June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
In 1894 he was one of ten kids from a Scottish family just managing to squeak by in a small, gray town in the Highlands. A mere decade later he sat in the Waldorf-Astoria, in a cutaway suit, hobnobbing with some of the most powerful men of his time. My grandfather had come a long way—though not quite so far as it appeared.
He had left home at fourteen, armed with an eighth-grade education and a !burning ambition to be somebody. He worked as a clerk, as a printer’s devil, learned shorthand, and eventually landed himself a job as a reporter. Then it was off to the wider world, first to South Africa and then on to America. He had lived frugally up to then. But not long after he arrived here, he abandoned his good Scotsman’s ways and set himself up in style. Suddenly his hard-earned savings were being squandered on lavish rooms, cutaway suits, and card games. By all rights he belonged in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn, but his extravagance had a purpose. He was a business reporter, and he intended to succeed. And what better way to get to know his subjects than to live among them.
My grandfather died just after 1 was born, and though 1 knew the basic facts of his life, he had no reality in my mind. But the gamble he took on this delightful, presumptuous piece of theater was so unexpected, so much more vibrant than the clichés I had attached to him, that he came instantly and palpably to life.
It was then, too, that I came to understand something more about history. The great figures and momentous events I had studied in school were indeed important, but it is the small moments and the human insights that make them real.
Displayed in the Forbes galleries in New York City is a fascinating array of presidential documents. Among several of historical moment is a short note penned by Lincoln to Secretary of War Stanton shortly after receiving word of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. What was on Lincoln’s mind was his son: “Tad wants some flags —Can he be accommodated.” Or consider the charming story in this issue about the ruse early colonists perpetuated in their letters home to England extolling the weather here. That these hale and hardy souls would lie outright in order to encourage others to follow; that Lincoln, in the moment of his great triumph, would indulge his young son’s request for some Confederate flags as mementos of the victory—these details are of more than just trivial interest or passing amusement.
A sense of history is vital to preserve. Without it, we are adrift before the future. But unless we keep history alive and vivid, we risk losing its real meaning. The little insights, the human stories are what keep it from becoming sterile—precisely because they are so often unexpected and always unique. Perhaps that is why the Statue of Liberty is one of our most popular and moving symbols—because it conjures up the very individual stories of the countless millions who, like my grandfather, have passed its way. Because it keeps our history so vividly before us.
Of course, this is precisely what has animated American Heritage through the years and what makes it such a special magazine. The Forbeses are proud to be its new publishers, and we will do our utmost to continue its tradition of bringing history gloriously to life.