Medieval

’Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates’ – Galesburg Register-Mail

This book by Brian Kilmeade, subtitled, “the forgotten war that changed American history,” attracted me partly by the memory of my dissertation oral defense. Most people who earn a Ph.D. will tell you that there are several critical moments in the process. The most dreaded are the written and oral exams.

My written exams took a week. Although my major field was medieval history, I also had four other fields — two in European, two in American history. One question was “List the 100 best books covering the period 1789-1840, naming the authors and commenting on why each is important.” The orals are usually more dreaded because the committee has read the written exams and can see where knowledge is weakest. I got a variety of questions, but the hardest was on Jefferson’s policies for defending American coasts against possible British attack. That war didn’t happen while he was president — that became “Mr. Madison’s War” — but it was a major partisan issue because both Britain and France tried to draw America into the war on their side.

I used to think about this often because I had a framed Boston newspaper in my office that denounced Madison and boldly advertised the British goods on sale in the city. It was a reminder that American society had been badly divided in the past, not only during the Civil War, and not just in recent years.

Back to the oral exam. The committee asked a few questions across the range of
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