History is settled, right? Set into stone? Isn’t that why it’s called history? Aren’t the facts the facts, after all?
In a way, “yes” is the answer to each of the previous questions - the trouble is, some facts seem to be contradictory, and some have been overlooked by many textbooks, which usually try to cover as much material as possible. Textbooks often paint history with too-broad strokes and are based on a format of themes and subthemes. This approach doesn’t allow people to learn about the information presented in an in-depth way but instead in an often dry and boring manner, where the rote memorization of names, places, battles and dates becomes the priority.
Students can and should be enthused about history, rather than bored to tears or driven to sleep by it. That’s why books like Seymour Morrison’s American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never Made It into the Textbooks are such a breath of fresh air, a godsend that ought to be required reading in every American History classroom and ought to be in every American’s personal home libraries: this makes learning history fun, instead of a snooze-fest.
Despite what you might think by reading the subtitle of Morrison’s book, it’s not merely a list of 200 of some of the most startling facts that never made it into the textbooks. There are probably far more than 200 interesting facts between its covers - I didn’t go page to page counting them up - but they are discussed within the context of each chapter instead of as individual factoids. For instance, one of the facts on the book’s cover - that “Four presidential elections have been decided by a single vote” - appears in a chapter called “Not What You Think.” This fascinating chapter deals with aspects of American history that you might think you know about but which you’re likely wrong about - or may be right about but not know the real reasons why you are correct.
If you’re a Civil War and/or Abraham Lincoln buff, you might know one of the other facts mentioned on the book’s cover: that “Abraham Lincoln’s son, a corporate tycoon, was a racist.” I knew it, but not from having read it in a textbook - not at the high school level type or lower, anyway. It’s an interesting and ironic sidebar to our sixteenth president’s life and to the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, but it’s not a necessary fact to know. It’s kind of like today being told by the media that a famous Republican congressman’s daughter is a lesbian, when all of his life he’s publically been against gay rights. Just because his daughter happens to be a lesbian doesn’t negate either the good or bad legislation he’s helped pass or dismiss. Though it might be an interesting fact and point to the congressman’s hypocrisy, it’s not a salient one as to how history will remember the congressman’s political actions.
A chapter called “Running for President” goes into the roles that political bosses, power brokers and the media have played in some elections, the role of luck, and the argument that being the vice president “is a good training ground for the presidency.” If you believe that it is, as we’re often taught in school, look to the example of 1972's election, “the only time in our nation’s history when both office-seekers were former vice presidents,” namely Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Also in this chapter, we learn what others thought about some of our presidents before they got elected. Harry Truman’s fiancee’s mother warned her daughter that “You don’t want to marry that farmer boy, he is not going to make it anywhere.” When Warren Harding got married, “his father-in-law was so angry he disinherited the bride and tried to drive him into bankruptcy.”
Morris’s book isn’t just about presidents of the United States. It also includes a chapter related to figures who were crucial (or at least somewhat important) to America’s history who have been mostly ignored in our history classes, “Forgotten by History.” We have all heard of and been taught about the Articles of Confederation, but did you know, as this chapter points out, that under them, for the eight years before George Washington, we had “a presidential office occupied by no fewer than ten men?” Some historians, because of this, argue that “the first president of the United States was John Hanson.”
American History Revised will make you rethink American history. History has already happened so, to some degree, it is set in stone, but so many details and facts exist about history that most people haven’t read or heard about, or which to this day still are revealed, that history isn’t a dead thing. We still have much to learn about it, and books like this one The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History by Adam Selzer are proof that history isn’t always dry as dust. If you’re a history buff or just want to learn more about the history of America and have a few chuckles doing so, this book is a definite must-read.