by David Brion Davis
Nothing can overcome apathy, boredom, or contempt for the past as quickly and effectively as primary sources. Eyewitness accounts of a battle or bitter legislative debate can have the power of a fax or e-mail just received, evaporating the gap between past and present. Such sources enable readers to identify with men and women long dead and to suddenly understand how decisions made in the past continue to haunt our lives. No less important, as we learn to listen to these voices we gain a growing sense of the complexity and contingency of past events. How different would America be today if the British had defeated the Americans in their struggle for independence, or if the United States had been drawn into England's war against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, or if Jefferson had lost the election of 1800 to Aaron Burr, or if the South had moved before the Civil War toward gradual emancipation of slaves while enacting strict "black codes" to maintain a servile labor force and white supremacy, or if Britain and France had recognized and actively aided the southern Confederacy?
Primary sources can encourage readers to see history from opposing viewpoints and to understand the values and perspectives of history's losers. If we wish to comprehend the decisions, forces, and institutions that have shaped American society, it is essential to hear the arguments of Loyalists and British generals as well as American patriots, Jefferson and Madison as well as Hamilton and John Marshall, proslavery theorists as well as abolitionists. If we are to benefit from history we must even learn to see the world through the eyes of rogues and villains, including the worst perpetrators of evil, such as eighteenth-century slave traders and twentieth-century Nazis. How else, after all, can we understand the roots of human depravity or the convergence of events that make evil happen? Like it or not--and America's antihistorical culture has long attempted to conceal this fact--the past shapes and governs much of our present-day reality; and whatever liberation we can achieve from that unknown past depends in large part on accurate knowledge. To deny this truth is to chain ourselves even more rigidly to a past misunderstood and easily mythologized in terms of the children of light overcoming the children of darkness, or of demonic forces subverting a golden age.
This interpretive anthology of 366 documents moves from the European discovery