VIDEO: History Lessons – Working with Original Manuscripts in the Contemporary Classroom

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Overview

A conversation with Gil Troy, Sara Willen, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Nathan Sleeter. Leading scholars discuss how we take the treasures of the past and turn them into relevant lesson plans that teach middle and high school social studies students how to think like historians. The four lesson plans are based on primary sources from the Shapell Manuscript Collection, and provide teachers and students the opportunity to explore meaningful, and sometimes lesser-known, scenes from history. Each lesson plan fits within state and national educational standards and includes ideas for differentiation, assessment form, and document-based questions.

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Transcript

Thea Wieseltier:
Good evening and welcome to our program. I’m Thea Wieseltier, Director of Public Affairs for The Shapell Manuscript Foundation, and I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about the foundation.

Thea Wieseltier:
A passion over 40 years in the making, Benjamin Shapell began collecting signed presidential manuscripts in the 1970s. His carefully curated collection has grown to include thousands of original letters and documents relating to starred figures and world events, spanning as far back as the late 1700s, and all the way to the end of the 20th century, including the American presidents, especially Lincoln, Zionism, American jewelry, and the Civil War, as well as Custer and Mark Twain.

Thea Wieseltier:
With a devotion to education, the public, and showcasing primary source material, Ben Shapell founded The Shapell Manuscript Foundation, and has initiated and produced groundbreaking research, books, articles, exhibitions, documentary films, and videos. In 2015, Benjamin Shapell co-authored along with professor Jonathan Sarna, Lincoln & The Jews: A History, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

Thea Wieseltier:
The foundation has partnered with both private and governmental institutions such as the New York Historical Society, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the U.S. National Archives, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Oregon Historical Society, the National Library of Israel, and various presidential and private libraries.

Thea Wieseltier:
I’d like to take a moment to thank all of my colleagues at the foundation: Ben Shapell of course; notably who have worked on this program, Eliza Colander and Ariane Weisel Margalit for their time and expertise in helping to make this evening’s program a success.

Thea Wieseltier:
And now I’d like to introduce you to our distinguished panel. Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor at the Joseph R. & Bell R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, where he directs its Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He is also the Past President of the Association for Jewish Studies and Chief Historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

Thea Wieseltier:
Jonathan is the author or editor of more than 30 books on American Jewish history and life. Jonathan’s most recent books are When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Lincoln & The Jews: A History with Benjamin Shapell; and an edition of Cosella Wayne by Cora Wilburn, the first American Jewish novel.

Thea Wieseltier:
Our next panelist is Nathan Sleeter. Nate directs educational projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & News Media. A former middle and high school teacher, Nate earned his PhD in history in 2017, and now helps develop online resources for history teachers and students. In particular, these resources emphasize active engagement with historical evidence and modeling for students how historians approached the best.

Thea Wieseltier:
Next, we have my colleague, the admirable Sara Willen. Sara has worked with antiquarian manuscript as a dealer, auction house director, forensic expert, and curator. She has written about manuscripts and American history for many, many years. For 16 years, Sara has been and continues to be the Curator in Chief of the Shapell Manuscript Collection.

Thea Wieseltier:
Last but never least, I’d like to introduce my dear friend and colleague Gil Troy. Gil is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, an award-winning American presidential historian, and the author of nine books on the American presidency. One leading historian called The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s the best book on the man and his times. Gil has also recently edited and updated the classic multi-volume History of American Presidents Campaign, originally edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr and Fred Israel. Gil’s latest book is co-authored with the former Soviet prisoner of Zion and human rights activist Natan Sharansky, Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People.

Thea Wieseltier:
And now, I will turn it over to my good friend Gil Troy. Thank you.

Gil Troy:
Thank you Thea, and good evening one and all. It’s a particular thrill for me to be a part of this conversation because my father, Bernard Troy, was a social studies teacher at Richmond Hill High School, and growing up I remember two things in particular. One was this dreaded thing called Marking Weekend, and this was in the pre-computer age. He would come in with these stacks of index cards and these things called Delaney Cards from the Delaney books where he took attendance. And my job as a little eight year old and 10 year old and 12 year old was to count the number of absences people had, as my math got better to tally up the averages, and to help him do the grading.

Gil Troy:
But he also would come home with the most wonderful books. Books about American history, and books also filled with documents. And from my dad, at an early age I learned about the magic of the document, how one little document can change the world. Sometimes it can be one of the most famous documents like the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Other times, just a little letter, a little [inaudible 00:06:27], a little ticket, can open up a whole world and help us understand the power, the majesty, and sometimes the tragedy and challenge of history and of American history.

Gil Troy:
It’s no secret that we’re meeting during very difficult times, and I think we’ve all been reminded again these last couple of days that historians are not just keepers of the national memories, but we also have a special job as custodians of the national soul. And nations, especially democratic nations, especially functioning democracies, healthy democracies, do indeed have a soul and need a soul. It doesn’t matter where we stand politically, this is not a partisan point. But one of the things we need to do with American history, not just to own it as ours, not just to become familiar with it as our story, but also to see what values can we learn from different periods. What lessons can we learn from different periods, without romanticizing but without also overly demonizing the people from the past.

Gil Troy:
I like to tell my students that my favorite text is context, that the dance in history is taking a piece of paper, taking a text, and putting it in broader context. But the truth is, and I think we’ll see this tonight, that you can’t really get into this business, I think all you teachers know this, without also loving the texts themselves. And I’m so thrilled to be in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Hats off to Ben Shapell who’s done this extraordinary job with his team of collecting these documents. Hats off to Thea and Eliza and the whole team. You can see the depth of the passion and the insight and the commitment to the texts, but also to bringing the texts to life, and tonight to sharing the texts with the public in general.

Gil Troy:
But the most important public are learners, are students, through our most important intermediaries, you, our holy teachers, and it really is a sacred job. That was also something that you learned growing up in a household of two New York City schoolteachers, just how hard a job it was, how underpaid a job it is, how underappreciated a job it is, but also how important and magical a job it is.

Gil Troy:
And it’s this first step in taking the texts, making sure these documents aren’t just locked away in some safe house somewhere. First, books are now being written, especially as we’re going to discover Jonathan Sarna’s extraordinary book that he wrote with Benjamin Shapell about Lincoln and the Jews. But also, our friend Nate Sleeter who we’re just going to meet momentarily has taken four of the central topics built on some of the most exciting documents in the collection, and created educational curricula. And the curricula are opportunities really for us to think through how do we bring a moment alive, how do we bring an individual alive, what lessons can we learn, what values can we bring.

Gil Troy:
And if we look at the four different moments, the four different groups of texts that we’re going to look at tonight and that you can find on the Shapell Foundation’s website, the first is Abraham Lincoln & The Jews, if you want me to go chronologically. And when we look at the whole question of Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, we ask a compelling question. What were Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes towards religious minorities such as Jews and Catholics?

Gil Troy:
Joe Biden is going to be inaugurated as the second Catholic President of the United States of America. Back in 1960 when John Kennedy ran, it was a huge deal. And back in the 1860s, Catholics were a quite hated minority. What did it mean for Abraham Lincoln to deal with Catholics, to deal with Jews, to deal with religious minorities, and how did his approach differ from others at the time? So that’s Abraham Lincoln and the Jews, Abraham Lincoln and minorities.

Gil Troy:
We’re going to look at the question of Mark Twain and his extraordinary visit to the Holy Land, and what did that mean? Where did that come from? What technological changes allowed that to happen? And with Americans visiting the Holy Land and Palestine in increasing numbers 1865 to 1900, what messages did they bring back from that old promised land to the new promised land? What reasons did they have for going? And what can we sitting in a modern 21st century classroom learn about that 19th century experience?

Gil Troy:
We’re going to look at Theodore Roosevelt and the 1912 campaign, a campaign he did not win, but a campaign where he really brought out some key ideas of progressivism which continue to be central ideas that we struggle with to this day. We’ll be asking what qualities did Theodore Roosevelt possess that made his third party campaign appealing to voters? What would it have been like to run a third party campaign for an ex president? What was Theodore Roosevelt like? And what are some of the values and lessons we can still learn from his life?

Gil Troy:
And finally, we’re going to look at John Kennedy. We’ll ask what does it mean to have a life of service? What does it mean to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth and decide I’m not live a life of indulgence? Although I’ll have my fun, I’ll have my goodies, I’ll have my creature comforts, but I’m going to give back to the community, give back to the people, give back to the nation. And what lessons can we in the 21st century learn from this man who of course was tragically assassinated in another dark day in American history in 1963.

Gil Troy:
So that’s our agenda. We have three and a half hours, just kidding, together, and let’s meet Nate Sleeter and start thinking about what does it mean to take these extraordinary texts that Benjamin Shapell and his team have found connected to Mark Twain and his visit to the promised land, to Palestine, in the 19th century, and bring it alive to a 21st century classroom.

Gil Troy:
So Nate, I’d like to welcome you to unmute and video on, and say hello to everyone. And we heard one line about your biography, but tell us who are you and how do you get into this kind of business? What are you doing teaching kids how to bring American history documents alive?

Nathan Sleeter:
Yeah, well absolutely. I’d love to talk about that. I started out as a history teacher, special education teacher, middle school and high school. But I loved history, and I loved the research part, so I went back and got my PhD in history, and now I feel like I get the best of both words is that I get to work with teachers all the time. I get to work creating materials for students. I get to work in professional development. And I still get to dig into history, so I get to support that important work in the classroom while also investigating history myself. So I’m really appreciative of that opportunity and that the collaboration with Shapell has been fantastic because obviously an organization that’s committed to spreading history, getting history out there in front of students and especially these fantastic primary sources.

Gil Troy:
So I’m sitting in a 21st century classroom. These days unfortunately I’m Zooming in, many of us deal with a 21st century classroom. Why should I care about Mark Twain and his visit to somewhere 6,000 miles away from my home, or 9,000 miles away from my home depending on which coast to coast on that?

Nathan Sleeter:
Right. Well how much time have you got, right? Maybe we need three and a half hours to answer that question. But I think-

Gil Troy:
[inaudible 00:14:50] every time we say three and a half hours.

Nathan Sleeter:
It’s just a joke. There should be a big joke, “Just a joke.”

Nathan Sleeter:
I mean that’s a fantastic question. I think there’s two ways to look at it, and one way the past always has a presence in our lives. The way things have been in the past tells us about the present, informs the present. The past is never past, I think that’s really true.

Nathan Sleeter:
And then the other side of it, what I emphasize in my working with teachers is really how to engage with evidence. So no matter what you’re studying, I think it’s really important to teach students how to engage with primary sources. As you mentioned, we’re now in a time where this ability to analyze your source of information and try to contextualize it and see where it’s from and maybe not wholly accept it or wholly reject it is a crucial, crucial skill. And I just think that’s something that we need to encourage in the history classrooms and humanities classrooms, and luckily we have wonderful sources to do that.

Gil Troy:
I really appreciate that you used the word evidence because it really gets to one of the things that we are, we’re the truth tellers. We’re the truth seekers. And part of the reason why we use the documents is not just for entertainment, not just for [inaudible 00:16:06], not just to bring the world alive, but to actually make a case that’s based on facts, based on what really happened.

Gil Troy:
So invite us into your little world. Tell us a little bit about Mark Twain and the Holy Land and some of the sources that you have here.

Nathan Sleeter:
Absolutely. I should say I worked on these materials with a really great graduate student named Christ Stinson. And when we started this project in talking with folks from the Shapell Foundation, Ariane and Eliza, we really wanted to build the lessons and the teacher materials out of the collection. We didn’t set out to say, “These are the stories we want to tell. Let’s go looking for the sources.” We were going to build it from the strength of the collection.

Nathan Sleeter:
And the one we really were drawn to, intrigued but, right away is this phenomenon of American tourists traveling to the Holy Land the latter half of the 19th century. I mean as you mentioned, this is an exciting time in U.S. history where technological change is really making the world a smaller place in lots of ways. You have railroads, you have steam powered ships now, and people can travel. And Americans want to travel, Americans want to see other parts of the world. This is a bible-reading culture of largely American protestants, and they want to see the places that they read about in the bible.

Nathan Sleeter:
So this opens up this whole industry of tourism for them and just so many different connections in U.S. history you can find that intersect at this point, I think it’s really fascinating. And then Twain, which I’ll talk about later too, Twain’s just an excellent observer of all this, and he’s particular an excellent observer of the expectation versus reality that a lot of these tourists come up against when they actually travel to what was then British Palestine.

Gil Troy:
So let’s play show and tell. Show me what you got.

Nathan Sleeter:
Okay, excellent. Well the first source I want to show you, if we could put up the poster. I’d like to go through this, and not only talk about this poster but actually talk about how I like to introduce primary sources in the classroom, how I like to encourage teachers to approach these things. And the main thing that I want to leave you with if you forget everything else I say, I want you to remember this that students really need to take their time when looking at these sources, really need to sit with them for extended periods and try to notice details.

Nathan Sleeter:
And I feel like in some ways that’s easier said than done, right? A lot of education today is built on efficiency and speed and try to get this number of math problems done in this amount of time. And then figure out the main idea of this paragraph and figure out the supporting details and then move on. But I think history isn’t built that way. I think history is built on kind of slow thinking, so I want you to take time to look at this great travel poster. It’s from 1898, it’s a French travel poster. Really take time to look at it, notice the details.

Nathan Sleeter:
I think a lot of history is built, thinking about this word distractions and all the times teachers are worried about kids getting distracted, but I think history is about kind of a controlled distraction. You wind up noticing a detail you hadn’t noticed before that follows you down a path that maybe you have a whole new way to analyze this evidence. I really do think that happens.

Gil Troy:
[inaudible 00:19:24] said that if math is fast food, history is slow cooking and slow food. Just give us a sentence or two about Mark Twain about why he’s going to Palestine and help contextualize this-

Nathan Sleeter:
Sure, sure, absolutely-

Gil Troy:
-Context from a favorite text.

Nathan Sleeter:
Twain, we know him as a fiction author, but he is just as well-known in his time as a travel author. And he’s written these wonderful travel books. Also he lived in Germany for a time. If you ever struggled with German, he has a great essay on the impossibility of learning German.

Nathan Sleeter:
But one of his big hits was this book called Innocence Abroad, which chronicled his trip around the Mediterranean, kind of culminating in the Holy Land. It’s a fascinating look, and what I think he really captured is how the Americans who went there really struggled with what they thought the Holy Land was going to be and what they actually encountered because of course they’re not visiting the land from the bible that they’re reading about. So that’s why he’s there, he’s an expert chronicler of that.

Nathan Sleeter:
But what I think is also interesting is that he gets caught up in this discrepancy too. When he goes there, his expectations aren’t met too, and that’s one of the others sources that we have here kind of documents that I think in a really interesting way and adds a whole nother layer to Mark Twain.

Gil Troy:
What’s the source? Tell us-

Nathan Sleeter:
Well this is the letter, should we put up the letter?

Nathan Sleeter:
Yeah, so this is a letter that Mark Twain writes, and it’s really fascinating. There’s also a transcript of this on the website if you want to take a closer look at it. But the line that gets me, the line that’s fascinating, is that he says, “So now I call it the American Vandal abroad. I am one of those myself.” And just to think about the American Vandal versus the Innocence Abroad, the vandal abroad versus the innocence abroad, I think that would be a fascinating comparison to put to students. I think it’s great to get students thinking about why things are titled anyway. What’s the author trying to do in titling their work this way? What are they trying to direct you towards?

Nathan Sleeter:
So what’s the conflict and maybe what’s the commonality between an innocent abroad and a vandal abroad, and how does that compare to what we think a tourist normally does. If tourism somehow maybe takes from a place, that co-modifies a place for someone to consume. There’s lots of really, really interesting connections that you can bring up in a letter like this and brings out a whole nother layer of analysis with the experiences of these people traveling at the time.

Gil Troy:
And of course it reminds us that this isn’t an age of email, this isn’t an age of easy phone calls. This is an age of writing letters. He of course gets there by ship, and that’s also talking about slow cooking, the slow process of getting there and going from port to port and the whole technological revolution triggered by the transportation and communication revolution is a connection.

Gil Troy:
Let’s think broadly. How could I work this into my curriculum? What would be my entry points to a conversation about Twain and Palestine? How could it prop up my history curriculum?

Nathan Sleeter:
I think it’s a starting off point or a connection point for any number of other stories. Teachers are definitely going to be teaching about the industrial revolution, and that’s a story often of factories and inner cities and immigration and that. But it’s also this story. It’s this story of people going to new places. At the same time, we are transitioning into War of 1812 and the internationalization, the United States becoming this international power. Well this is part of that story too, Americans becoming interested in what’s beyond their borders and traveling to those places and learning about those places, wanting to go to those places.

Nathan Sleeter:
It can be a difficult transition area at the end of the Civil War, then to reconstruction, then to the 20th century, and I think this is one of those stories that provides a lot of linkages in between to become major themes of U.S. history.

Gil Troy:
And they’re traveling because it’s there, but they’re actually specifically going to the Holy Land, to the promised land. What’s that all about? And what’s the connection? I mean Mark Twain is a marvelous writer and his books might’ve sold about any country, he could’ve made any country interesting, but I think going to Palestine was particularly interesting, and tell us about that connection.

Nathan Sleeter:
I mean of course Mark Twain is a great religious skeptic, but I think also there’s undergirding him this sense of faith too. And he’s a very interesting figure in that respect. And I think a lot of his approach to these things … I found this great quote in Innocence Abroad which talks about the pilgrims as he calls his fellow travelers, they go there seeking the Palestine that they read about. So the Presbyterians see the Presbyterian Palestine, and the Episcopalians seek the Episcopalian Palestine, and he knows exactly what they’re going to say because he says, “I know the books that they [inaudible 00:24:48] their ideas from.”

Nathan Sleeter:
So he’s very attuned to issues of faith and the foibles of it and the hypocrisies of it in many cases, and he’s just in a great position to analyze and kind of skewer this American chauvinism, while also being affected by it himself. He’s not immune to this discrepancy either.

Gil Troy:
So on one hand, we can use these texts to go back to the 19th century to see what it’s like to be focusing on writing and on sailing and all that. But on the other hand, we’re completely in 21st century: questions of faith, questions of skepticism.

Gil Troy:
And what I most liked, and this will end it and say thank you for your excellent work not only on this curriculum part but in the entire curriculum initiative, on the question of preconceptions. Isn’t it so important for us to teach our students that we come into any situation, it could be a social situation, it could be a political situation, with one set of preconceptions. And we often know what they are, we know where they may come from. But we have to be open to learning new things, and that gets back to the truthiness of that critical word you used at the beginning, evidence.

Gil Troy:
So thank you very much Nate, and I wish we could go on all night with this, but I’d like to now turn to my good friend and esteemed colleague Jonathan Sarna, from whom I’ve learned so much over the years, really one of my historical heroes in so many ways. And Jonathan, let’s again just start. Just tell us a little bit about yourself and how do you end up stumbling onto Lincoln and the Jews.

Jonathan Sarna:
So I’m American Jewish historian, and I actually came to Lincoln via Ulysses S. Grant. When I was writing my big book on American Judaism, I wrote the section on General Grant’s order expelling the Jews. I did what historians do. I read the literature, I synthesized it, and I said to myself, “There’s more to this story. It doesn’t all add up. How come people haven’t looked more closely at this episode?”

Jonathan Sarna:
And so, a few years later I wrote a book on General Grant called When General Grant Expelled the Jews. I looked for the first time at Ulysses S. Grant’s papers. I looked at his presidency. I tried to rewrite that story. And of course if you’re writing about Ulysses S. Grant and the Civil War, you very quickly come upon Abraham Lincoln. I actually gave a talk about When General Grant Expelled the Jews, in the audience was our friend Ben Shapell. And he came up to me and began telling me about his remarkable collection and how it needed to be brought to a larger audience. And he asked me could we talk more about it, and came to see me at my university.

Jonathan Sarna:
And before I knew it, I was working with him on a book dealing with Lincoln and the Jews, which astonishingly really had not been covered. And from the perspective of a historian like myself, first of all you say, “How can you say anything new about Lincoln?” And then you look at the material that Ben had collected and you realize there is a story here that has not been told. And put in proper context, it sheds light on Lincoln and it sheds light on America as Jews move from a community of 3,000 Jews in a few port cities in 1820 to a community of 150,000 Jews spread across the whole country in 1860.

Jonathan Sarna:
Abraham Lincoln did not know Jews. While he was growing up, the Jews he knew were in the bible. By the time Abraham Lincoln is in Illinois, he knows Jews. He’s met Jews. Jews have moved from being mythical to in his case in Springfield literally being the Jews next door. He has interactions with Jews. And indeed, as part of the book, we really tried to collect of all the Jews with whom Abraham Lincoln interacted, and the book includes a remarkable chart and you realize no previous president interacted with nearly so many Jews as Lincoln did because of the great spread of Jews. And similarly, that Lincoln knew Jews. He had Jewish friends, and because of that he didn’t have to rely on stereotypes.

Jonathan Sarna:
Indeed, he said, “My friend Abraham Jonas is not like that. I can trust Jews. Abraham Jonas is Jewish.” And his sense of Jews is altogether different. And then in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln begins to meet a very strange and unlikely Jewish character named Isachar Zacharie. Isachar Zacharie was probably the finest [inaudible 00:31:17], today we call them podiatrists, foot doctor, in America at that time. Even though he was self-taught, it’s clear that he could do things that others couldn’t. Lincoln had infamously bad feet, and suddenly those two men interacting in the Civil War start a relationship, and one through the letters could really begin to see that.

Jonathan Sarna:
If it’s all right, I’d be glad to show the first testimonial that we have because it really I think illustrates how a historian works. And Abraham Lincoln, and you have the date there, that’s always important, it’s September 20th, 1862. And Zacharie’s really come to Washington because as a podiatrist, a [inaudible 00:32:29] as they said, he believed the military ought to be paying a lot of attention to the feet of its soldiers. Naturally, he would have liked to oversee that. And he’s advised to see Lincoln, and he asks Abraham Lincoln for a testimonial.

Jonathan Sarna:
Now initially you might think gee, that’s the most boring thing I can imagine. Why would a historian be interested? And then you take a look at it, and you read every word. “Dr. Zacharie has with great dexterity taken some troublesome corns from my toes.” And you learn something about problems that people had in the 19th century with their feet. Of course, it was the whole notion of right shoe and left shoe and well-fitting shoes and how important they are have not yet been quite well understood.

Jonathan Sarna:
And then he goes on, and this teaches us something about the history of [inaudible 00:33:42]. “He is now treating me, and I believe with some success, for what plain people call backache. We shall see how it will end.” Now the reason this is so fascinating is in a tiny letter, you get vintage Lincoln. Lincoln was a lawyer, he knew that you needed to be concise and to the point, and that is brief and to the point. Lincoln doesn’t have airs. He associates himself with plain people, and indeed the very term is right there in the letter.

Jonathan Sarna:
And we speak of Honest Abe, he was honest to a fault. Gil, you and I write recommendations for students. My guess is we wouldn’t put in a recommendation, “Oh, we shall see how it will end.” That wouldn’t get somebody a job, but Abraham Lincoln was honest and he hardly knew this man. And so, almost honest to a fault, “We shall see how it will end.” Of course, the good thing about being a historian is I know how it ended. It ended very well, and pretty soon he’s visiting Lincoln and not only caring for him but Lincoln is actually going to send him on secret mission. And you can begin to trace the whole history of these two people and shed light really on an enigmatic figure whom this correspondence brings to life.

Gil Troy:
So from this six line letter, we’re learning first of all how to decipher that code called 19th century handwriting. We’re learning how to read carefully and critically and thoughtfully. We’re learning from that important phrase that you’ve zeroed in on, plain people, the whole notion of the history of democracy and populism and the rise of the president as the head of the plain people. This will be something that Theodore Roosevelt will pick up on from Abraham Lincoln. And so even just from those six lines, we’ve opened up a whole world.

Gil Troy:
Tell us about your second document-

Jonathan Sarna:
So the second document, which is just a couple of months later in the Civil War, has to do with presidential appointments. And again, you might think very mundane, but this is one of these moments when you read a letter and you gasp because it’s so unexpected, so revealing. This is a letter. In those days, they didn’t tweet and they didn’t have email, so even though they weren’t far from one another, Lincoln to the Secretary of War, November 4th, 1862.

Jonathan Sarna:
I mean I remember when I first read the letter, I gasped. “I believe we have not [inaudible 00:37:21] appointed a Hebrew.” That’s astonishing. This is the first case of affirmative action in all of American Jewish history. But more significantly, and a reminder, Abraham Lincoln had a sense there are now Jews in the United States, we ought to be giving them some of these opportunities that others have and there ought to be an appointment of a Hebrew.

Jonathan Sarna:
Now then I had a problem, and the problem was I knew that Abraham Lincoln actually had appointed earlier Jews. It’s not true that he hadn’t appointed a Hebrew. But then, I kept going. And in keeping going, I was able to really understand this letter, if you can make it a little bigger. He writes, “I believe Mr. Levy is a capable and faithful man. Let him be appointed an Assistant Quartermaster with the rank of Captain.”

Jonathan Sarna:
And now I can see this other line. “Mr. Levy is well-vouched as a capable and faithful man.” And again when I read that line, and then learned who Mr. Levy was, I smiled. And this is how one deciphers a letter. This Mr. Levy, his name was [inaudible 00:39:40] Levy. He’s known in the records as Heme Levy, which is an abbreviation. You’ll sometimes see it as Sheri Levy with an R because they didn’t know the name Heme. But he was the son-in-law of Rabbi Morris Rafow, the prominent orthodox rabbi of New York’s congregation [inaudible 00:40:06].

Jonathan Sarna:
And what distinguished Heme Levy from earlier Jews who I knew Abraham Lincoln had appointed is that this Levy was an orthodox Jew. He wasn’t just someone who happened to be Jewish, he was very obviously Jewish. And look at the language Lincoln uses. He’s well-vouched, meaning New Yorkers knew him, and I suspect his father-in-law was very famous. Also wrote about him as a capable and faithful man, and here with typical Lincoln wordplay he is using faithful in two senses. He is faithful because he’s an orthodox Jew, and he’s faithful because he was faithful to the Union, and you have to do both.

Jonathan Sarna:
And then he says, “Let him be appointed Assistant Quartermaster with the rank of Captain,” and Lincoln has gone out of his way to appoint a Jew to the military who will be a role model as a religious and traditional member of the faith.

Gil Troy:
So here we are in November 1862, and we’re talking about issues of I heard affirmative action, of how did the Jewish community grow through immigration, questions of sensitivity to minorities. And of course to bring your two books together, two of your many books but these two books you’ve mentioned, when Ulysses S. Grant comes out with that infamous General Order Number 11, saying Jew peddlers should be removed from the area that he just liberated, conquered, invaded, I don’t want to touch that, called Tennessee. Abraham Lincoln ultimately steps in and says it’s unacceptable.

Gil Troy:
And so there we see how tolerance, like a muscle, can grow when it’s exercised. And as you point out so powerfully in your Ulysses S. Grant book, Grant himself regretted for the rest of his life that moment of bad judgment. And then maybe it reminds us in our very harsh and judgmental age that we maybe shouldn’t judge every one of us and every one of our leaders by the worst moment and the worst thing they ever did, but sometimes by their ability to come back from the brink of something negative to something positive.

Gil Troy:
My late advisor David Herbert Donald said that every great 19th century historian has to ultimately get right with Lincoln. And Jonathan Sarna, I want to salute you and thank you for getting right with Lincoln through this not typical way, but coming through the back door of the Shapell Manuscripts, of these questions of these letters you’ve introduced us in a different way to a human Lincoln. That’s what I call the invisible presidency. It’s not just Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, but it’s Lincoln the human being. It’s Lincoln the values generator, and it’s Lincoln a role model for us today in the 21st century. So thank you very much.

Gil Troy:
And we’re going to go from Abraham Lincoln to another larger than life president, fellow Mount Rushmorian, Theodore Roosevelt. And I’m just going to take a few minutes to introduce a few of the sources that we have in the third curriculum. Right now again, remember each one of these are separate curricular modules. So there’s Twain and the Holy Land or Americans visiting the Holy Land 1865 to 1900. There’s Abraham Lincoln and the Jews and the question of minorities. And this third one, and if we could go to the first image of TR, is Theodore Roosevelt and the 1912 campaign.

Gil Troy:
Theodore Roosevelt was one of these characters, and of course that’s the key word in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. He’s always talking about being a man of character. He is a Harvard grad, cowboy, New York City Police Commissioner, New York City Governor. Ends up being nominated to the vice presidency with William McKinley. And Mark Hanna, William McKinley’s political consultant, famously says, “That’ll mean there’s only one life between that mad man and the American presidency.”

Gil Troy:
And indeed when William McKinley is at the famous Pan Am exhibition, and I should point out that Ben Shapell also has posters from that actual exhibition McKinley has shot, a reminder that unfortunately violence has been underlying throughout American history. And that mad man, that [inaudible 00:45:15] president, Theodore Roosevelt was really larger than life character. One visitor said, “You had to wring his personality out of your clothes after you left him in the Oval Office.” And of course his daughter Alice Roosevelt, who was herself quite a formidable personality, once infamously said, “My father had to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” He was always the center of attention.

Gil Troy:
1900 is when he had been elected Vice President. He inherits the presidency. In 1904 he runs and is elected President. And I would urge everyone to read his inaugural speech where he talks about the qualities that a president should have, a good way to think about what is leadership today. And in 1908, he decides not to run because he wants to respect George Washington’s two term tradition. He has done so much to expand presidential power. He says, “You know what? The smart president understands that you expand presidential power, but you only hold it temporarily,” and he passes the baton on to his chosen one, William Howard Taft.

Gil Troy:
But he’s a little too young. He’s a little too energetic. He’s a little too much of a perfectionist. And he’s a little too much of a publicist to enjoy passing that baton on. And by 1912, after touring Africa, after meeting the kings and queens and princes and princesses of Europe, Theodore Roosevelt is back and he decides to run again.

Gil Troy:
And this picture shows him running in the 1912 campaign, and this is a picture painted in the 1970s. It’s not the most valuable historical artifact in the Shapell collection, but look how illustrative it is. And once again, violence intrudes. On his way to a speech, Roosevelt is shot. The bullet hits him exactly where he had folded up his speech and his glasses in his breast pocket. And he’s hurt, but it doesn’t stop him, and he goes ahead and he gives his speech.

Gil Troy:
And Theodore Roosevelt was on a campaign. He’s trying to bring progressive ideas into America. And ultimately the 1912 campaign will be a great campaign between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft fighting for the republican nomination, popularizing the nomination process through these things called primaries. Taft will win that, but Roosevelt will then decide to run as a third party candidate and it’ll be a three way race between Taft, who increasingly is marginalized, and the democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Gil Troy:
Theodore Roosevelt is going to emphasize that he’s a man of new nationalism. Woodrow Wilson is going to emphasize that he’s a man of new freedom. And William Allen White will infamously dismiss them and say, “The difference between the new nationalism and new freedom is the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” But they feel it’s a big difference. Roosevelt is thinking big picture, the power of big business has to be tamed by a big national government. Woodrow Wilson is thinking the new freedom, the power of big business has to be domesticated, it has to be limited, by spreading freedom more broadly.

Gil Troy:
And Roosevelt is shot, we look at the second letter, and all the sudden we see this important phrase that he says he’s, “Healthy as a bull moose.” And that becomes the … Oh no, I’m sorry. This isn’t the right order. This is a letter from … This is Roosevelt talking about the shock of her husband being shot. And he indeed gives the speech, but then goes on to the hospital. And it’s a reminder that we tend to focus so much, especially in the 19th century on the presidents, but it’s the president, his wife, the family, and we bring in those elements and that helps bring the conversation alive.

Gil Troy:
We go to the next image, and we see the letter going into more details. I’m going go to the next image. We’re going to continue on with our image, and here we see the assurance that he is, “As hearty as a bull moose,” and it becomes known as the bull moose party. And here it’s so exciting to see in the letter, embedded in a letter, a phrase that pops out and becomes one of the key phrases of the 1912 campaign. We also know that it’s Teddy Roosevelt who calls the presidency the bully pulpit. Not the pulpit for bullying, but the bully pulpit. Bully bully, to get up and exhort the people to use it as a way of inspiring the people, making them stretch, inviting them to as Abraham Lincoln had said bring out the better angels of [inaudible 00:50:46].

Gil Troy:
And we continue, and we see another very important thing here. Woodrow Wilson, in the middle of an intense campaign, talks about the uncertainty of Mr. Roosevelt’s state of health. And as a result, there are meetings that are canceled. “I had planned to attend them,” right? And so here we also see the power of decency, that it’s a fight to the finish by two people who have a lot of tension between one another. But when violence intrudes, you put that aside and you focus on American unity.

Gil Troy:
And finally, the last letter is a really quite sad letter where we see the pathos, the pain, the frustration, of William Howard Taft. And one of the wonderful things that Nate Sleeter and the team have done with the 1912 campaign is while sharing these letters helping the students enter into that complicated world.

Gil Troy:
He then asks a very 21st century question. Make a little campaign about this. Make a campaign memorandum or a strategy memorandum and figure out how you would run either a campaign commercial or a broad campaign for Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, and that gives the students an opportunity to do a deep dive, do a slow cook, look at the evidence, and then come out with their vision of how they might express some of the key ideas of Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign. So that’s our third module.

Gil Troy:
And now we’re going to invite Sara Willen, who is really one of the stars of the show today because so many of these documents have been collected thanks to her vision, thanks to her sleuth work, her detective work, thanks to her passion for documents. And so Sara as you turn on your video and turn off the mute button and we hope to welcome you-

Sara Willen:
[inaudible 00:52:54] did it work?

Gil Troy:
Yeah, we can hear you.

Sara Willen:
Terrific, thank you.

Gil Troy:
So tell us a little bit about yourself. How do you get into the archival business?

Sara Willen:
Well unlike yourself and Jonathan who are great scholars, unlike Nate who is an academician and an educator, I walk off the factory floor. I had spent my entire life, so imagine a longer one than some, working with original source materials. And my attitude or my way in which I work at something, it’s not as if I choose it, it chooses me. Think of a cop, think of a detective. Think of going into a room, there’s a corpse. The corpse is holding a letter or a piece of paper in his hand. I make a beeline for that piece of paper, and I try and figure out how it is related to the dead body in front of me, basically something like that.

Sara Willen:
It is detective work. It is basic. And because I am very, very curious, which is a nice word for nosy, about people, I find it profoundly satisfying to know as I put it what somebody was really like. And there is nothing like reading their mail to find out. And by reading mail, I mean that until about 100 years ago with the advent of the telephone utility, the only way we know anything that happened or how people felt about it happening, is somebody wrote it down on a piece of paper, and somebody else saved the paper it was written on.

Sara Willen:
So my lot in life is to look at that mail, those papers, and to research them as best I can to figure out why they write it. What does the date tell me? What does a form of address tell me? Is it handwritten, is it typewritten? How does it fit into what we know about what happened later? Because as Jonathan pointed out, we know the end of the story. A letter is always in the present, history is in the past but it’s lived in the present, and that’s what I’m looking at. It’s not [inaudible 00:55:31], I’m not quite the idiot as I could be, but I’m trying to figure out piece by piece, clue by clue, what a letter tells me.

Sara Willen:
And in that way, I can get and you can get and kids can get wonderful, wonderful insights into famous people who seem generally speaking made of marble. They’re not.

Gil Troy:
I like that, that they’re often marbleized and we want to see the human side of them. This is also-

Sara Willen:
Sure, like the Jack Kennedy-

Gil Troy:
The invisible presidency. And think of some of the metaphors. We have detective work. You made me think of puzzles. And you also reminded me of a friend of mine who used to say that historians are gossips of the past. [crosstalk 00:56:17] the present. When you gossip in the present, it’s not so nice. But when you gossip in the past, it becomes actually something that can be quite illuminating.

Gil Troy:
So in that actually now we can go to the first image perhaps of the Kennedy letter, and you’re going to help us see. Now we plunge into the 20th century and [inaudible 00:56:32] that can be illuminating.

Sara Willen:
I just want to say first that to me, young people who spend all their time on the phone, and letters which communicate, are actually a natural fit. And by that, I mean if you look at a letter and you ask why was it written, how was it written, who these people are, you might be able to find that their circumstances and the circumstances of the reader, i.e. a kid, are not so different.

Sara Willen:
For instance, if a teenager as a remember is an unformed entity, if he or she is somebody who has troubles in their life. Maybe a perfect sibling, maybe a bad family. If in fact they all want to be famous or important, I’m interested at least with the two Kennedy letters of showing how that speaks to those issues and how in fact Jack Kennedy became Jack Kennedy because he was not born a president, anything but.

Sara Willen:
This letter in front of us is an application to transfer to PT Boats, which was a newfangled part of the Navy. Hitherto Jack Kennedy had been in Intelligence. It’s a desk job. He’s got lousy health, that’s why he’s managed to sit behind a desk for a while. But he suddenly wants to go into PT Boats. Now those are boats that are about 60 to 80 feet long. They’re made of wood. They’re fast as hell. They’re glamorous, they’re dangerous, and you don’t want to actually have to use them because they’re not terribly reliable.

Sara Willen:
But suddenly in 1942, he wants out of Washington. And that is where I would start. Why does he want to go? And to me, the easy answer, the C student answer, is you go to Wikipedia, you look up national service, you look up enlistment, and you see that people in that era had a sense of obligation to the national government. Times are different now, but that’s always a useful fact. It’s not terribly important about Kennedy. He simply said, “I’ll be damned if I’m in a tweed coat when everyone else is in uniform.” So he wanted to be in uniform, and to me that’s a C answer. You learn something about times are different.

Gil Troy:
So we’re hearing any thoughts of service, we’re hearing the challenges of World War II. We’re also hearing, as with Theodore Roosevelt, a skinny, unhealthy kid through sheer will and character building plunging ahead and become a historical superhero.

Sara Willen:
Not quite. Gil, you’ve got half of it. You’ve got the sickliness, and you have the scrawniness, but what you’re missing is a big bully brother. Jack Kennedy is the second son of a family that believed in [inaudible 01:00:24] I think is the way to pronounce it. And that simply meant that Joe Kennedy Jr was born to be president, and he was a pretty good choice. He was handsome, he was smart, he was healthy, he was like a football star. He could do anything.

Sara Willen:
The other thing he was was a bully, and he had a younger brother named Jack who was sickly, and he tormented that kid for as long as he could. In fact, it was a lifelong rivalry. So that Jack Kennedy is considered in the family the foul-up. He’s the one who is a problem. He’s the one who never does what he’s supposed to do. He’s the one the parents worry about. Joe, they see, and their faces light up. Jack, and it’s, “Oh God, what have you done now?”

Sara Willen:
So here we have Jack Kennedy, who somehow manages to get into the service because that is the thing that you do if you are a young man in the early ’40s. I’m sure you could talk much better than myself as to why that was so. When he is a desk jockey, something happens to him, and that’s your B student. Well, not quite. The B student part is he does have a rivalry with his brother, and his brother’s become a Naval aviator. So a kid could look at that, one of the million books about the Kennedy brothers at war, and from there deduce that if Joe is going to be a hero of the air, Jack is going to be a hero of the sea. And that’s going to tell you something about the family, and that’s worth knowing.

Sara Willen:
A lot of that’s going to be very important because it forms Jack Kennedy’s character, and it makes him a second fiddle. And to me thinking of kids who have somebody who are very often told, “Why aren’t you like so and so?”, that’s appealing. But the real reason is you’re going to find a kid, an A student maybe, and that kid is going to say, “Inga Binga,” and that is the answer to why Jack Kennedy wanted to be in PT Boats and as far away as is possible.

Sara Willen:
Here’s the deal. Jack Kennedy, at the age of 24, for the first and probably the last time in his life, fell in love. He well in love with a Danish woman who was a little bit older, who had two husbands living, one of which she was still married to. She was smart, she was warm, she was enthusiastic, she was sensual. And he was head over heal in love. It’s also something I think new love that kids can relate to.

Sara Willen:
What they also can relate to is, “Uh-oh, she cheated on him.” He was willing to do anything for her. He was willing to stand up to his father, who was a very formidable figure and say, “I want to marry her.” And the father said, “Like hell you do. Let’s talk about this,” which means no. And Jack Kennedy is running around trying to talk to Catholic priests to figure out a way how he can marry this divorced woman who incidentally is a Protestant. And meanwhile, I don’t know at what point, she takes another lover and he finds out about it. And he is so absolutely devastated. He wants out of Washington. He wants out of the country. He wants to go as far and as fast as possible, which is why he applies to PT Boats which are known to be like death traps.

Sara Willen:
His father wields his power, and gets him to pass a physical. Jack Kennedy ends up in the Solomon Islands. He’s still writing Inga. He’s still obsessed with her. He’s still heartbroken. And by the way in his family’s eyes, now he’s even more of a flop. What’s he doing running around with her? Problems, problems, problems.

Sara Willen:
When he’s out there, he’s a pilot of the PT 109. It’s 80 feet long as I said. It’s made of wood. There are 13 people who comprise the crew. The middle of a dark night gets run over by a great big Japanese battleship. And Jack Kennedy spends probably the next eight hours saving the eight sailors who survived, one of whom he actually had to tow with a rope in his mouth while he swam three and a half miles to safety. That was the beginning of an ordeal that lasted a week.

Sara Willen:
But something else happened, and what happened is that Jack Kennedy, who is a playboy, who is a screw-up, who is irreverent, who was just not anything that you would bet a nickel on other than for good looks and a good time. He turns out to be a leader of men. He turns out to be responsible. He turns out to be heroic. And that’s the difference between the first letter, which is, “Here I am wanting to transfer,” and the second letter which he writes to the wife of the man who he towed while swimming, and he towed him because the guy was burnt with third degree burns and was in great pain.

Sara Willen:
And the letter, if you can get that up Ken, is extraordinarily modest. Basically it says, “There was an incident. Your husband’s hands hurt a little. He’s going to be fine. I just wanted you to know that, and I’ll write you in a few days.” Nothing about I did this, I did that. He’s very, very humble.

Gil Troy:
So this is history as literature, almost as a [inaudible 01:07:43], as a rite of passage-

Sara Willen:
It’s history as becoming.

Gil Troy:
It’s history as becoming.

Sara Willen:
It’s history as being the family. It’s not just second, but the family uh-oh and becoming in his own eyes and in the eyes of others a person of respect.

Sara Willen:
There’s one other thing, and that’s not about his humility, it’s sort of about irony. What Jack Kennedy found in Inga was a very willing listener and an encouraging listener. And he told her his dreams. Now he had been a sickly kid like your Teddy Roosevelt, and he read and he read and he read. He read a lot of history and a lot of biography. And he was full of the romance of leadership, and he wanted to be president. This guy who couldn’t get elected dog catcher wanted to be president, especially when his brother was so perfect for the role.

Sara Willen:
And Inga said, “Oh darling of course you can be president, you’ve got it in you.” And that was his first confirmation that somebody’s vision of himself was actually true. He lost the woman who filled him with that hope, but he did realize that he was that person. PT 109 and his experience of war he said is what made him, and it did. It’s the beginning of his rise to fame.

Gil Troy:
So it’s history also as … What’s so interesting is that your job in a sense is to collect the snapshots, to collect the documents. What you’ve done so marvelously is go from snapshots to a movie reel, and you’ve taken these little snippets and you’ve put them together. We’ve seen also that our favorite text is context, and you’ve brought it alive. And his modesty was actually beautifully captured by his great line when people talk about him as this great hero and he said, “I wasn’t a hero, they just sank my ship.” And that ability to enter into the world, have a certain sense of ego but also have a certain sense of humility I think is an important dance and important way of bringing our students a whole series of lessons of what it’s like to be a human being, what it’s like to be a good person, and have that [inaudible 01:10:18] the world.

Sara Willen:
I think if you are a kid who doesn’t know where he’s going, who is underestimated, who wants to be famous but doesn’t know how, who has a secret dream, it would be interesting to me then and it is interesting to me now how actually we have as you put it a before snapshot and an after, how these two letters so close, only a year apart, show the evolution of a human being. It shows self-knowledge, and it shows the irony in running away, you just might run into your own future.

Gil Troy:
And you don’t necessarily need it in war time, but this was just the context in which it occurred. And of course throughout it all is the notion of service.

Gil Troy:
So thank you very much. I think we’re going to sum up now, and I hope what people have gotten is two things. One, to go back to what I said at the beginning, really a sense of Henry Ford and the assembly line. You start with documents … And by the way one of the things Sara that’s so impressive about the work that you do and Ben and the whole team is that this isn’t just a collection of stuff. This is truly a collection. This is a collection that’s curated. There is a sensibility. There are invisible lines that are drawn that make us think about invisible history, invisible presidency. The ideals, the values, the character, that often goes behind the policy statements, that goes behind the big Emancipation Proclamations.

Gil Troy:
And I want to think each of you, Jonathan and Sara and Nate, for helping bring history alive, for taking these texts, putting them in context, for taking them from snapshots and making them into movie reels, and for inviting us to think about how you take documents, how you use them in many different ways but ultimately with the same goal, which is to challenge the student, to stretch the student, to create a critical conversation about who we were, who we are today, and who we can be. And it doesn’t come from [inaudible 01:12:37], it doesn’t come from saying, “John F. Kennedy was born a superhero,” or that Abraham Lincoln was perfect.

Gil Troy:
We see a sense of irony, we see a sense of mischief, we see a sense of humor, we see a sense of complexity. Not to fear the complexity, but also not be handcuffed into the complexity. And so, I really have to say I’ve really enjoyed this trip through the past with all of you. I feel like I’ve learned so much about Abraham Lincoln, about Mark Twain, about John Kennedy, through you, through these documents, and I would love for all of us to see that there are ways to continue the conversation. I would like all our teachers to become very, very familiar with that very important website, www.S-H-A-P-E-L-L,shapell.org, www.shapell.org.

Gil Troy:
And if you have any questions about the material presented, you can email Eliza, E-L-I-Z-A, or Canadians would say Zed A, @shapell.org.

Gil Troy:
Thank you for our participants, thank you everyone for being part of this call, and thank you of course to Benjamin Shapell and The Shapell Manuscript Foundation. This is Gil Troy saying goodnight.