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Author Looks at Fact, Fiction in US History - 2004-07-01

Writer Kenneth Davis says American history is full of adventure and surprises. The author of the book Don't Know Much about History is slowly convincing Americans that the subject isn't boring.

Mr. Davis says he first felt the force of history as a nine-year old child when he visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of an historic 1863 battle in the American Civil War. Some 50,000 soldiers on the Northern and Southern sides were either killed or wounded there.

"Standing there in those fields in the summer heat, feeling something extraordinary had happened here, you can't stand in that place and not feel that you're in the midst of something extraordinary and something very deep," he says. "So for me, history was always about the humanity, the people, and not always necessarily the famous people."

He says the great social or political movements in the United States often started with ordinary people.

"Whether we're talking about the abolition of slavery, the movement for women to vote, the suffrage movement as it was called, even the temperance movement that prohibited alcohol, the civil rights movement, all these things came from the bottom up, they were grassroots movements, usually that the politicians resisted to the very end and had to be dragged kicking and screaming every inch of the way," he notes.

Mr. Davis recounts the stories of such movements in his book, which has now sold 1.5 million copies. He has written similar works on geography, the Bible, and other subjects for both adults and children.

He says one lesson he draws from history is that people can change the country by mobilizing their neighbors or by voting. Sometimes, he adds, change comes about through the force of an individual personality.

"Whether it's a Washington and a Thomas Jefferson in the early days of America or a Franklin D. Roosevelt, or a Ronald Reagan, these are people whose personalities and character do absolutely make a difference on their times," he adds.

He says these people were often flawed. Jefferson, for example, was a great champion of liberty and author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But he was also a slave owner. And two of the country's founding fathers were locked in a bitter feud that proved deadly for one of them.

"200 years ago, on July 11, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr faced off at 10 paces and Burr shoots Hamilton and kills him in a duel," he says. "This was the sitting vice president of America and the former secretary of the treasury of America. Can you imagine today [Vice President] Dick Cheney challenging [former treasury secretary] Paul O'Neill to a duel because he didn't like his book? That moment speaks to the extraordinary larger-than-life characters who have peopled American history during these 228 years since we became a nation."

While Americans often overlook such episodes, not all the stories they cherish are accurate. For example, the tale is widely told about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree as a youngster, then admitting it to his father, unable to tell a lie. As far as historians know, it never happened.

But the writer says the real story of the nation is much more interesting than the list of dates and battles taught in schools. He says the story is as engaging as any found in fiction.