A Prodigious Work of Scholarship

One Sunday morning in 1973 I took a canoe ride on Conway Lake in New Hampshire. I was about to start my senior year at Yale and I was getting three credits for an independent study project on the Aaron Burr Conspiracy in the newly-formed American Studies Department.

Professor Edmund Sears Morgan had a little cabin on the lake, and I decided to drop by and ask him for suggestions on where to start digging.

I beached my canoe at his tidy little landing and went up and knocked on the cabin door. He was reading the Sunday Times, but he was gracious enough to set it aside and take some time to recommend some really good sources. One was Beveridge’s Life of Marshall.

This is one prodigious work of scholarship about the young American Republic. Because Marshall presided over Burr’s trial for treason, I found more information about Burr in this life of Marshall than I found in all the biographies of Burr that I could find, except the one by Peter Abernethy, which is another story altogether…

In the February 1955 issue of American Heritage, which I picked up for a quarter, I found an article by Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, who served as naval aide to Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

It’s full of the homey White House details that make history real for me — how Coolidge got seasick, how Hoover loved to ride horses, how Roosevelt used his upper body strength to get around without revealing his handicap. It gives a lot of insight into the domestic life of these historic figures, and tells you so much about what kind of people they were.

When Coolidge was Harding’s vice president, a lady comiserated with him about having to attend so many state dinners. “Gotta eat somewhere,” he replied.

So in the summer of 1926, Admiral Wilson and the duty section of the White House staff are lodged in the general store in Plymouth, Vermont, (the rest are at the Woodstock Inn) while President Coolidge (sworn in after the death of President Harding) and Mrs. Coolidge stayed for the first time at the house they had just inherited from his father, who had died the previous winter.

Obviously they had a lot of important family decisions to make about the house and all the stuff.

Anyway, Wilson had no duties to speak of except to “be on hand in case something turns up.” So there wasn’t much to do.

“While the Coolidges were intent upon their own affairs, the Staff and members of the press loafed in the shade of a fine old tree just outside the country store — pitching pennies, spinning yarns discussing everything under the sun. For all of us there were many dull hours.

“One afternoon I took off down the lane away from the crowd, within sight of the house and store where I could be called if needed, to become completely absorbed in reading one of the four long volumes of Beveridge’s life of John Marshall.

“I was aroused from my concentration by a familiar voice at my elbow saying, in clipped tones, ‘Well, Captain, studying navigation?’

“As I started to climb down from the rail fence where I was perched, he headed me off with, ‘Don’t disturb yourself. I was just looking around and wondered what you were so interested in.’

“When I told him, his comment was, ‘A fine book. Every American ought to read it. You couldn’t spend your time to better advantage. Go ahead with your reading,’ — and walked off.

“Years later when I praised the Beveridge work to Franklin Roosevelt, he disagreed completely, denouncing the book as ‘fusty volumes that thought only of property rights and worried little about human rights and public welfare.'”

It was interesting to get these presidential perspectives on a work I found so valuable. I think Coolidge is right that people should read it, but I also think they should keep in mind what FDR said about it, because he obviously read it, too.