Opening the pages of To America is like sitting beside Stephen Ambrose as he tells stories from his deathbed. Dying of lung cancer, he seems to be racing with mortality to inscribe a record of his life as a historian, as an American, and, before it was too late, to set some things straight.
Things like Thomas Jefferson. He was an "intellectual coward" for knowing the evil of slavery but failing to follow through with any action to end it. Still, writes Ambrose, Jefferson is a vital American, not to be dismissed, as so many academics do today.
Things like the country's treatment of Indians -- shamefully harsh, but then "I learned that the Indians lived by the same rules or system as all the human beings that went before or came after them -- the right of conquest."
Things like the two Roosevelts, the Transcontinental Railroad and the "robber barons," the world wars, the legacy of racism in the U.S., Nixon. Ambrose can savage Andrew Jackson for being a roughneck and an Indian-hater, but then take the reader by the cuff to the bulwarks of Jackson's men outside New Orleans facing the scarlet coats of 10,000 crack British troops advancing with a forest of bayonets, and make the reader see why Jackson's polyglot army stood firm, blasted the redcoats to hell and saved a United States still in its infancy.
This is Ambrose at his most personal, telling stories of his beloved countrymen, great and small, and telling us why we should give a damn, let alone remember them. Ambrose did more in his life to help us remember than almost anyone, writing dozens of bestselling books -- Band of Brothers, Citizen Soldiers and Undaunted Courage among them -- and founding the National D-Day Museum. But like the characters of our history, Ambrose had his dark moments. Not long ago, he came under charges of plagiarism and faulty attribution of other writers, some of whose passages he included almost word-for-word in his own writing. Ambrose was prolific, producing a vast body of seminal work on people from presidents to everyday Joes who won World War II. His mistakes were of haste, his apologists say.
To America came out the same month, October 2002, as another Ambrose book, The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation. These were his last books. Ambrose died that month at the age of 66.
In tackling the thorniest questions in our history, it's as if Ambrose was writing about himself. By damning their faults and praising their virtues, Ambrose's final thoughts are that Americans can be deeply flawed, but nonetheless heroic.
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