be possible on this planet.

                                                               David M. Kennedy, Professor

                                                                        of History, Stanford University.


TEN YEARS AGO, I stood on a remote, nondescript rock outcropping in northern Idaho, and in my mind’s eye I conjured up a vision of some men who had preceded me there by more than a century and a half. They were Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery; their arrival at Sherman Peak was the climax of their crossing of the Lob Trail, the Indians’ old buffalo road through the northern Rockies—and in some ways it was the climax of their trans-continental journey.

Lewis and Clark were such extraordinary leaders that much of their great exploration seemed remarkably uneventful. The outcome was in doubt only during those excruciating days on the Lob. Winter was coming on, game was scarce, the terrain almost impassable to man or beast; the men were exhausted, their feet were freezing, they were on starving times. They ate their horses, a raven, a coyote.

It was a near thing, hut when they stumbled up onto Sherman Peak, they could see open prairie to the west, and they knew that their ordeal was over. Soon after, they met a band of Nez Perce Indians. It was the first contact between white men and that estimable tribe, and the amicable Nez Perce received the explorers warmly, provided them with buffalo meat, salmon and camas root, and then guided them down the Snake and the Columbia to the Pacific, thus making possible the complet-ion of a Journey that would irrevocably shape the future. Although Lewis and Clark didn’t find the Northwest Passage they were looking for, they would draw the nation west, and nothing would ever be the same again.

                                                            Don Moser, editor of

                                                             Smithsonian magazine.

Author of The Snake River Country.


I wish I had been with Lewis and Clark in November 1805 when they first glimpsed the object of all their labors, the reward of all their anxieties—the Pacific Ocean— and to have looked over William Clark’s shoulder as he scrib-bled in his logbook: “Ocean in view! 0! the joy.”

They had explored a region more unknown to them than the moon is to us, and accomplished the feat without machines or electronics, but solely by the wills and sinews and spirits of mortal men.

                                                                        Dee Brown, retired Professor of

                                                                        Library Administration, University

                                                                        of Illinois, Urbana

                                                                        Recent book Killdeer Mountain


I would like to have been in St. Louis toward noon on September 23, 1806, when Lewis and Clark and their men returned from the Pacific . Word had preceded them, and a mixed crowd of French, Spanish, blacks, Indians, Canadians, and Americans, some in broadcloth and some in buckskin, were waiting when they pulled into the boat landing at the levee. Gunfire, cheers, excitement.

We in St. Louis knew by then that our country had increased its size majestically by purchasing the Louisiana Territory. We knew—some of us at least—that be-yond the Rockies was a river called variously the Oregon and the Columbia, to which the otter trader Robert Gray had established a claim for the United States— a claim Great Britain disputed.

But what did it all mean? Well, we’d know now. We’d hear it from those burned and bearded homecomers who’d crossed endless plains black with buffalo and had gaped at great, grizzled bears they could hardly believe in; who’d followed the trails of unnamed tribes through deep forests of evergreens, past snowy peaks incalculably high, on and on into what became the American dream of the West. For the first time we could feel it in our bones: our only bound was the western sea. We were truly a continental nation.

                                                                                  David Lavender, author of

                                                                                  The American Heritage :

                                                                                  History of the Great West

                                                                                  and River Runners of the

                                                                                  Grand Canyon.


I would like to have witnessed the opening of the Erie Canal late in October 1825

—the grand procession that started in Buffalo, where the canal boat Seneca Chief moved slowly into the canal carrying two kegs of pure Lake Erie water and a huge portrait of Governor Clinton in a Roman toga. I wish I had been in the procession, preferably riding on the canal boat carrying two Indian youths, two bears, two fawns, et cetera, and of course named Noah’s Ark. Then, after traveling a week on the canal through Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Albany, I wish I had been in New York City for the final “Grand Aquatic Display” as Gov. Clinton poured that Erie water into the Atlantic, and for the mile-and-a-half parade in Manhattan, as throngs—including me—gaped.

Then I would have wanted to take a canal boat west so that I could more closely study the canal walls and bottoms that had to be sealed against boat wash and muskrats; the locks with their stone-lined channels and big wooden gates; the bridges and aqueducts built high over rivers and ravines, strong enough to support boat, crew, and cargo. Sitting back on my “settle” on top of a canalboat, I would contemplate a kind of caste system on the canal: my own long and lean canal packet, the “grandee of the Erie,” carrying only passengers and serving them fine meals; the emigrants’ “line boat,” carrying families and their stoves and furniture and chickens; the freighters carrying owners, horses, and cargo; the shantyboat, a one-room hovel on a flatboat, which moved by hitching a ride on another craft; and—at the bottom of the caste—the timber raft, mere piles of logs lashed together and topped by a shanty for the crew.

                                                                        James MacGregor Burns,

                                                                                  Woodrow Wilson Professor of

                                                                                  Government, Williams College.

                                                                                  Recent book:

                                                                                             The Power to Lead.


I’D LIKE TO HAVE BEEN A WAITER AT BROWN S INDIAN QUEEN HOTEL in the City of Washington in the year 1830. While I would like to confine my duties to a single evening, April 13, it would be worth a year carrying dishes just to be there that evening. The dinner menu doesn’t matter— no one now remembers. It was the toasts that counted. And not the twenty-four regular ones (real drinkers there were in those days) hut the volunteers. The President of the United States had decided to use the occasion. He was ready fir his many enemies in rebellious South Carolina, where the wretched word nullification had been heard again in regard to a federal tariff. Hayne had opposed Webster in the Senate, and the President had had enough of it. In the days before the dinner he had scribbled out several possible toasts and pitched them into the fire until he got the right one. Holding up his glass that evening, white hair shining, everyone on his feet, Martin Van Buren on a chair so he could see, Old Hickory fixed his glance on John C. Calhoun: “Our Union: It must be preserved.” Calhoun had risen with the rest, and his hand trenbled so that a little yellow wine trickled down the side of his glass.

                                                      Robert H. Ferrell, Distinguished

                                                             Professor of History, Indiana University,

                                                             Bloomington. Author of, most recently,

                                                                                  Truman: Centenary

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Church of the Science of GOD, 1993
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