‘The Men Who United the States’: Fresh look focuses on little-known figures
Simon Winchester’s “The Men Who United the States” shines a light on little known women and men of determination and genius who helped pull our country together. Winchester discusses his book Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Men Who United the States” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Microsoft auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).
At a time when the United States seems more fractured than united, here comes newly naturalized U.S. citizen Simon Winchester to marvel at the country’s unity.
Winchester, a native Brit who swore his citizenship oath on July 4, 2011, finds it remarkable that this unity happened in the first place and that it has lasted. His book, “The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible” (Harper, 447 pp., $29.99) is the story of how it came about and of the men — and occasional woman — who have helped make unum out of pluribus.
Much of the history has been told before, but Winchester offers a new angle with his emphasis on how a nation of people from all over the world, invited to share in “universal human freedom,” managed to unite.
He also freshens U.S. history by refusing to tell it through the usual suspects. He unearths achievers who have often been left out of the continuing story. The emphasis is on Thomas Hutchins, the first Geographer of the United States, who surveyed the country, not Thomas Jefferson, the man who ordered the survey, thus uniting the U.S. landmass from sea to shining sea.
There’s Thomas Harris MacDonald, head of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 to 1953 and the man who oversaw the building of the interstate highway system, instead of Dwight David Eisenhower, who saw the need for it and ordered it done. Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the first man to fly an airplane across the nation, instead of Charles Lindbergh. And so on.
Winchester doesn’t neglect the Thomas Edisons, Robert Fultons and Meriwether Lewises, but he gives us a richer picture by including the overlooked.
And Winchester does what he has done in almost two dozen previous books: He follows the “unintended consequences” of events. Build a canal so cotton can get to a mill town in Massachusetts and soon factories filled with looms and women running them will follow, as will labor organizers and the stirrings of women’s rights.
Unity doesn’t just happen; an agent must bring it about by making investments in money and support. In this book, that is always massive government involvement.
Winchester describes the role government has played with land grants, financial backing and legal incentives without spending much ink defending it against those on the other side of this fracture, those who would minimize the role of government.
It seems more important to this writer, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for services to journalism and literature,” to make the case for how successful unity — no matter how achieved — has been in the first 237 years of these United States.