You all know our eagle. It was copied from an original wood carving in the collection of Old Sturbridge Village and it’s been flying bravely at the top of each issue since I was playing cowboys and Indians on the south side of Chicago. A few years back we started selling handsome, hand-carved reproductions of it. We have a big stock of these eagles on hand, and the other day our president, Samuel Reed, asked me to find out about the prototype’s history so that the catalogue department could get out some brisk new brochure copy on it.
We’ve always called it the Louisburg eagle. It’s obviously nineteenth century, so it couldn’t have had anything to do with the William Pepperell or Jeffrey Amherst expeditions against that great French fortress in the mid-1700’s. Surely a phone call to Sturbridge would set us straight.
Not at all.
The Sturbridge provenance records indicate only that the eagle came in with a heap of other items back when the museum’s founder was buying miscellaneous Americana by the carload. Their acquisition card reveals a single fact: the bird is carved out of wood. We knew that.
Then Laura Lane, our tireless librarian, began a maddening search that led back through past editors and business people, right to the beginning—right back to Earle Newton, the editor of the first incarnation of HERITAGE, who launched the eagle on volume 1, no. 3, in the spring of 1950. Nobody knew anything about it. The name “Louisburg” apparently was snatched out of thin air by some long-vanished member of our staff who thought it sounded appropriately patriotic. Much later, in 1971, the magazine identified the raptor with fine precision as having been carved in 1841. We don’t know where that date came from, either. And now there’s nothing more to do except give an embarrassed shrug and let the matter rest, probably forever.
The extensions of this confusion are troubling: if so apparently innocuous an object as our eagle can manage to shroud itself in impenetrable mystery, how can anyone hope to bring any sort of accuracy to greater issues? In fact, it’s a question of balance: sifting accounts, examining evidence, and bringing a measure of common sense to often contradictory information.
And some differences never can be resolved. For instance, this issue is highlighted by the vivid memories of two distinguished Americans, General Maxwell D. Taylor and John Kenneth Galbraith. Both are intelligent, perceptive, and literate men; both have been close presidential advisers- indeed, they both advised the same President—and yet their perceptions of the great historical events through which they have lived differ enormously. That is one of the things which makes our job so compelling.