By Sue Botos
If there’s one thing historian and author James Swanson wants to accomplish with his books and presentations, it’s to get people, especially the young, excited about history.
“So many kids tell me that history is boring, and it breaks my heart to hear that,” Swanson told an audience recently at Rocky River High School. “Eighty percent of students say it’s boring because they haven’t been exposed to good historical writing. It’s not a cliche that truth is more exciting than fiction,” he noted.
Swanson’s appearance kicked off the opening of “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” a traveling exhibit detailing Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to meet the constitutional challenges of the Civil War. It will be open for public viewing Oct. 30, Nov. 7 and Nov. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the high school media center.
Swanson, author of the New York Times best-seller “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” and “Chasing Lincoln’s Killer,” an adaptation for young adults, said he was inspired to write reader-friendly nonfiction as a child.
Swanson gave a presentation to Rocky River High School students earlier in the day and said he was impressed with their interest. School board member Jean Rounds agreed. “You could hear a pin drop, the students were so entranced,” she said.
“I write books I wish I had read as a kid, but no one had written,” Swanson said, describing “Manhunt” as a “timed account” of the events surrounding the 12-day pursuit and capture of John Wilkes Booth. “I want you to think you are reading a book written by friends,” Swanson said.
Born on Feb. 12, Lincoln’s birthday, to a family of history enthusiasts, Swanson seemed destined to be a historical storyteller. He said he grew up listening to his grandfather, a Chicago police officer, tell tales of Al Capone, gangsters, rogue newsmen and other colorful characters.
“I would hear some wild stories most children should not hear,” he quipped. On his 10th birthday, his grandmother presented him with an engraving of the pistol Booth used to assassinate Lincoln on April 15, 1865, and an accompanying news story that was cut off before its ending.
“I had to find the rest of the story,” Swanson said of his inspiration to study Lincoln. He added that he still has the engraving.
“Everything I write comes from a memory of my childhood,” he stated.
Swanson said he feels Lincoln was the greatest American president. “He was a great writer, too. He would have made his mark in some way even if wasn’t he president,” Swanson told West Life. But despite his admiration, Swanson pointed out during his presentation that the 16th president was not always as benevolent as portrayed.
“He practiced law in Illinois for 24 years and represented both sides. If you paid him, he’d take your case,” Swanson noted.
“Once Lincoln took a position he would not budge. He could be as hard as steel. He was a ruthless lawyer and he would not compromise,” Swanson stated. While comparing and contrasting Lincoln with Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, Swanson noted that both leaders were willing to keep the war going to defend their principles. “I don’t mean to attack either of these men, but they were the two greatest killers in American history,” he said, noting that 750,000 soldiers died during the Civil War. Based on a U.S. population of 35 million at the time, Swanson said that number would be equal to 7 or 8 million casualties today.
Swanson said that while most Civil War history tends to concentrate on the Union, it’s important to look at both sides of the conflict, which, he noted, was not about slavery, permitted under the Constitution at the time, but its spread to new territories. “Without studying it all, we miss the very point about what the war was about, and these issues still affect us today,” he said.
School board President Jon Fancher agreed that Swanson’s talk, as well as the exhibit, was food for thought. After the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at a recent board meeting, he commented, “That term, ‘one nation,’ has more meaning now.”