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Documenting America: Lessons from the United States' Historical Documents Paperback – November 17, 2011
About the Author
David Todd is a civil engineer by profession (37 years), a genealogist by avocation, an environmentalist by choice, a lover of history by experience, and a writer by passion. He grew up in Rhode Island, where he attended public schools in Cranston and then the University of Rhode Island. In his adult life he has lived in Kansas City, Saudi Arabia, Asheboro North Carolina, Kuwait, and now northwest Arkansas since 1991. Along the way he acquired his love for history and poetry. He currently works at CEI Engineering Associates, Inc. in Bentonville, Arkansas. He is Corporate Trainer for Engineering, which includes planning and conducting training classes and mentoring younger staff. He is the senior engineer at the company, and hence gets called on to do the more difficult projects that most of the younger engineers don't feel confident to tackle. He has recently worked on a number of floodplain studies and mapping projects. He is a registered engineer in three states, a Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control, and a Certified Construction Specifier (certification lapsed). He has been actively pursuing genealogy for fifteen years, having done much to document his and his wife's ancestry and family history. He has been writing creatively for eleven years. He had been writing creatively for over ten years. He has completed two novel (unpublished), begun a third, planned a fourth, and has a dozen more waiting their turn to escape from the gray cells to paper or pixels. He has written a number of poems, with sonnets being his preferred form. He has had nine poems published. He has written a newspaper column (historical-political), feature articles for the local weekly, and is actively pursuing magazine freelancing.
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As a Canadian, I feel myself more an observer than a participant in U.S. history. I wonder if my neighbours to the south will be as able as I am to remain detached and calm about the contents of Documenting America.
Todd's selection of texts and his own perspectives on them bring forward some of the themes that we outsiders are well aware of, showing us in 30 brief chapters a variety of original texts from America's formative days, along with Todd's own brief commentary on each. My personal favourite is chapter 24, a sketch of the extreme difficulty a clergyman from England found himself having, trying to make a go of it on his farm in North Carolina in 1711. This is not like most of the other chapters in that it isn't likely to be the basis for a heated political argument between readers.
More of the book deals with various aspects of the many political issues the U.S. has grappled with over the centuries. While Todd has a strong interest in the development of government over the years, I am not so interested in politics. As a lawyer schooled in the Canadian common law system, which is deeply rooted in English common law, I was personally a little bemused by Todd's perspective on the virtues of judge-made law versus statute. And therein lies the charm and the appeal of this little book. Nearly every chapter is in some way provocative. Todd says he is not a professional historian, and that may be true, but I say he comes from a wonderful tradition of lay scholars and autodidacts: people who choose to advance their own knowledge of the world through studying and engaging with the thoughts and deeds of those who have gone before.
You may agree with Todd's views, you may radically disagree, and you may find that only some of the chapters interest you. However, every chapter will give you something to think about, and if you want, to argue about.
Well worth picking up and dipping into from time to time as some exercise for your thinking muscles. You will find some great practice pieces if you want to take up debating as a hobby. This book was offered at a bargain price when I bought it, and may still be, but it is certainly worth more.
I would recommend giving this book to any American high school or university student with an interest in current affairs. Let your sons and daughters see with their own eyes that today's debates are often about the same issues people argued about in the 1700s, and let the readers decide whether they agree with Todd or not.
I'm glad I read it.
Todd has put them together in a logical sequence and provided helpful historical context. He also provides his own commentary on how each selection relates to a 21st century context. This is where he is more controversial and you may or may not agree with his appraisal. I found that even when I disagreed with him, I thought his comments were insightful and consistent with his view point. Further, his commentary was often presented in the form of a question that encouraged thoughtful reflection rather than a dogmatic and rigid analysis. He showed humility and I liked that.