Category Archives: 3-Star Reviews
Every battle is the “bloodiest”, or most “sanguinary”. Every storm is a historic deluge that always seems to occur just as some momentous turning point is about to occur. Every secondary, or little known event, is in reality the pivot on which [fill in the blank’s] fortunes depend, and of course George Washington is the “greatest horseman of his generation.”
These and many other cliches are standard for works of popular American history. They engage the reader, build suspense, and imply new or unusual interpretations of allegedly well-understood events. In reality however, they seem cherry picked as a way to propel a chosen narrative, rather than providing evidence for a well crafted hypothesis.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick makes excellent use of these, and other techniques to produce an admittedly well-crafted narrative review of its subject, that nevertheless, left me disappointed.
Philbrick, in my opinion, is one of only a handful of preeminent authors of popular American History. He has a gift for narrative only rivaled by David McCullough. I have enjoyed several of his previous works, including In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. With the exception of the last of these, they involved subjects with which I had little or no familiarity. I enjoyed them because of this fact, because of their narrative style, and despite their heavy use of the same type of hooks he uses in Valiant Ambition. I appreciated his book on Bunker Hill despite having more than passing familiarity with the topic, because he placed the event in its proper context, not elevating its importance beyond where it should be. In that work, he didn’t artificially elevate the importance of certain events to create tension. Unfortunately, with Valiant Ambition, he seems to have gone out of the way to do just the opposite.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a well-crafted book, which effectively weaves a dual biography of George Washington and Benedict Arnold’s Revolutionary wartime experience into a pretty seamless story. But there just isn’t much new here that has not been covered in numerous other books on these two men. His heavy use of the artificial build up of events, along with his liberal use of the cliches mentioned earlier, left me with a “been there, read that” feeling.
Philbrick uncritically uses quotes and passages attributable to Washington, Arnold, and many of the people they interacted with or who were affected by their actions, to convey the intended narrative effect. In some cases they are used to assert something without really having to research whether it was true or not. So when he notes that George Washington was generally understood to be the “greatest horseman of his generation,” he was in fact using a passage written by Thomas Jefferson as evidence. Obviously there is no way Jefferson, or anyone at the time, could prove such an assertion. Yet Philbrick makes it without any context behind it to help convey a sense of gravitas around Washington.
Prominent men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries wrote not only for an immediate need, but to make sure posterity interpreted their actions as they wished them to be. Whether it was a letter, a diary entry, or public conversation, they knew, and indeed hoped, their words would be shared. Using them without context, and without a close examination of the motivations behind them, leaves the interpretation susceptible to later contradiction. I understand why Philbrick does this, I just wish he had not done so so widely and uncritically.
I don’t want to overdraw the point however. There are place in the narrative where Philbrick does provide critical context, such as when analyzing the assertions by Benjamin Talmadge that the failure of Benedict Arnold’s plans to turn over West Point to the British was the fault of Arnold himself. Philbrick makes a persuasive case that the fault lay with John Andre, and that Talmadge’s assertions were designed to deflect blame from the failure of his spy network. In addition to this, in a few places, Philbrick hints at a deeper analysis of events than a simple narrative of them provides. I wanted more of this.
As a narrative work, Philbrick doesn’t make a real attempt at a more detailed analysis of the reasons for the Revolutionary War, or for Washington and Arnold’s participation in it. Given the number of books that essentially give the same narrative of these events as Philbrick’s (though admittedly with less skill), I wish he had instead applied his considerable talent to a deeper look. An exploration of the economic, cultural and political climate that gave rise to the Revolution or the motivation behind the participation of landed gentlemen such as George Washington, and of those who had acquired wealth through their own exertions such as Arnold, would have been fascinating. I would have liked a more thorough look at Arnold’s motivations for treason, not only based on his writings and actions, but on an analysis of what kind of hold identification as an American had for the average citizen, and how that affected Arnold’s decision and the reaction to it. He does hint at some of this, talking about the role economic class played in motivating those who supported independence. He also, briefly, dives more deeply into criticism of George Washington’s generalship. And he posited an interesting theory that Arnold’s treason actually brought together a country that was rapidly falling apart as the war dragged on. I just wish we had gotten a lot more of this kind of analysis throughout the book.
Overall I did enjoy this, if for no other reason than Philbrick is such a skilled writer. If your knowledge of Washington and Arnold doesn’t extend much beyond what you learned in school, this is a good place to start. If you are more familiar with the subjects though, this doesn’t provide much in the way of new insight, and may leave you wanting something new.
Lincoln and Grant’s Teamwork: Keys to Their Civil War Success by Edward H. Bonekemper, III
Basically the final chapter of Bonekemper’s largely fawning work Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War, it does a lucid job of looking at the traits Lincoln and Grant each possessed that made them effective working partners. The foremost of these was trust. Lincoln trusted Grant’s military judgment even during trying times. Grant trusted Lincoln’s political judgment, even when it meant not getting everything he felt was needed to prosecute the war.
Though well written some of its assertions are a bit of a stretch. But, it is an area most Lincoln and Grant biographers don’t dive into in detail so is well worth the read.
Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III
Purporting to look at the relationship that developed between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, “Lincoln and Grant: The Westerners Who Won the War” by Edward H. Bonekemper III reads more like a perfunctory dual biography. There is little here to be gained that isn’t covered in better and more comprehensive works, or previous books by Mr. Bonekemper. There are two exceptions however. First, he provides a surprisingly engaging account of the “overland campaign,” which encompassed battles that pitted the Union Army of the Potomac against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia between April and June 1864. The campaign ended with the siege of Petersburg, VA by troops under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Bonekemper deftly describes the challenges faced by both Grant and Robert E. Lee, the strategy each employed, and a nice analysis of the result. He might consider writing a separate book on the topic.
A second area in which this book rose above a simple surface level biography of Lincoln and Grant is contained in his excellent summary chapter. Though meant to be both an analysis of the Lincoln-Grant relationship and a dual character study, most of the book was not devoted to that task as I noted above. However, what was provided, condensed into the summary chapter was surprisingly compelling. He identifies a number of characteristics Lincoln and Grant had in common, and noted representative situations that demonstrated how these common traits were manifested in their working relationship. A relationship Bonekemper asserts, that developed into one of complete mutual trust. These included adaptability acquired from a common western upbringing, decisiveness, clarity of communication, moral courage, and perseverance. Few would quibble with the assertion each man possessed these traits. Indeed, one only need review Lincoln’s orations and Grant’s written orders and memoirs to see that clarity of communication was a gift they shared. Bonekemper describes these with clarity as well. It highlights the point that this analysis was too diffuse in the body of the book to make a real impact on the reader. It may have been better as an academic paper.*
As with his other books Bonekemper’s honestly stated goal is to revive the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant. With a so blatant initial bias readers inclined to the opposite view may dismiss the valid points he makes out of hand. Also, he may consider whether he has gone to the well one too many times by making Ulysses S. Grant the subject of his work. Parts of this book appeared to be lifted, almost verbatim, from his previous books.
Well written overall but not much new save the exceptions I noted above.
* I see Bonekemper has written a Kindle Single on this topic. May be the condensed version that I think would be more impactful. I am going to read it and report back.
Ulysses S. Grant: A Victor Not a Butcher: The Military Genius of the Man Who Won the Civil War by Edward H. Bonekemper III
Edward H. Bonekemper III is moving rapidly to fill the role of Ulysses S. Grant’s chief academic defender, attempting to reverse what he views as decades of ill-treatment at the hands of “lost cause” revisionists and the apathetic historians that have accepted their version of Grant’s military acumen a priori. There is truth in this. There is no doubt Grant’s reputation has suffered since his death in 1885. Southern historians, needing to explain away the defeat of their hero and exemplar of Southern rectitude, Robert E. Lee in a way that did not signal an acceptance of the notion he was incompetent or out-generaled, began coordinated effort to cast aspersions on his military record. Thus was born the description of Grant as “butcher” and “drunk,” and the assertion his victories were only due to the application of brute force rather than tactical skill. Conversely, the man Grant defeated has been canonized, his victories celebrated as genius, his defeats blamed on subordinates or poor circumstances. An example of this bias until recently, was the way monuments to each were cared for by the National Park Service. Lee’s home at Arlington has been lovingly cared for, including a recently completed 6 year restoration. Ditto the hundreds of statues and historic sites related to Lee throughout the South, especially Virginia. By contrast, Grant’s tomb in New York City and his massive equestrian statue on the grounds of the United States Capital had, until recently, been allowed to deteriorate, with the former becoming a magnet for graffiti artists and the homeless looking for a place to sleep. It took a threat by Grant descendants to have his body moved to Ohio to get the Park Service to undertake a restoration. Other examples abound, including his treatment in popular culture and histories focusing on other topics in which Grant is a minor player. Rather than look at recent scholarship it is easier just to accept long held conventional wisdom.
It is not hard than, to sympathize with Bonekemper’s view that Grant has been given short shrift by historians and the public. And frankly, I share it.
On the other hand, by so specifically aligning himself with a specific version of history, Bonekemper runs the risk of criticism for lack of objectivity, and that those inclined to an opposite view of Grant will use it to dismiss his valid points. It’s why the word “hagiography” is often used disparagingly by historians. This book is hagiography. He also runs the risk of applying his bias to an interpretation of evidence that is not warranted. This is always a danger for historians, but for those more committed to arriving at a fair interpretation of the facts it is something that is more scrupulously guarded against. Having said all of that however, and having studied Grant’s career rather extensively, I didn’t see any glaringly obvious bias in the information presented.
The goal of this book is very simple, to refute the charge, first given voice by “lost cause” apologists and later incorporated into mainstream histories, that Ulysses S. Grant was a “butcher of men,” that his disregard for human life was such that he was willing to sacrifice his men in a series of incompetent attacks knowing he had an almost unlimited ability to replace them. This also implied that Grant’s abilities as a military tactician were limited at best, particularly when compared with those of Robert E. Lee. Here Bonekemper does a good job of marshaling statistics to refute that contention.
He argues, pretty convincingly, that Grant was far from being the butcher portrayed by detractors. Rather, he was actually a skilled tactician and strategist who deployed his troops wisely and judiciously. Grant always had in mind the dual goal of minimizing casualties while maximizing damage to the enemy. He recognized, as his predecessors did not, that winning the war was the fastest way to end the carnage, and that this would require relentless and nearly non-stop attacks against an often entrenched enemy. Previous opponents of Lee viewed defeat in battle as an opportunity to retreat and regroup. Grant viewed them as temporary setbacks and an opportunity to learn from hard experience.
Here the author highlights two data points to make his case. First, throughout the war Grant lost 37,000 fewer men than did Robert E. Lee. During the period when Grant and Lee were in direct competition Grant lost more men, but a smaller percentage of those engaged. He accomplished this while being on the offensive nearly the entire time. Second, during the period encompassing Grant’s appointment as General-in-Chief through to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox about a year later, the Union Army of the Potomac , fighting on the offensive for nearly that entire period, suffered fewer casualties than under all of its previous commanders combined, a statistic that, in Bonekemper’s view, not only vindicates Grant’s tactical and strategic skill, but also absolves him of the “butcher” sobriquet. I tend to agree with this. In fact, he argues by the standard applied to Grant by his detractors Lee deserves the butcher label far more than Grant does. He does not apply that standard however, believing the well-being of the troops was a priority of both Lee and Grant. He just argues that Grant was the superior General. Another view I am persuaded best fits the evidence.
This in a nutshell is Bonekemper’s argument. The rest of the book is a largely perfunctory and admiring biography of Grant.
This work is well written, and at times engrossing. The author’s admiration for Grant is clear, which in many ways is refreshing after so many decades of revisionist Grant bashing. His research and citation appears impeccable, although the reliability of casualty figures, particularly of Confederate forces, is often sketchy. Despite this however, he appears to be using up to date analysis on which he bases a very plausible interpretation. Where I had some trouble, as I mentioned earlier, was with the blatant hagiographic impulse he admitted to at the beginning of the book. Refreshing as this interpretation of Grant’s career is, for those whose bias is the opposite it gives a ready made reason to discount the solid analysis contained in it. He also takes great pains to assert the most charitable interpretation of some of Grants’s less admirable actions. This too provides an opening to discount the entire work.
For its direct refutation of misinformation regarding Grant’s military career this is well worth reading. As a biography of Grant it is perfunctory at best. There are numerous better options available.
Robert Remini’s goal for his work Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars are stated simply, “to explain what happened and why.” He prefaces this however, by saying, “that it is not my intention to excuse of exonerate Andrew Jackson for the role he played in the removal of Native Americans west of the Mississippi River.” He goes on to note that it is important for Americans to view history through the eyes of those living through it. It is easy to make judgements about motivation through a modern lens, but in order to truly understand, one must comprehend the mood and attitude which were prevalent at the time. He used the internment of the Japanese during World War II as an example of this. Clearly, this internment was morally wrong, but at the same time there was little objection to it because of the atmosphere of fear and mistrust of Japanese citizens following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Similarly, he notes, there was support for the removal of the Indians for a number of reasons, among them the fear of white populations living proximate to Indian lands.
While Remini’s stated goal is to simply tell us what happened, it is just as clear that he wants to place the reader in that place and time in order to convey an accurate sense of the mood of the American public. In that way he believes we can understand more fully the motivations driving Andrew Jackson in his relations with the Indians. I also believe, despite his protestations to the contrary, that Remini would like the reader to take a gentler view of Andrew Jackson’s role in causing the suffering to the Indian population during and after removal.
Unlike others who have taken a more comprehensive look at Indian policy during this era, such as Ronald Satz in American Indian Policy in the Jacksonian Era, Remini, in order to achieve his stated goal concentrates his narrative on Andrew Jackson and his relationship with American Indians. By taking us through his early experiences during the Revolutionary War in South Carolina where his brother was killed, in all likelihood by Indians, Remini is trying to get the read to understand the events that shaped Jackson’s early views of Indians, and to explain his legendary determination and ruthlessness. He goes into detailed descriptions of Jackson’s experiences as an Indian fighter, his role in the Creek War and subsequent negotiations, his role in the seizure of Florida, his elevation to the Presidency and his policy towards the Indians during his two terms in the White House.
Remini has produced a very compelling narrative. His descriptions of Jackson’s relationship with the Indians prior to becoming President are particularly riveting. He uses Jackson’s experiences dealing with Indians, particularly during the Creek wars and the seizure of Florida to explore Jackson’s later attitudes towards the Indians. He doesn’t shy away from Jackson’s dark side. He admits that Jackson, like any frontiersman of the day, viewed the Indian as inferior both culturally and intellectually. This is evidenced by Jackson’s paternalistic attitudes toward them during the treaty negotiations that ended the Creek War, and later, in his communications to the Indians, trying to induce them to accept the treaties that would result in their removal west. It also partially explains, along with his experiences during the Revolution, his often brutal savagery towards his Indian opponents during the War of 1812
As Ronald Satz points out however, Remini takes great pains to get the reader to take a more benign view of Jackson’s actual attitude towards the Indians, and in particular, his later actions during the removal process. Remini points out that Jackson adopted an Indian orphan, that he counted many Indians among his friends, that he often expressed a desire to help the downtrodden among the various tribes and that many Indians expressed appreciation for this attitude, and in the end, argues Jackson’s attempts to remove the Indians was done primarily to benefit their people.
Remini attempts almost no analysis of the bureaucratic and political factors influencing Indian policy. In fact, the first twelve chapters are devoted entirely to events occurring before Andrew Jackson became president. Only with the onset of the Jackson administration do we get any discussion of the politics surrounding Indian removal or of its implementation. The book ends with the termination of the Jackson administration.
Remini clearly has sympathy for Jackson. In my opinion, he bends back a bit too far to get the reader to view Jackson’ role in removal as a quest to do what was best for the Indian. In this I agree with Satz, Jackson’s motivations for advocating Indian removal was based on his adherence to a traditional states rights view, and his fervent nationalism. Jackson also desired Indian removal as a security measure, making the argument that having Indians and Whites in close proximity was sure to end in bloodshed. To this I would add he was under strong political pressure, particularly from southern governors, who themselves were being pressured by white settlers desiring more land. I don’t believe Jackson had any particular animosity towards the Indians, but their well-being was secondary to the other pressures impelling removal.
I am also of the opinion that Remini is a bit too uncritical of Jackson’s statements defending removal. In fact, inconsistencies can be found in the context of this book. On page 237 Remini makes the statement that Jackson’s “noble desire to give the Indians a free choice between staying and removing, one devoid of coercion, was disregarded by land-greedy state and federal officials…” This statement conflicts with Remini’s own accounts of Jackson’s actions in trying to get the Indians to accept removal. In a letter to William B. Lewis, Jackson, complaining about the decision of the Cherokees and Choctaws not to attend a meeting with him, writes, “I leave the poor deluded Creeks and Cherokees to their fate, and their annihilation.” Remini also notes the many times that Jackson encouraged treaty negotiators to use the Indian fear of mistreatment by whites as a negotiating tactic. During the negotiations of the treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek following the Indians’ initial rejection of the government’s treaty terms, negotiators John H. Eaton and John Coffee threatened the Indians, warning them “if they refused to enter into a treaty…the President…would march an army into their country, build forts in all parts of their hunting grounds, expand the authority and laws of the United States over the Choctaw territory…” Lastly, Jackson’s attitude towards the Cherokee Indians also casts doubt on his allegedly noble attempts to give them a free choice on whether to accept removal or not. Jackson completely dismissed the strides made by Cherokees to adopt a “white” way of life. He fought as hard, or harder, for the removal of them, as he did for any of the other tribes. Had he truly been willing to allow for cultural change, he would not have done that.
In summary, I think Remini’s views on Andrew Jackson and Indian removal is a valuable counterpoint to the standard view of Jackson’s antipathy towards the Indians. Through the use of lucid and, at times, compelling arguments, Remini is able to effectively argue for a more benign view of Jackson’s role in removal. He ably describes the events that formed Jackson’s later attitudes towards the Indians. As I noted above however, I feel he is going too far in trying to exonerate Jackson for some of the blame for the horrors inflicted on the Indians as the result of his removal policy.
George Washington: Man and Monument by Marcus Cunliffe
First published in 1958, this relatively brief biography of George Washington provides a perspective that is often lost in more detailed works. With more detailed treatments an overall viewpoint can get lost, bogged down in an analysis of a relatively narrow set of circumstances. This is common in today’s political discourse, where one or two negative events can ruin a politician’s career. Sadly, this same phenomenon seems to be encroaching on how historical figures are viewed as well. A relatively recent, and well known example, are the revelations, confirmed by DNA evidence, that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave Sally Hemmings.
I believe it is important that all information relative to the lives of historical figures, like Jefferson, ought to be out in the open. In this case, it is doubly important as it helps inform how we evaluate Jefferson’s views on slavery, and it allows previously unacknowledged descendants of Jefferson to get the recognition they deserve. However, like with anything we study, it is important to put each piece of information in the proper context. There are many who are now using this revelation to tarnish Jefferson’s entire legacy, something that is certainly not warranted given his body of work. Similarly, with efforts to humanize George Washington it becomes very easy to focus on some of the negative aspects of his personality and to magnify them beyond their overall relevance. We see some of this with the focus of some authors on Washington’s relationship with Sally Cary Fairfax. For example, John C. Fitzpatrick, author of George Washington Himself believes evidence of an untoward relationship with Mrs. Fairfax would prove Washington as a “worthless scoundrel.” We also see, with focus on Washington’s early career as a military leader before and during the French and Indian War how easy it would be to taint his entire legacy by attaching too much importance to his early displays of petulance and ambition. Richard Brookhiser in his character study of Washington, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, seems to fear this as well. He includes very little of Washington’s early career in his analysis. But here again, while this information is needed to get a complete understanding of Washington, it needs to be viewed in the context of his entire life and career. The downside to the type of overall treatment Cunliffe gives us, is that important details are often glossed over or eliminated altogether. Especially for historians who may be familiar with much of this information, it is often distressing to see what are viewed as extremely significant events given short shrift.
In addition to producing a very concise biography of George Washington the man, Cunliffe also explores George Washington the monument. Throughout his narrative he looks at how contemporaries viewed Washington, and how his legacy has taken shape since his death. In contrast to much of the recent effort to penetrate the marble exterior that has been constructed around Washington, in order to humanize him, Cunliffe takes the view that Washington’s legacy cannot be understood without looking at what caused this phenomenon, and how Washington himself contributed to it.
In the space of one hundred and four pages (three of five chapters), Cunliffe covers Washington’s entire life, from the arrival of his earliest ancestors to North America through to his death in 1799. He divides Washington’s life into three broad periods: pre-Revolutionary War, Revolutionary War, and Presidency. Because of this brevity Cunliffe is forced to cover significant aspects of Washington’s life very briefly, only highlighting the most important of events. While this does tend to leave on wanting more detail, it does allow for a very concise and relevant summary at the end of each section, that segueways very effectively into the next. For example, chapter two is devoted in large part to Washington’s early military career. While a book such as for King and Country: George Washington, The Early Years, by Thomas A. Lewis can devote much time to reviewing Washington’s actions during this period, giving us much important detail and the ability to make informed judgements, little attention is given to how these experiences guided his later career. Thus, a reader who does not round out their study of other aspects of Washington’s life can come to a distorted view of his character. Cunliffe, while coming to many of the same conclusions, is able to sum up this period in context, highlighting Washington’s actions, weighing his strengths and weaknesses, and then moving on to the next period. In Washington’s early military career, Cunliffe, echoing Lewis, offers the opinion that “there is something unlikable about the George Washington of 1753-1758. He seems a trifle raw and strident, too much on his dignity, too ready to complain, too nakedly concerned with promotion.” (Cunliffe, 40) He goes on to portend the Washington that was to come later, noting that “all through his adult life Washington was to be closely concerned with his reputation,” that he “was determined to do what was right, and he hoped his rectitude would be acknowledged even if his actions turned out badly, “but “otherwise, his shortcomings were more than balanced by his good qualities. “ (Cunliffe, 40) He goes on, making a point that is not only important for understanding Washington’s conception of the French and Indian War, but would also be an important demonstration of increasing maturity in the run up to the Revolution. And that is, related to the French and Indian War, Washington’s “outlook was rather narrowly Virginian. He did not conceive of the war as a whole…” (Cunliffe, 40)
Thus, as Cunliffe’s narrative continues we are able to see how Washington’s earlier behavior and actions are reflected in his conduct of the war, and his Presidency. We are able to see how he matured over time, how his view of the French and Indian war from a Virginia perspective made it easy for him to later take an American view in the dispute with Britain. It was not only indicative of his natural inclination to resistance, but hid view that “the voice of mankind is with me.” (Cunliffe, 50). By mankind, Cunliffe notes, Washington undoubtedly meant Virginia. “He was a Virginian by birth, upbringing, instinct and – not least – property.” (Cunliffe, 50) In this one short section, we see how Washington’s concern with honor and rectitude, first noted during his early military career, is reflected in his implicit need to be on the side of his fellow Virginians, and how his view of himself that way impelled him to rebel. Cunliffe repeats this pattern through sections devoted to Washington’s biography. He effectively relates Washington’s actions and behavior in one period of his life, to later periods, showing how Washington was able to learn and adapt based on experience. This gives is a broadly cohesive portrait of the man.
In addition of the biographical portrait Cunliffe paints, he also tackles the process by which Washington’s has taken shape, turning him into the “marble man” of American history; the monument portion of Man and Monument. As noted earlier, Cunliffe’s main thesis here is that Washington’s legacy cannot be understood by setting aside this view of him. In other words, the story of how this view of him became dominant is as important as learning about Washington the man, and how his “real merits were enlarged and distorted into unreal attitudes, an that this overblown Washington is the one who occurs immediately to us whenever his name is mentioned.” (Cunliffe, 5) Extending the metaphor of the Washington Monument, Cunliffe offers four guises under which this view takes shape. First is the “copybook hero” that views Washington as a “man without faults…with all the nineteenth century virtues, from courage to punctuality, from modesty to thrift – and all within human compass, and all crowned by success.”(Cunliffe, 8) Second is the “Father of His People” guise, which cast Washington as the “prime native hero…a necessary creation for a new country.” (Cunliffe, 8) Thus, throughout American history, no matter the issue, Washington’s legacy could be invoked. Persons with as disparate views as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee felt no hesitation using his legacy to advance their causes. Cunlifee argues that only Lincoln approaches the national acclaim afforded Washington, but as a more accessible historical figure falls slightly short of monument status. Third is the view of Washington as the “disinterested patriot,” reflecting the view of many of him as the modern Cinncinatus, who, displaying a lack of personal ambition, left familial comfort to answer the call of his countrymen. Last is the view of Washington as the “Revolutionary Leader,” a view held mainly by those outside of the United States. This is a view of Washington as “liberator, the champion of nationalism, and the victor in the first great revolution of modern times.” (Cunliffe, 13)
In the final chapter, Cunliffe argues that the vision of Washington as “monument” is not entirely without justification. He notes that many biographers of Washington are left feeling they have missed something. Unlike Napoleon, Wellington, Nelson, and others who had significant flaws, Washington’s early petulance and ambition, his reticence, his innate common sense that in others might indicate a lack of intelligence, all seem like inevitable steps toward becoming the great man he became. Cunliffe describes he conundrum many historians feel, either they must surrender to the “conventional piety,” or, “descend to petty fault-finding” when assessing Washington’s life. (Cunliffe, 125)
Cunliffe also argues that the comparison with Cincinnatus is not unwarranted – and that Washington himself contributed to this view. Despite some claims to the contrary, many leaders of this period did view themselves as “classic warriors” of the Roman kind, and that in Washington’s actions throughout his life one could see his cultivation of the Roman ideals of virtus (virtue), gravitas (seriousness), pietas (regard for discipline and authority), simplicitas (lucidity), integritas (integrity), and gloria (glory). That Washington thought of himself this way can be inferred from his frequent quoting from Addison’s Cato. In making these comparisons, Cunliffe is persuasive, arguing Washington was not simply aping “the modes and experiences of the ancient world, ” but that he and other leaders in 18th century America were “markedly ‘classical’ in temperament,” and their actions must be understood in this context.
I found this book to be a breath of fresh air. It’s brevity, and the authors skill in putting Washington’s early actions into the context of his later life, results in a very good overall view of his character and legacy. As with any book however, one can always find fault, however minor. In this case, as one who has studied this time period to some degree, I often found myself getting frustrated that little or no time was devoted to what I consider critically important events. These most glaring of these, in my opinion, is the brief attention given to the Jumonville affair and Washington’s subsequent humiliation at Fort Necessity, which is generally considered to be the incident that touched off the French and Indian War. There were also some instances where Cunliffe, in my view, characterizes certain incidents incorrectly. In a chapter on Washington as Revolutionary War leader, Cunliffe includes a discussion of the southern campaign in which he praises the actions of Lord Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, characterizing it as a decisive victory. In reality Guilford Courthouse was a costly victory in which Cornwallis was obliged to fire on his own men as well as the Americans in order to achieve it. It was this pyrrhic victory along with his overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Cowpens that eroded British morale and induced Cornwallis to move north to Yorktown.
These criticisms aside however, if one is looking for a relatively brief, but fully realized biography of George Washington, George Washington: Man and Monument by Marcus Cunliffe is an excellent choice.
Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser
Part of the appeal of studying American history for me, has always been in looking for ways to apply lessons learned about our past to today’s issues. Partly for that reason my favorite form of historical reading is the biographical. It helps personalize history, and allows me, when trying to think about issues facing us today, to ask the question; “What would (fill in the blank) do?” At the top of the list for me is imagining how George Washington would have dealt with issues of prime importance to us today, but little thought of or non-existent in the eighteenth century such as abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration reform, and globalism. I have no idea really what his position would be on these issues, but it helps me frame my thinking and I derive inspiration from the struggles he went through to arrive at solutions for the problems he had to grapple with. Richard Brookhiser, in his book Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington attempts to look at the life of our first president in this light; “to shape the minds and hearts of those who read it…by showing how a great man navigated politics and life as a public figure.” (Brookhiser, 12) With that as his goal, Brookhiser candidly admits he is not attempting a comprehensive biography of Washington, but instead is looking at his experiences and those who influenced him in order to develop a character portrait. The result is a lightly sources book that explores three aspects of Washington and his life. First, he looks at Washington’s career during the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and his Presidency. Second, he attempts an exploration of Washington’s character in which he posits the co-dependence of nature, morals and ideas as an explanation for his success. And third, he looks at Washington’s subsequent role, after his death, as “Founding Father.”
While my conviction that it is vitally important we look at our history to help derive lessons useful for dealing with modern issues is unshaken, I have noted (as have many others), a disturbing trend in our modern media driven culture; the attempt by some groups to appropriate the legacy of our national figures for narrow ideological or partisan purposes. I am not naïve enough to claim this is a particularly new trend, after all, both North and South claimed inspiration from Washington at the outset of the Civil War. But, I do believe, spurred by multimillion dollar advertising campaigns, and a lazy, disinterested media, this trend is worsening. One only needs to look at the reliance of some media outlets on pseudo-historian David Barton for confirmation of this trend. In my mind this is a dangerous attempt to exclude those who do not hoe to a strict set of cultural and religious ideals, from the historical legacy of our country. This of course, if not checked, will only exacerbate the political divisions our country is currently experiencing.
It was this fear that came to mind when I began reading this book. I am familiar with Mr. Brookhiser’s work as a commentator and columnist for among other publications, the right leaning weekly magazine, The National Review. And while I think he is a very good writer and expositor of his views, in the interests of full candor I must say that I cannot recall a single instance where I agreed with anything written by him. I feared this book would be nothing but another attempt to claim the legacy of Washington in support of what I consider a narrow ideological agenda. I came away with mixed feelings. On one hand I found his use of Washington as a character study to be a refreshing change in the standard biological form (as much as I enjoy those). This freed him from the necessities of extensive sourcing, and allowed him to look at Washington not from a chronological point of view, but by looking at different aspects of his life, out of sequence, in support of a “character” point of view. In other words, different facets of Washington’s character drove the narrative, and Brookhiser was able to take pieces of Washington’s life out of sequence to support his thesis. On the other hand he could not help but injecting modern conservative views into parts of his narrative, and I had the feeling that the entire study was subtly designed to lead readers to that point of view. He seemed to skip over events in Washington’s life that contradicted his thesis, and those negative aspects he could not ignore he often attempted to re-orient as positive. The whole book for me had the feel of a preordained conclusion in search of evidence to support it. I also found it interesting that most of the reviews that were chosen for the cover of the book were from conservative leaning publications.
Brookhiser’s strongest chapters look at Washington’s career as soldier, president of the Constitutional Convention, and as President of the United States. The overarching theme of these chapters, though not explicitly stated, is that Washington was able to succeed not through brilliant intellect (though he was clearly a very intelligent man), but through the force of his character and personality. A primary aspect of this was Washington’s ability to master his passions where he needed to in order to achieve his desired outcome. Brookhiser effectively cites incidents from Washington’s career that bolster this point, especially in the way he cites Washington’s Revolutionary War strategy, which he deftly sums up by noting that by 1778 Washington “had not won the war…[but] had made it unwinnable for the enemy.” (Brookhiser, 25) In adopting this strategy, avoiding defeat in order to demoralize the enemy, Washington was going against his normally aggressive inclinations. So, as Brookhiser points out, while Washington lost all but two battles in the north (Trenton and Princeton), and Greene lost all but one battle in the south (Cowpens), he was, with the assistance of the French, able to finally force Britain to submit.
Brookhiser cites other examples that demonstrate the unique qualities of Washington’s character, including his resistance to entreaties that he become King, the way he was able to dampen enthusiasm for a rebellion among his officers in Newburgh, NY in 1783 by appealing to their respect for him and by making common cause with them, by the example of “moderation and political cordiality” he set while presiding over the heated debates surrounding the adoption of a new constitution, and the fortitude he demonstrated as President, setting precedents of conduct that are followed to this day.
As he does throughout the book, Brookhiser tends to ignore or downplay incidents in Washington’s life he believes would tend to diminish respect for Washington’s character. He minimizes the relationship between Washington and Sally Fairfax, and most seriously, only lightly brushes over Washington’s military career prior to the Revolution. He nearly completely ignores the Jumonville affair (mentioning it obliquely in Part 2) and Washington’s defeat at Fort Necessity. He makes no mention of Washington’s constant angling for advancement in the British army, his petulant arguments with Governor Dinwiddie, and his self-serving attempt to convince British General Forbes to use the Braddock Road in their final advance on Fort Duquesne in order to, in part, protect his land interests. Instead, Brookhiser only mentions Washington’s fame following the failed Braddock expedition. In my opinion ignoring an event as momentous as this in Washington’s life somewhat undercuts Brookhiser’s character thesis.
In Part 2, Brookhiser more explicitly focuses on Washington’s character, positing a theory that his success rests on a tripod of nature, morals, and ideas. Here in my opinion Brookhiser is less convincing, particularly relating to his evaluation of the importance of Washington’s physical appearance to his success. While Washington’s appearance – primarily his height and bearing, which at 6′ 3″ was imposing – was clearly important, particularly in eliciting a good first impression on those he met, I do not believe, as Brookhiser claims, that it was necessary for Washington’s success. In making his point, Brookhiser cites the “primal importance of the body,” for Americans when choosing their leaders. (Brookhiser, 114) He cites the sixteen Pressed who he believes passed the “ultimate physical test” in battle, two Presidents who were college athletes, and Roosevelt’s struggles against polio as examples of this. While there is no doubt military experience was crucial for the electoral prospects of a number of these men, particularly Washington, Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, Grant, T. Roosevelt and Eisenhower, I know of no analysis which has cited the physical aspect of military experience as being important. And, I have no recollection of Fords or Reagan’s experiences as college athletes even being mentioned in the context of their political campaigns. In fact, Ford’s legendary “klutziness” received far more attention than his college football days. In addition, one can think of numerous highly successful leaders who had neither military success or great physical stature; John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter spring to mind. It also, in my opinion, lessens the perceived importance of Washington’s intellectual attributes, which were considerable. Overall I am left with the impression that Brookhiser thinks if Washington was 5’6″ rather than 6’3″ he would not have been as successful. I just do not find that argument convincing. In the interests of full disclosure however, when I made this assertion in his class, one of my graduate professors, renowned Washington scholar Dr. Peter Henriques flat out told me I was wrong.
Brookhiser does a better job exploring Washington’s temperament, noting Washington had a notoriously thin skin but his fits of anger left as quickly as they came. It was Washington’s ability to suppress this part of his personality that is the important point. Brookhiser does a good job here again, of showing how Washington was able to master his passions when he needed to. The argument would have been more powerful had he explored Washington’s behavior during the French and Indian War more thoroughly, which would have revealed a man of increasing maturity and who was better able to master his passions.
In a short section on morals Brookhiser cites Washington’s adherence to the Rules of Civility and evidence that he drew inspiration from L’Estrange’s Seneca’s Morals and Addison’s Cato, as a factor in Washington’s cultivation and protection of his reputation, and as an explanation for Washington’s legendary stoicism. Here again Brookhiser would have been on surer ground had he not ignored Washington’s early career. As part of his discussion of the Rules of Civility, he makes the point that Rule #32 is nominally about who gets the best bed, but ends “by announcing a principle of accepting honor only with reluctance and modesty, which Washington was t o follow when he became Commander in Chief, president of the Constitutional Convention, and President of the United States.” (Brookhiser, 129) Again Brookhiser undercuts his argument by ignoring Washington’s early career. In attempting to advance his prospect during that time, Washington was anything but “reluctant and modest.” Brookhiser appears to fear what an honest appraisal of those years would mean for Washington’s reputation. He need not fear it. In fact, in my opinion, it would have bolstered Brookhiser’s character analysis as it demonstrates growth and a strength of will many others lack.
Earlier I noted that the fear I had with this book was that it would turn out to be yet another attempt to co-opt the legacy of George Washington in service of a narrow ideological agenda. Up to this point my fears were largely, though not completely, allayed. However, in the section entitled “Ideas,” my fears were again stoked. Brookhiser starts well enough, noting Washington was better read than most have given him credit for, and that while the intellectual foundation for the Revolution did not originate with him in any way, he grasped their nature and importance very quickly. However, during a discussion of Washington’s proposals for a national university and his view that “right ideas were a necessary attainment of public men,” Brookhiser launches what can only be characterized as a sweeping and unnecessary attack on modern public education. (Brookhiser, 142 – 143) He argues, lamely in my opinion, that because the government, through its investment in public education is “interested chiefly in scientific research, in theories and techniques that might benefit the economy or the military,” educators – read liberal educators – are left to “pursue what interests them.” (Brookhiser, 143) He opines that the only ones interested in instilling a theory of public order are the “apostles of diversity,” whose only goal is to carve a place for one’s own group and not in the service of human rights. “Conservatives,” he says, “who profess loyalty to the intentions of the founders,” as if liberals do not, “have such a deep suspicion of the intentions of modern educators that most of them want the public education establishment broken up…and who, considering what educators teach, can blame them?” (Brookhiser, 143) In one paragraph, Brookhiser confirmed my fears about his true intentions. Unable to contain himself he succeeded in injecting modern conservative dogma into a discussion of George Washington’s character. By implying that modern liberals are not interested in the original intentions of the founders, as they interpret them, Brookhiser is attempting to appropriate their legacy in service to his point of view. This is a dangerous road to follow as it can only lead to further division.
Brookhiser goes on to discuss the influence of Christian belief and Freemasonry in Washington’s life. He proffers the view that Washington was a believer in God as an “Active agent and force.” (Brookhiser, 146) While less blatant than the above examples, this too appears to be an attempt at appropriating Washington’s legacy in support of modern conservative dogma. To his credit Brookhiser does note Washington’s tolerance of other beliefs and notes his willingness to bend biblical teaching to political ends. However I believe he misses the mark trying to shoehorn Washington’s beliefs into a modern fundamentalist mold. It doesn’t fit. Washington rarely appealed to a divine being other than in rather oblique terms, is not known to have prayed or attended church regularly, and in no instance did he make mention of Jesus in any of his wartime correspondence. Dr. Henriques has described him as a “warm Deist,” one who didn’t believe the supreme being was actively involved in the daily concerns of men but one Washington felt a deeper connection with than the “celestial watchmaker” typical of Deist thinking. I know of no serious historian who would characterize Washington as a valid inspiration for modern fundamentalist dogma. However, because my reading on Washington’s religious views is not comprehensive I will not comment further on Brookhiser’s motivation other than to register my suspicion.
Brookhiser concludes with a discussion of Washington as the founding father, looking at how that legacy came about, how Washington himself viewed that “fatherhood,” and noting the irony that the father of our country was himself childless and had been left fatherless at an early age. Again here, however, Brookhiser cannot help but inject more conservative thought into his analysis. IN juxtaposing Washington’s position as the father of our country, Brookhiser notes the “contemporary failure of fatherhood.” (Brookhiser, 12) Given what I know about Brookhiser’s views I read this as a subtle swipe at modern secular (liberal) society and its alleged devaluing of traditional institutions such as marriage. A deeper analysis would of course look at poverty, class division, and the effects of capitalism as contributing causes for the breakdown of marriage. Brookhiser includes none of this of course, as it would make his analogy to Washington even more ridiculous.
Despite my deep reservations about the motivation of Mr. Brookhiser in pursuing an analysis of Washington’s character, I actually enjoyed the book. It was well written, and in many places, particularly his analysis of the effect of Washington’s character on the outcome of the Revolutionary War, quite insightful. As I noted above I believe his decision to give scant attention to Washington’s early military career was a huge mistake, which served to undermine the strength of his argument. And of course his penchant for injecting modern conservative dogma into his analysis I find very disturbing.
It is always good to read history from a perspective at odds with your own, but it is important to read works that are serious in their intent rather than naked attempts to advance a partisan political agenda. While I do believe Brookhiser is trying to appropriate Washington’s legacy to serve an ideology, I think the attempt is a sincere, if misguided , one, hence my recommendation of this book.
This will be a short review as of course I do not want to give away any important plot details.
I don’t read much fiction (though I am trying to rectify that), and I read even less horror. Nevertheless I have always been fascinated by stories of Jack the Ripper. I’m not sure why, I guess it’s the juxtaposition of crimes that are so incredibly brutal along with the mystery of who he was and what he was like. Though of course I don’t know I’ve always imagined he was more than just a common murderer or psychopath. In my minds eye he is a well educated, perhaps even well intentioned person who suffered some trauma that deeply scarred him, inducing him to commit these horrific crimes. And in some ways that is the figure presented in this book.
It needs to be said up front of course, but this is a work of fiction, so any speculation as to the identity of the Ripper presented here must be viewed in that light. Nevertheless, the author has cleverly written this in such a way as it does not conflict outwardly with the known history of the case of Jack the Ripper, and that is what I appreciated most about this book. I also really loved the way it was formatted, with most of the story consisting of diary or journal entries of the various characters, including Jack the Ripper himself.
Jack the Ripper was the name given to an individual who murdered and mutilated five women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – all prostitutes, in the Whitechapel area of London between August and November of 1888. Some attribute later murders to the Ripper as well, but most generally view these five as the only victims. Historically speaking, despite many theories, no credible identity of Jack the Ripper has ever been found. This is part of what makes his legend so fascinating, and disturbing; that such a man could commit this kind of brutality without getting caught. That people like Jack the Ripper may be walking next to you down the street without you knowing it, is very unnerving.
The main problem I did have with the book was that it began to drag a bit about 2/3 of the way through. Up to that time it had developed sort of a rhythm that I had grown accustomed to, until disrupted between the last two murders. During this section, at times, I found my attention lagging. It picked up before the end though and ended very strongly.
Readers should also be warned, the language can be very rough in this book, and the description of the murders themselves, narrated by Jack the Ripper in the book through diary entries, are detailed, brutal, and quite nauseating. This is definitely a book no one under say 17 years old or so, should consider reading.
I have never read anything by Stephen Hunter before and I didn’t realize until reading this that this is the same gent who does movie criticism for the Washington Post. He is an excellent writer. The story as presented here is unique and very enjoyable. We will never know for sure who Jack the Ripper was but because of the clever way his identity was handled in this book, you don’t need to.
I’m not going to write much on this one, mainly because so much has been written about WWII and this book, while extremely well written, and very moving, really provides very little in the way of new information about the conflict. Like most mainstream looks at WWII this one does not ignore the scope of the tragedy, recognizing there is no such thing as a good war, but nevertheless views it through the lens of those who believe it was a “noble,” or “necessary” war. Certainly that is the majority opinion in the United States and is one I share. Also, this looks at the conflict from a strictly American perspective. While the sacrifice of the Russians say, who lost far more on it’s battlefields than any other allied country, is recognized, the WWII of this work is for the most part an American affair.
“The War,” written by Geoffrey C. Ward with Ken Burns, is the companion volume to the Ken Burns documentary series of the same name. Like the documentary it focuses on soldiers and civilians from four different communities in America – Luverne, MN; Mobile, AL; Sacramento, CA; and Waterbury, CT. The effects of the war on each community is movingly portrayed as each tried to cope with the deaths of young men who had so recently been in their midst. The experiences of soldiers from each community, who were represented in nearly every major action during the war is expertly described through the use of letters and diaries. In conjunction with a very coherent narrative describing the war from a larger, historical perspective, Ward has really done an excellent job of weaving together a complete look at the war from the top and bottom. Decisions made at the top are evidenced by the experiences of those at the bottom, and the actions of those at the bottom influenced the decisions of those at the top. Really well done.
As usual with a work influenced by Ken Burns ironies abound. The most riveting was the story of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. A seventeen year old living in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Inouye’s first experience was helping move the dead and wounded from an aid center that had been hit accidentally by an American anti-aircraft shell; a gruesome task for a seventeen year old. Nevertheless, despite this horrific experience, and the discrimination practiced against “Nisei” – essentially Japanese of American descent – he joined the army and distinguished himself by his bravery. In Italy, despite being wounded multiple times, and having his arm nearly blown off, Inouye managed to fight off the enemy long enough to save the lives of many under his command. This action later earned him the Medal of Honor. After this fight that cost him his arm, and nearly his life, Inouye was cared for at the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, MI. While there he met another soldier seriously wounded in combat who was being cared for at the hospital, Robert Dole of Kansas. He also met Phillip Hart of Michigan who had been wounded on D-Day. All three would end up serving together in the United States Senate, would remain life-long friends, and the Percy Jones Army Hospital would eventually be renamed the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center.
Geoffrey Ward is a gifted writer, his narrative style is smooth and coherent, and his prose is often very moving. If you are a scholar looking for a new interpretation of WWII, or a more detailed and comprehensive look at specific parts of it, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a good narrative of the war, one that emphasizes the impact of it on a human level this is a very good choice!
My Seinfeld Year by Fred Stoller
A very light, very short Kindle Single by Fred Stoller, a character actor, comedian and writer recounting his year working on the writing staff of the legendary sitcom Seinfeld. Enjoyable enough but doesn’t contain any particularly juicy revelations about its cast or the way it was produced. Stoller’s main point seems to be how tough it is to make it in Hollywood.
He is not a big time name, but my guess is that most folks would recognize Fred Stoller as he has appeared in a number of television shows (Friends, Murphy Brown, Everybody Loves Raymond), usually playing a nebishy sad sack type, and in movies (Dumb and Dumberer), yet his career was not one that has brought him great wealth. He is a working stiff like most of us, just trying to get ahead. He drives a beat up old car and lives in an apartment. After pitching an idea to Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, he was brought on as a staff writer. Stoller had had some writing experience before working the stand up circuit, but his main desire was to act. He viewed the steady pay check he would get while on the Seinfeld staff as a way to move that goal forward.
He does shine a very narrow light on the process by which Seinfeld was made. Writers would use experiences from their own lives to come up with situations for use in the show. It was a requirement that each show contain a story line involving the four main stars, and that each one connect by the end of the episode. This was a hallmark of the Seinfeld formula.The story would be pitched to Larry David who would make a snap judgement on its worthiness and order the writer to proceed with a script if he viewed it as a potential episode. Inevitably each script would be heavily rewritten by David and Seinfeld. Basically it seemed like writers were hired so the show could use their experiences as the basis of an episode rather than for their writing skill. This is actually the plot of a later episode when Elaine’s boss J. Peterman buys Kramer’s life stories for use in his autobiography. Later Kramer uses this fact to start a lame “Peterman Reality” bus tour to cash in on the fact that he is the real Peterman. In a case of reality aping fiction, Stoller was later roped into participating in a similar enterprise concocted by Kenny Kramer, Larry David’s friend on whom the Kramer character was based.
Fred Stoller is listed as the writer on one episode of the show,”The Soup,” in which in exchange for a free Armani suit given to him by his comedic rival Kenny Bania, Jerry is obligated to take Bania to dinner. Stoller is responsible for the name of the restaurant that most Seinfeld fans will recognize from this episode, “Mendy’s.” He is also given a “story by” credit for the episode “The Face Painter” in which Kramer gets into an argument with a chimpanzee at the zoo and is later forced to apologize to the animal.
I any case, if you are a Seinfeld fan this would be worth the hour of your time it might take you to get through it. It would have limited appeal for anyone else.