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Monday, May 11, 2015

Why I wrote "Exceptional Americans"

The enthusiasm for my first book, "Exceptional Americans: 50 People You Need To Know" flatters me. Before publication, I told myself it would be a feat if I sold one book; longtime reader Larry Sheldon of Nebraska honored me when he bought the first copy.

Everything else financially is gravy because my book has two purposes: 1. to make money, as I am a capitalist, and 2. to remind people of what a great country with a wonderful heritage. The Left insisted that history somehow is not about names and dates, which is like saying we do not need numbers in math. I want to help restore those names and dates by offering a few whose songs are not sung often enough.

Since November 2, I have posted vignettes on exceptional Americans whom history overlooked. Putting some of them in book form was a natural. Readers gave me good guidance on who to profile. However, when I began putting the book together, I quickly realized the importance of re-writing and re-researching the 50 chapters. That was the fun part.

I used the lives and accomplishments of these exceptional individuals to describe American history; the government did not build this country: You did.

I began with Anne Marbury Hutchinson, who was born in England in 1591 and kicked out of Puritan Massachusetts in 1636 for being too Puritan. Rebecca Nurse also stood for freedom of religion, sadly because at 71 she became the first victim of the Salem witch hunt. The American Revolutionary War is told not by Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, but by Benjamin Edes, who threw the Boston Tea Party; Elizabeth Annesley Lewis, who died after the British mistreated her after her husband signed the Declaration of Independence; and many others, including how he became Mad Anthony Wayne.

The volume moved on to the trailblazers: Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, John Charles Frémont, and Jim Bridger. They trapped fur and mapped land, fighting Indians and discovering the the wonders of an inland salt lake and Yellowstone's geysers. The next selection was natural: Why Horace Greeley said, “Go West, Young Man.”

By West, he meant Erie, Pennsylvania, but within a decade, the West would expand to California, and in time Greeley would be there.

Then came the inventors and industrialists with my favorites Leland Stanford, Sam Colt, John Glidden and Ezra Cornell. If the names are not familiar, that is the point. These men made settlement of the West possible by giving us the transcontinental railroad, the revolving pistol, barbed wire and Western Union. Three of these men would found universities with their great wealth. The fourth, Colt, died too young to enjoy philanthropy. One of the recurring themes of American history is the men who create wealth and then, in their later years give the money away.

I touched briefly on the Civil War as that is a well-worn path, profiling Mary Walker, the only woman ever to receive a Medal of Honor, and Little Phil Sheridan, the general whom Grant considered the best. I looked not at Lincoln, but the man who knew him best and made him president. I looked not at Grant but at his wife who helped heal the nation after a civil war, assassination of one president, and the impeachment of his successor.

After the war and the expansion of the West, Americans reached out to new frontiers, such as George Fuller's work to combat typhoid. I even threw in the love story of Isidor and Ida Straus because her sacrifice shows in time of need, heroes put others first.

The arc carries to World War II with a profile of Woody Williams, a hero of Iwo Jima and the only living person profiled. There's General Groves who built the Pentagon and The Bomb. After the war, the real Dr. House made hearing possible for thousands, Everett Dirksen extended civil rights to millions of African-Americans, and Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives from starvation.

These are just some of the men and women who built this country. They are ordinary people no different than the Asians, Africans or Europeans. What made the difference is they were given the extraordinary opportunities our nation provides and they excelled. Not all of them are saints, but at least one is: Katharine Mary Drexel, the heiress who entered a convent and used her $50 million fortune to found schools that educated Indians and African-Americans. She is the patron saint of integration. That didn't make a difference?

Or how about Townsend Harris? He not only opened the door of Japan to the West but founded City College of New York to serve the Lower East Side of Manhattan and elsewhere. At last count, 13 CCNY graduates received Nobel Prizes --  all of them immigrants or their children. Left off the list: Jonas Salk, who never won a Nobel.

While the opportunities for women and people of color, nevertheless the work is not all about dead white males. Seven women and five people of color are among the people profiled, including Charles Curtis, the first American Indian to become vice president, and Prince Kalaniana'ole who saved the Hawaiian people as a race. As opportunities open for more people, the roster of contributors widens.

Yes, American history isn't perfect. I get that. But American history was more than slavery and Indian Wars. When it comes to race, our nation has tried to overcome prejudices, biases and fears that have haunted man since the dawn of civilization. American history is the story of success. I wanted to write a book that was positive about our country. I think I succeeded.

To order the first volume of "Exceptional Americans," click here.