Program 1: New World Encounters/The Beginnings of America
Donald L. Miller with Stephen Ambrose, Virginia Scharff, Waldo E. Martin, Jr.,
Pauline Maier, Louis P. Masur, and Douglas Brinkley
Miller: People sometimes ask me, as an historian, "What is history for?
What is its function?" Particularly, since it's what I call a crippled
discipline, a discipline that can't get at the truth. We'll never have a
complete and clear record of the human past, and we can't get into the minds of
our historical characters. We can't resurrect them from the grave and put them
on the Freudian couch and psychoanalyze them. Even if they leave a memoir,
those memoirs are liable to be slanted and faulted. And their story itself is
a brainwasher, in a sense. And he or she has his or her own point of view and
Yet, given all these limitations, I would argue that history is utterly
essential, essential to making us human. It separates us from the animals.
How is that?
Human beings interact with their environment. And out of that interaction
comes a culture. And what history is, is our memory, our collective memory of
that culture. It puts us in touch with our past. By putting us in touch with
our past, our past ceaselessly influences us and even haunts us.
Miller: A Biography of America is a series of 26 programs that
tell the American story through narrative lecture, discussion and debate.
Ambrose: It didn't happen because it is inconceivable.
Miller: A team of historians came together to think through and shape
Miller: I'd like to start out talking a little bit about what's
distinctive about what we're trying to do as a biography of America. What does
Scharff: There won't be a grab bag of everything; it can't be--
Miller: In fashioning this series, we went out and tried to get the
best historians we could.
Martin: For telling details, both particular--
Miller: We picked people who are great storytellers, scholars--
Maier: To understand what's distinctive about the past is implicitly to
know what's distinctive about the present.
Miller: Pauline Maier, for example, is our revolutionary historian.
And she's absolutely at the top of her game. She's a brilliant historian, and
she brings to life the whole period of the American Revolution and the
Maier: But, it's the distinction of the past, I think, that makes this
Masur: This biography of America is not pretending that biography is
any more neutral and objective and detached than anything else. I mean, we're
making choices, we're making selections.
Miller: We have Lou Masur who's an intellectual historian, but also
does social history. And Lou has a wonderful feel for the 19th century, and
he's done some brilliant lectures, I think, for us, on the Reform Period during
the Jacksonian era.
Masur: As Emerson said, "History rightly understood is biography." And
so it really comes down also to our definition of history.
Martin: My students are always enraptured with the notion of success.
But, failures are often far more interesting and far more revealing.
Miller: Waldo Martin explains, I think, cogently, clearly, the
motivating causes for the Civil War. We bring Waldo back again, and he traces
what happened to the south after the Civil War, and takes a look at it from a
long-range perspective. We have Douglas Brinkley.
Brinkley: It seems to me to say we're looking at the story of America
in a narrative fashion that I kind of like about it because it goes
chronologically, but also as best biographies do, talk about the life and times
of America and kind of--
Miller: He has a special love for Theodore Roosevelt, and has done a
real nice lecture for us on the Progressive Period, on Teddy Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson, people he's both, you know, acutely familiar with. Doug's also
done the Great Depression.
Brinkley: As Thomas Wolfe said, "there are a billion forms of America."
And just when you think you're coming to some new realization, you realize,
What do we really know about the Shoshones' relationship to the Sioux.
Scharff: I really like stupid questions. And I had three stupid
questions that I came to this project with. Where is America? Who counts as
American? And what counts as American?
Miller: Our western historian is Virginia Scharff. She's been great.
She pinch hits all over the place, and has helped us so much. She asks the big
questions. She fills in the spaces for us. She's done a terrific lecture on the
Scharff: The first thing we have to know about history is that the
people we're talking about weren't always dead. They weren't always dead; they
were alive. You know, a lot of them--
Miller: At any one point in time, we're thinking of the past, the
present and the future. You're sitting here; you're thinking about what you're
going to do next, what you're doing now, and what you just did. And you're
always thinking like that. That's historical thinking. It's the best kind of
thinking, where the present is informed by the past, and shaped by the past. A
long time ago my grandfather told me, he was a Slovak immigrant, who had no
education. He said, "Always remember, you are what you have been. Never
forget that." And it's a lesson I've never forgotten. That's what history means
Miller: Today, on A Biography of America, "New World Encounters."