Thursday, September 12, 2013

Follow the Money

In citing sources in footnotes or endnotes, historians tie specific points in their text to specific references that support either their arguments or contain the location from which they accessed the material, such as an original quotation. Discussions on articles, books, and other sources that have had a larger impact on the intellectual framework of the book or its thesis tend to be included in the introduction or in the text. But, what about works that have impacted an historian’s work, but in a more general way? I completed my dissertation on William Temple Hornaday in 2001. I put Hornaday away for a little while, spent a lot of time prepping for my classes (I taught as many as three semester while working a full time, non-academic job) and working on Chester Alan Arthur: The Life of a Gilded Age President and Politician. One of the books I squeezed in during this time was Alonzo Hamby’s seminal biography of President Harry S Truman, Man of the People. Hamby followed many themes of Truman’s personal life, but the one that really stood out to me was his depiction of Truman’s finances. We might remember his failed haberdashery, but that was only one scheme that didn’t work out in Truman’s quest for financial security. As historians we often focus on the outcome our subjects had on the world around them, the bill they sponsored, the book they wrote, their invention, etc., without giving much attention to how the mundane features of everyday life drove them. This is where Hamby’s book stood out for me. On one sense, who cares about Truman’s finances? How on earth did that impact his decision to use the atomic bomb (twice), contain Communism, or send troops to Korea? On the other hand, we read biographies to understand more about the people who make these monumental decisions. Truman’s constant insecurity about money does say something about him, even if it does not address directly the question of why he dropped the bomb. All this is to say, that only after reading Man of the People did I think more deeply about the role of money in William Temple Hornaday’s life. He worried about money all the time. Like Truman, he too engaged in some money making schemes, mostly related to real estate, which did not pan out the way he intended. One of my arguments is that he did not push back too much on his employer’s demands to restrain his tongue because he feared losing his secure, well-paying job. This created lots of tension, which I explore in The Most Defiant Devil. In conservation matters, Hornaday understood the importance of money and created an endowed fund, The Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund, to ensure that he had the cash to wage his conservation campaigns on his terms, and he was most critical of those conservationists who accepted cash from what he considered dubious sources, such as gun makers. Deep Throat’s adage to “follow the money” certainly applies to biographers and historians.

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