Editor’s Letter

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If you happen to meet someone who thinks history is boring or irrelevant, hand them this American Heritage to help them see the error of their ways. This issue packs a punch, with some of the most harrowing stories in American history and thought-provoking essays that tell us much about who we are as a people.

Longtime American Heritage readers will remember we helped break the story nationally about the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings in Fawn Brodie’s “The Great Jefferson Taboo” in our June 1972 issue. Ever since, we’ve kept abreast of the story, running a number of pieces including one by former editor, Richard Snow, whose stepdaughter was a descendant of Hemings and Jefferson. It’s a story that resonates and bears looking because it runs right to the heart of how we as Americans think about our history.

I’m pleased that we’re continuing this tradition. Annette Gordon-Reed, who published Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: an American Controversy in 1997 and is coming out shortly with her definitive book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family , agreed to write an essay in our Viewpoints column about the question that everybody asks her: Did they love each other? It’s a fascinating look at the difficulties faced by historians and the dangers of making certain assumptions when evaluating the past.

Also in this issue, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Edwin Burrows uncovers a shocking story that has lain hidden for nearly 200 years: the fact that many more Americans died during the Revolutionary War from abuse in prison camps than in battle. The British viewed our troops as terrorists and traitors. They waived habeas corpus—an important safeguard against arbitrary imprisonment by the state—and they treated our POWs so poorly that 70 percent of them died, a figure far worse than during the Civil War an Korean conflict. As a result, our founding fathers were instrumental in creating international agreements that set precedents for fair treatment of prisoners. It’s something to keep in mind, that our country has been a beacon for principled behavior and the rule of law.

Good reading,

Edwin S. Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief