Category Archives: Biography

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Americans like to praise themselves for their ability to recognize, and to rise above their prejudices; to eventually do the right thing by those that have been oppressed and marginalized in our society. We praise Abraham Lincoln for emancipating the slaves; we praise Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for eventually achieving women’s suffrage; we praise Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and most especially Martin Luther King Jr. for Civil Rights advances in the 1960s; and we revere the genius of the founders for producing governing documents that lend themselves to an interpretation that asserts more freedom, more compassion, more equality, and more liberty for our citizens. We use this praise to assert a progressive vision of America and its institutions.

Each of those mentioned above, along with many, many others, are deserving of the praise accorded them. But, instead of using their example as proof of the worthiness of our system, what we should perhaps be doing a lot more of, is asking why we always seem to get into situations where change requires the extraordinary efforts of extraordinary people to accomplish it. Why can we not EVER learn from past experience to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over and over again?

I do think a system that produces men like Thurgood Marshall, Harry T. Moore, and Charles Hamilton Houston certainly must have its admirable qualities, and I think that is in part attributable to the foresight of the founders. But we are also a country that cannot seem to learn from its mistakes. We tolerated discrimination and violence against African Americans for far too long, and still tolerate it. We are the same country that allowed travesties like the subject of this great book, the “Groveland Boys” case, to occur (only a decade before I was born), and we seem to be sliding back into an ethic that again condones prejudice and discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would love to believe that, and I hope it is true, but my faith in that notion is being sorely tested. Books like this one, shine a very bright light on our history, and force us to face the notion that we should not only be praised for overcoming our own evil, but rather should be criticized for allowing it to fester for so long.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King is an absolutely superb book. A beautifully and tightly written narrative, it recounts the events surrounding the Groveland, FL rape case in 1949. Four African American men – Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – were falsely accused of raping 17 year old Norma Lee Padgett. Railroaded by a racist Sheriff, the odious and evil Willis V. McCall, a racist judge Truman Futch, and a go along to get along prosecutor Jesse Hunter ,the four men were convicted of the crime despite there being no evidence other than planted shoe impressions, and the word of Padgett herself.

Parallel to this narrative is a history of Thurgood Marshall and his time as lead council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Eventually the two stories intersect as the NAACP takes on the case of the “Groveland Boys, ” taking it to the Supreme Court twice, and eventually the office of the Florida Governor.

While this is a historic event whose outcome is well known, it is not a story many have heard before. The narrative style of the book demands some level of uncertainty as to its outcome for it to have the full effect. So I won’t be providing any spoilers here. This is ironic because knowing the level of racism in the south, the sway the KKK still had over whole swaths of the region, including Lake County, FL where this takes place, the ending seems foreshadowed. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the story to more than keep your attention and turn this into a genuine page turner.

I think part the author’s intention with this book was to inspire us with the stories of men like Marshall who were able to use their intellect, morality and persistence to overcome injustice from inside the system, and with the courage of the Groveland Boys themselves who, despite having to endure what can only be described as torture – both physical and mental – asserted their innocence knowing to do so would almost certainly result in their deaths.

I was inspired by them. But contrary, I believe, to the authors further intention, this did not lead me to believe in the efficacy of our system, or that it inevitably bends us toward justice. From my perspective, it is just the opposite. Justice is achieved despite our system. Only through the courage of people like the heroes in this story, who had to overcome a system stacked against them at almost every level, do we ever make progress toward a more just state.

This book is must reading!

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

LincolnGrantLincoln 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.

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

BonekemperUlysses 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.

 

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

ImpeachmentImpeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction by Hans Trefousse

Andrew Johnson is one of the most enigmatic and controversial presidents in American history. Depending on one’s perspective and place in time he was either the man responsible for the failure of Reconstruction in the south, or, the man who helped avoid a race war by steering a moderate course between advocates for full civil and political rights for African Americans and those that wanted to keep them in as close to a state of slavery as possible. Johnson has been the subject of many books, by many of the leading scholars of the Reconstruction era, including Eric Foner, who, for my money, is at the top of this list. Each looks at Johnson in different ways, interpreting his actions and the motivation behind them from different points of view. In one respect they all agree, Andrew Johnson was in inveterate racist whose racism shaped his views of Reconstruction and the proper role of the freedmen in the post-Civil War South.

In his book Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction, Hans Trefousse has produced an extensive and, in my opinion, unique view of Johnson and his presidency. He views Johnson’s motivations from the dual perspectives of Jacksonianism and racism, a perspective I haven’t seen before, and don’t entirely agree with. Trefousse acknowledges, as most scholars do, that Johnson’s intense racism made it impossible for him to “sympathize in any way with policies furthering racial equality. (Trefousse, 5) However, Trefousse departs from conventional wisdom which views Johnson as “inept and stubborn,” by concluding he was in fact sincere in his beliefs and a skillful, uncompromising tactical politician.

Andrew Johnson viewed himself as a “Jackson Democrat.” This implied, among other things, a belief in white superiority, a classical states rights view of the constitution, a rejection of secession as one of those rights, a bottom up view of politics including an often intense distrust of large monied interests, and like Jackson himself, a willingness to stubbornly stand one’s ground in defense of his beliefs, trusting in eventual vindication by the American people. Trefousse does not dig into Johnson’s motivations for his dislike of the slavocracy before the war, something that would not be a characteristic of a Jackson Democrat, but he does ascribe the others to him, and uses them to explain Johnson’s actions throughout reconstruction, especially in relation to the efforts to impeach him.

Andrew Johnson, “like Andrew Jackson, conceived of an America ruled by whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As guaranteed in the constitution, Johnson was devoted to democracy and viewed it as a precious gift. But, in his view the constitution was “written by white men, [and] he believed that its benefits were reserved for whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As Trefousse points out, evidence for this racism is abundant, ranging from disgust at seeing black troops stationed in Tennessee while he was its wartime governor, to his denunciation of the Reconstruction Bill of 1867 he described as a “measure to treat the suffering people of the South under foot ‘top protect niggers’,” to his annoyance at seeing predominantly black laborers working on the White House lawn. (Trefousse, 4) The primary expression of Johnson’s racism during this period however, was his stubborn determination to minimize the role of black’s in Reconstruction, and to maintain the domination of the white race. In furtherance of that goal, all through the Reconstruction period, Johnson acted on these racist principles, taking actions which he believed would maintain white domination in the reconstructed south, including his May 29, 1865 Proclamation of Amnesty which “inaugurated and extremely liberal policy of pardoning ex-Confederates,” and his call for white southerners to hold conventions for the purpose of organizing new state governments, thus disregarding demands for black suffrage. (Trefousse, 11) His racism would not allow a policy of land distribution to freedmen. As Trefousse observes, had Johnson wanted to “maintain the dominance of the white race… [he]…could not permit the transfer of land to the freedmen.” (Trefousse, 15) Consequently he established a policy of returning confiscated land to their Confederate owners in an effort to deny freedmen the opportunity to become landholders. In early 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, primarily for racist reasons, and in 1867 he vetoed the Civil Rights bill partially for constitutional reasons, but also because “it offended his racial sensibilities since it proposed to outlaw all discrimination between the races.” (Trefousse, 26) And, in 1866 he opposed passage of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution whose moderate purpose was to insure the equal treatment of all citizens under state law. As with the Civil Rights bill, Johnson objected partially on substantive grounds, but also because it gave rights to blacks which he did not believe they should have. In taking these uncompromising stands, Johnson passed up numerous opportunities to compromise with moderate and conservative Republicans that may have enhanced his political position. Instead, he chose to stand his ground, certain “that history and his country would ultimately recognize the purity of his actions.” (Trefousse, 6) Instead, while he was President, “[Andrew Johnson] would utilize the entire resources of his high office to keep the South a white man’s country.” (Trefousse, 29)

While racism was the primary reason for Johnson’s opposition to the equitable treatment of freedmen, it was not the only one. Another, Trefousse argues, was that Johnson, like Andrew Jackson, was devoted to an indissoluble Union and to the Constitution. He held a classic states rights position as did Jackson ascribing to the individual states sovereignty in most matters. He drew the line at state nullification of federal law and secession, neither of which he believed were sanctioned by the Constitution. This explains his loyalty to the Union; a view at odds with the majority of his former constituents in Tennessee. It also partially explains a number of his actions during Reconstruction including his veto of the Freedman’s Bureau bill, the Civil Rights bill, and his opposition to the fourteenth amendment. All of these actions Trefousse argues, were based on Johnson’s view of the proper role of the federal government; specifically, his belief that the constitution did not give the federal government power to define the terms of suffrage in the various states. It was also evident in the way Johnson worked to minimize the effects of military Reconstruction, replacing generals who were viewed as too radical. It was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by his challenge to the Tenure of Office Act. Designed to restrict Johnson’s control of federal patronage, the act forbade the dismissal of any Presidential appointee still in the term of their appointment without Congressional approval. Johnson, anxious to rid himself of Secretary of War Stanton, and in an apparent desire to test the act’s constitutionality, removed him from office, setting up a confrontation with Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives, who had been looking for an excuse to Impeach Johnson, used his violation of this act to do so. After shameful and unethical behavior on both sides, Johnson was ultimately acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Where Trefousse departs from many other historians’ analysis of Johnson’s actions during this period, is in his interpretation of Johnson’s apparent stubbornness in the face of Republican pressure. Usually dismissed as the actions of a vindictive and recalcitrant politician, Johnson’s unwillingness to go along with Republican reconstruction efforts were actually politically calculated to achieve a very specific result. Every action he took, from purposely alienating his own ostensible allies by refusing to compromise on even the most moderate attempts to give basic civil and political liberties to freedmen, to risking impeachment over his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, was calculated, argues Trefousse, “to accomplish his own goals – to thwart Radical Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy in the South, “policies he truly believed would eventually be seen by history as correct.

At times it seems Trefousee has a sneaking admiration for Johnson. This is understandable. Certainty can be an appealing quality in a politician – at least initially. However, from the tenor and tone of the book as a whole, particularly in his extensive discussion of Johnson’s racism, Trefousse does not appear to have a high opinion of Johnson as a statesman. It is certainly clear he believes Johnson’s behavior during the Reconstruction period was harmful to the country. He notes more than once that because of the eclipse of the Southern ruling class, had Johnson acted more decisively, overcoming his racist attitudes, that “it would have been comparatively simple to enfranchise at least some of the Negroes in the former Confederacy,” (Trefousse, 7) Andrew Johnson was a Jacksonian living in a post-Jacksonian world and was unable to view things any other way.

 

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My Rating:
3.0 rating

JacksonIndianWars



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.

 

 

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Wiencek



One of the least discussed, and most misunderstood aspects of George Washington’s life, was his relationship to the institution slavery in general, and to his own slaves in particular. For those inclined to a sympathetic view, the portrayal of Washington as a man who treated his slaves better than most and who eventually freed them at his death, is all they need to know. For those inclined to the opposite view, the fact that Washington never emancipated his slaves during his lifetime, was not above the use of corporal punishment to “correct” their behavior, and that he sold slaves solely for disciplinary reasons, provides more than enough justification for this view. Henry Wiencek in his excellent book An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, looks at Washington and slavery from both sides, chastising or praising Washington’s behavior where the evidence warrants. Wiencek’s driving theme however, is the process by which Washington moved from an attitude of relative indifference to slavery and its effects, to viewing it with repugnance by his death. He asserts that on the issue of slavery, the founding fathers perhaps ought to be judged not on a modern standard of morality that would surely condemn all, but on the example set by Washington. The overall effect of the book therefore, is to lead one to a more positive image of Washington relative to his ownership of slaves. Finally, Wiencek looks at two controversies involving Washington’s family and their actual and potential slave family members. Organizationally the book is roughly chronological, looking at Washington’s interactions with slavery throughout his life, at how the Virginia gentry handled the increasingly complicated definition of race, and how they decided who would remain in servitude and who wouldn’t. With his obvious passion for both George Washington and against the evils of slavery, Wiencek is prone in some places to make sweeping assertions that are not necessarily supported by the evidence.

Wiencek begins with a fairly standard look at Washington’s early life, his tumultuous relationship with his mother, his attempt to join the British Navy, and his early military career. More importantly, he describes the nature of the society in which Washington was raised; a society where “the keys to prosperity were the tobacco leaf and the deed of land.” (Wiencek, 27) Compared to Massachusetts where land access was controlled by the middling rank, in Virginia, it was controlled by an “elite who employed it to maintain their own hegemony.” (Wiencek, 28) Within this system, the institution of slavery thrived to the point that by the time Washington came of age, it “had taken over the colony to the degree that…’to live in Virginia without slaves is morally impossible’.” (Wiencek, 45) He recounts the success Washington’s enjoyed in this system, combining a knack for land speculation with a talent for marrying above their station. Washington not only emulated his ancestors, but exceeded them in wealth and influence. It was in this context that Washington began his journey from someone who viewed slavery primarily in economic terms, to one who became opposed to it on both economic and moral grounds.

For most in Americans today the face of slavery in the eighteenth century is a wholly black one. However, as Wiencek shows in an excellent chapter entitled “On the Borderland,” the reality of slavery was far more complicated. Racial mixing forced colonial leaders to enact laws with contorted definitions of who was considered a slave and who wasn’t. Depending on the situation of the mother, the circumstances at child birth,  the nature of the birth, or whether the offspring of slaves or indentured servants, a child was determined to be free, slave, or indentured. Ferreting out mixed race children became an obsession for officials trying to maintain the economic viability of the institution. George Washington became a participant in this obsession when he was appointed a justice of Fairfax County in 1764, a position from which he participated in decisions that today seem unusually cruel, including the forcible removal of children from their mothers, and corporal punishment of poor and destitute women.

Wiencek explores this further using three vignettes involving George and Martha Washington and their families. The first, in a chapter dedicated to Martha Washington and her eventual marriage to George Washington, the implications of race mixing, legally and culturally, are explored. John Custis, the father of Martha’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis, fathered a child by one of his slaves. Instead of trying to hide the child Custis embraced him and declared publicly his relationship. At one point John Custis threatened to rewrite his will, leaving “Black” Jack Custis as his only heir. Jack Custis was eventually emancipated in his father’s will and given land and a horse, extraordinary gestures for someone born into a state of slavery. It was this type of “boundary crossing,” from slave to free, that disturbed Virginia’s elite leaders. In order to preserve slavery, explicit definitions of what constituted slavery had to be maintained. John Custis’ efforts on behalf of his son Jack crossed that line.

After his father’s death, and not long before his own, Jack Custis’ half-brother Daniel Parke Custis was married to Martha Dandridge who eventually had two children. Not long after, when their children were still very young Daniel Parke Custis died, leaving a very large estate to Martha. In 1759, the Widow Custis married George Washington, who thus added the property of Daniel Parke Custis to his own, making him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. A large part of this wealth were the slaves he held, which had nearly doubled as the result of his marriage. One of the slaves who eventually inhabited Mount Vernon was one Ann Dandridge, the illegitimate daughter of John Dandridge and a slave of mixed African and Cherokee heritage, and Martha Washington’s half-sister. This illustrates vividly, even in the first family of America, the strange nature of slavery in Virginia. Martha Washington owned her half-sister. In a further twist, Wiencek presents convincing evidence that Martha’s son Jacky Custis fathered a child by Ann Dandridge. Thus, the child of this union was not only Martha Washington’s grandchild, but her niece as well, and was also owned by Martha Washington. It throws into very stark relief the blurring racial lines in Virginia, and particularly the powerlessness slave women had over their own bodies.

In a third vignette, Wiencek delves into the persistent claims of some that George Washington fathered a child – West Ford – by a slave woman named Venus. Wiencek does a good job plowing through the evidence, particularly the wills of George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington and his wife Hannah Bushrod Washington, showing fairly persuasively that the circumstances were such that it is plausible George Washington was West Ford’s father. However, he also does a good job presenting evidence this could not have been the case including the possibility George Washington was sterile due to the bout of small pox he suffered as a young man, and that Washington’s legendary emphasis on self-control would preclude the possibility. Wiencek concludes it is more likely Ford was the son of one of John Augustine’s sons. DNA evidence would probably be needed to make a reasonable determination, something that is unlikely to happen. Wiencek handles this chapter with great skill, avoiding the temptation to make definitive claims not supported by a reasonable interpretation of the evidence.

Where Wiencek does not avoid making claims unsupported by evidence is in the discussion of the root causes of Washington’s change of heart regarding slavery. In a chapter entitled “A Scheme in Williamsburg,” Wiencek makes the case that Washington’s experiences in Williamsburg as a member of the House of Burgesses started him on “a long moral transfiguration that concluded in the writing of his will – his indictment of the laws, the country, and the people that enacted events that, to him, had the feeling of death.” (Wiencek, 188) Specifically, Wiencek cites Washington’s involvement in a raffle in which slaves would be awarded to the winner. This raffle, designed to liquidate the assets of Bernard Moore in payment for his debts, Wiencek argues, along with the slave auctions Washington surely witnessed, started him on this path. His evidence for this is scant. He cites the fact that it was about this time that Washington began to show a reluctance for separating slave families, and the reaction of modern day tourists to a mock auction, as support for this contention. In my opinion this is pretty slim evidence on which to make a claim of this magnitude. While it is certainly possible he is correct, Wiencek’s assertion here doesn’t rise to the plausibility standard one expects of research historians.

In a more persuasive chapter on his Revolutionary War experiences, Wiencek details Washington’s evolution with regards to enrolling blacks into the Continental Army. Utterly opposed to it at first Washington, by degrees, lessened his opposition to the point where by the end of the war a significant portion of the army was comprised of black soldiers. In fact, as Wiencek points out, the Continental Army was the most integrated American army until the Vietnam War. Washington also shows some support for schemes devised by Alexander Hamilton, Henry Laurens and Lafayette, to enroll slaves with the promise of freedom. There can be no doubt that Washington witnessed numerous acts of courage on the part of these soldiers, evidenced by his trust in a majority black regiment from Rhode Island to spear head the attack on one of two redoubts, the capture of which was vital to the eventual American triumph at Yorktown. These soldiers performed their duty flawlessly, a fact that could not have been lost on Washington.

Here again however, Wiencek engages in a bit of hyperbole to make his point. He argues the failure of efforts by Henry Laurens and his father to enroll slaves into the Continental Army in South Carolina, resulted in the disastrous loss of Charleston in 1780. In fact the reason for the defeat were far more complex than that, and are more directly attributable to poor leadership. He later makes the claim that were it not for the timely action of his slave, George Washington’s cousin William Washington would have been killed pursuing Colonel Banastre Tarelton at Cowpens, thus putting the victory in jeopardy. While it is true Washington’s life was probably saved by his slave William Ball, and that losing Washington’s services would have been a blow to the southern army, it is quite a stretch to say this one incident saved the battle for the Americans. By that time most of Tarleton’s forces had been either killed or captured.

Finally, Wiencek guides us through Washington’s views on slavery from the end of the war to the end of his life. As he ably demonstrates, Washington’s progression to the ultimate emancipation of his slaves was not smooth. He was dishonest in his attempts to retrieve Martha’s runaway slave Ona Judge, and in the schemes he devised to make sure slaves accompanying him to Philadelphia while he was President were not set free after six months, as provided for by Pennsylvania law. However, Wiencek skillfully describes attempts by Washington to formulate a plan for emancipation of his slaves while President, pointing out that he was willing to take a significant financial hit in order to do so. That these attempts did not pan out does not cast a shadow on the effort. Wiencek also does an excellent job of describing the day-to-day life of the slaves on Washington’s farms, Washington’s frustration at their work ethic, and the ways in which he meted out punishment. He does not spare Washington’s reputation here, pointing where Washington was cruel in meting out punishment, as when he blithely sent a recalcitrant slave to sure death in the West Indies. He is also critical of Washington for the way he threatened slaves with harsh punishment or separation from their families, to get more work out of them. He is unsparing in his criticism of the quarters slaves were housed in, which, at best were barely adequate, and at worst, were squalid. Finally, citing Washington’s will as evidence, Wiencek makes a persuasive claim that Washington, in contrast to Jefferson, was not a racist in the strict sense of the word. In providing for the education of parentless minors, Washington demonstrated his view that slaves were not inherently inferior to whites, but that their servitude had made them that way.

Once again however, in describing Washington’s efforts at emancipating his slaves, both while he was President, and later in his will, Wiencek makes a claim that does not seem entirely supported by evidence. In this case it is a lack of evidence he finds persuasive, specifically that there is no record of Martha Washington aiding in these efforts. This, combined with Martha’s obsession with getting Ona Judge returned to her, even when it became apparent that any overt effort to do so would harm her husband politically, is cited by Wiencek for his contention that a wide rift had grown between George and Martha Washington over the emancipation of his slaves. I did not find this persuasive, particularly since there is little extant correspondence between the two, and none on this topic.

Overall I was quite impressed. I think Wiencek makes a good case for using Washington’s evolution on slavery as a good yardstick other slave owning founders could be judged by. He was after all, the only one to free his slaves, and while at many times his behavior towards his slaves was not admirable, his ability to evolve his thinking and to act on it was fairly astounding for the time.

 

 

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4.0 rating

LetUsHavePeace



Ulysses S. Grant is perhaps one of the most misunderstood, caricatured, and in my opinion, underestimated figures in American History. Mostly recalled in popular memory as an alcoholic who bumbled his way to victory through luck and superior numbers, he is barely recalled as a two-term President of the United States. Were it not for his portrait on the fifty-dollar bill I am not sure even that recollection would be preserved. Grant has also fared poorly with historical biographers over the years. While his defeated foe, Robert E. Lee, has been nearly canonized since his surrender at Appomattox, Grant’s accomplishments have often been belittled and marginalized, most recently, and most effectively, by William McFeely in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Grant: A Biography. Recently however, there has been a turnaround in Grant’s fortunes among historians. Recent works by Geoffrey Perret, Jean Edward Smith, and Brooks Simpson, along with the efforts of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant editor John Y. Simon, have forced a reevaluation of Grant’s career. While not fawning these books have in my opinion restored Grant to his properly viewed role in American history; as a flawed man, a military genius and, along with Lincoln, the savior of the Union.[1] Even his Presidency, generally viewed as a failure, has received a second, more critical look by some authors, and while no revision could credibly term his two terms in the White House as a success, it is now being viewed more soberly and carefully in context with the overall political climate of the time.

Most works dealing with the career of Ulysses S. Grant look at his military and political careers as separate and distinct from one another with “Appomattox as the dividing line.”[2] While Grant’s military career often gets mixed reviews, even his harshest critics view Appomattox as his finest hour. After this however, the preponderance of the literature has taken an overwhelmingly negative view of Grant’s political career. There are a number of reasons for this, many having to do with the later effort by southern historians to obfuscate slavery’s role as a catalyst for the war. This is not the subject of this review however; suffice it to say the historical view of Grant’s career in my opinion, does not reflect reality. Brooks Simpson in his book Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War & Reconstruction, 1861 – 1868, takes on this prevailing view in two ways: first by removing what he views as an artificial distinction between Grant’s military and political careers, and second by taking a more positive view of Grant’s political efforts both during the Civil War and in the early years of Reconstruction.

Simpson argues that Grant’s overwhelming success as a General and a statesman was directly attributable to his political acumen during and after the war. For Simpson, Grant was “both a warrior and a statesman from 1861 to 1868.”[3] Grant viewed the war and Reconstruction as part of the “same long struggle to preserve the union, destroy slavery, and establish a durable peace.”[4] Embodying Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” Grant, Simpson argues, broadened its meaning by understanding the end of hostilities did not mean the end of the struggle.[5] “If the Civil War was politics by other means, “ Simpson notes, “then Reconstruction was in some sense a continuation of the struggle to achieve through political means the aims for which the war was fought.”[6]

While not a military biography, Simpson devotes about one-third of his book to describing Grant’s efforts during the war. He attributes Grant’s success not only to exceptional military and leadership skills, but also to his political acumen in dealing with government policy makers; accommodating and adopting the war aims set by them. He does this most effectively by following Grant’s evolving notion of the purposes for the war and how those notions roughly paralleled those of his superiors, particularly President Lincoln. Much like Lincoln, Grant started with one overriding concern in mind, that of saving the union. Whatever their personal inclinations, the question of whether slavery survived was secondary to that goal. Soon after the fall of Fort Sumter, Grant made clear his views in a letter to his father-in-law in which he stated his belief that given the clear aggression of the South he could see no outcome but “the doom of slavery.”[7] He went on to say however that the “North do not want, nor will they want, to interfere with the institution.”[8]

Grant also reflected the dominant northern view that the war would be a short affair; as he stated in a letter to his wife after the victory at Fort Donelson, he did not see “how the rebellion is to be sustained.”[9] With this in mind Grant believed it was important not to do anything that would hinder a quick reconciliation with the South, and his orders to subordinates reflected that mindset. He strictly controlled the behavior of Union troops towards civilians, prohibiting foraging as he made his way through Missouri in 1861, because it was “apt to make open enemies where they would not otherwise exist.”[10] His views on the question of fugitive slaves reflected the confusion in policy represented by the refusal of Congress to renew the Johnson-Crittenden resolutions limiting war aims to reconciliation only. He scrupulously tried to adhere to federal policy no matter how confusing by using some slaves as laborers and returning others to their owners based the interpretation of federal policy applied in each case. After the blood bath at Shiloh and the subsequent increase in Confederate guerrilla activity Grant, like his superiors in Washington, discarded the notion there would be a quick end to the war. Abandoning the limited warfare they had been waging in hopes of enticing the South into reconciliation, the Union army, including Grant started a no holds barred campaign to force southern capitulation. Grant’s success here is well known and is not detailed by Simpson. Suffice it to say Grant went on to force the surrender of three Confederate Armies, was elevated to the command of all Federal troops, and eventually accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, effectively ending the military phase of the struggle.

As views in Washington towards slavery evolved, so did Grant’s. In 1862 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in states then in rebellion. Grant wholeheartedly endorsed this policy as the quickest and surest way to weaken the Confederacy. Later, Grant supported Lincoln’s decision to allow enlistment of black troops into the Union Army. During the Vicksburg campaign Grant received reports that black troops under his command had seen their first action at Miliken’s Bend. Grant in a note appended to his battle report commented they “had been most gallant and doubted not but with good officers they will be good troops.”[11]

During the debate over whether to promote him to Lieutenant General, a rank not held in he U.S. Army since George Washington, Simpson observes Grant again displayed a sophisticated political sense. There were concerns among some that Grant was beginning to think of himself a rival to Lincoln in the election of 1864. In a bit legerdemain worthy of any experienced politician, Grant let it be known through back channels that he was in no way interested in running for President, “particularly so long as there is a possibility of having Mr. Lincoln re-elected.”[12] Thus assured, Grant was awarded his third star and command of all Union forces.

Finally, as Simpson and many other historians (including those generally critical of Grant) have pointed out, Grant displayed the touch of a statesman and a finely tuned political ear for what was needed to heal the country in offering generous terms to Robert E. Lee and the surrendering Army of Northern Virginia. In keeping with Lincoln’s wish to “let ’em up easy,” Grant offered effective immunity for all confederate soldiers, up to and including Lee himself, and allowed Confederate troops to keep their personal baggage, horses and weapons. Simpson calls this “politics with a vengeance.”[13] Grant, he notes, was “executing a fait accompli, [making] sure that there were would be no future reprisals of treason trials.”[14] It is a credit to his political sense according to Simpson, that Grant knew exactly what President Lincoln would wish for in a surrender agreement.

As unique a treatment of Grant’s military career as SImpson has given us, the real strength of his book lies in his description of Grant’s attempt to navigate the political terrain in which he found himself between Appomattox and his ascendancy to the White House. It became obvious to Grant soon after Lee’s surrender that as commander of all U.S. forces he would be forced to play a significant role in the nation’s subsequent reconstruction. To that end Grant believed it was his duty to try and support President Johnson as much as possible, little realizing at the time what that would entail.

Simpson skillfully describes Grant’s role during the administration of Andrew Johnson. Grant initially tried to restrain what he viewed as Johnson’s excessive enthusiasm for punishing Confederate leaders. He genuinely tried to work with the President in order to help facilitate a peaceful Reconstruction, only breaking with the President when he tried to appropriate Grant’s popularity in his ongoing conflict with Edwin M. Stanton. Finally, Grant made a complete intellectual and political break with Johnson, adopting a more radical position regarding Reconstruction and the treatment of freedmen. In this description, which does not break any new factual ground, Simpson has revealed to us a Grant who skillfully maneuvered his way through this dangerously political period, and came out the other side as President of the United States.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, there was good reason to worry about the ascendancy of Andreas Johnson to the Presidency. A wartime Democrat with a well-known vindictive streak, there were genuine fears that he would seek retribution against those in the South responsible for initiating the war. This was confirmed in Grant’s eyes by the vehement reaction of Johnson to the surrender terms granted to Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Tennessee by General Sherman. Grant also thought them too generous, but was appalled at the treatment of Sherman by Johnson and other leaders. Not long afterward Grant found himself threatening resignation if Johnson moved forward with his plan to punish Confederate leaders, including those protected, in Grant’s view, by the Appomattox accords. So, as Simpson points out within two months of Appomattox Grant found himself mediating between the excessive leniency of Sherman and Johnson’s “desire for vengeance.” All grant desired was “peace and cooperation in rebuilding a nation that would realize Lincoln’s desire ‘to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all'”[15]

As the restoration process progressed and in his attempts to support the President, Simpson reveals a Grant who much like in his initial views of the war’s likely duration, displayed a naivete about what would be required to reconcile the country. He believed, as did many others, that a quick conciliation was best so the best course of action would be to do nothing that would not excessively insult the sensibilities of southerners. To that end he urged the quick pardon of Confederate military leaders, a rapid demobilization of the Army, and attempted to remove black soldiers from any situation in which they might come into contact with Southern civilians. In Grant’s view according to Simpson, the “best way to reduce friction, no matter the cause, was to control black behavior, for to place additional restraints on whites would antagonize them, prolonging sectional division.”[16] Later, in another effort to work with Johnson, Grant agreed to tour the South and report on his findings. Realizing Johnson was using him to counteract damaging reports submitted by Carl Schurz, Grant nevertheless attempted to produce a fair and evenhanded report. Producing a much more moderate report than Schurz’s, it was at this time according to Simpson, that Grant began to revise his thinking regarding Southern attitudes towards the freedmen and the need to move from reconciliation to protection. As time passed, and Grant received reports of recalcitrance in the part of Southern whites to accept the civil rights of freedmen. Grant was moving inexorably to a far more radical view of Reconstruction.

Meanwhile, reflecting his innate racism, President Johnson was moving further away from his ostensible Republican allies in Congress in an attempt to assure the South remained under white control. To that end he eased the way for former Confederate leaders to obtain pardons, he vetoed the freedman’s bureau and civil rights bills, and he opposed passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Grant opposed Johnson on these issues, but remained silent either out of a sense or propriety or as a way to position himself for the 1868 Republican nomination for President. Likely it was a bit of both. Finally, Johnson tried to co-opt Grant by involving him in the attempt to depose Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson suspended Stanton and appointed Grant as caretaker in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act which required Congressional approval before any Senate confirmed cabinet officer could be terminated. Later, when he tried to remove Stanton permanently in violation of that act, Grant resigned and handed the office back to Stanton in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act. This was the final break with Johnson and induced Grant to take a more public role in opposition to his Reconstruction policies. Grant certainly viewed it as a matter of honor; to preserve the principals for which the army had fought which meant not only reconciliation but now included protection of the rights of former slaves. No doubt politics was also on his mind as well, as it was obvious the political wind was blowing in favor of the Radical Republicans. After the unsuccessful attempt to remove Johnson from office and as the appeal of Radical Republicanism began to wane in the North, Grant became the only viable option for Republicans in the 1868 election. And so, contrary to his wishes, but believing it was the only way to preserve the fruits of Union victory, Grant was elected President of the United States. Simpson’s view of Grant’s reticence is not universally shared. William Gillette in Retreat From Reconstruction takes the contrary view, that Grant was more ambitious for political power than is typically thought. I do believe Grant was bitten, at least a bit, by the Presidential bug. In my view no one can be willing to put themselves through the rigors demanded by the office, and not have some confidence they are best for the job. However, I have no doubt Grant was sincere in his belief that it was necessary for him to accept the nomination in order to preserve the gains won during the war. Certainly no one, other than former slaves, had a bigger stake in making sure that happened.

Overall I enjoyed this book very much. Though not breaking any new ground factually as evidenced by his heavy reliance on previously published sources, Simpson has successfully re-oriented the way we look at Grant’s military and political careers. By removing the artificial dividing line between the military and political portions of his career, Simpson has elevated in my eyes the political skills of Grant. By realizing his success on the battlefield was directly attributable to his ability to effectively relate with his superiors in Washington, Grant is revealed to us as a sophisticated and successful political player. Simpson also shows us that Grant, despite his inability to counteract Johnson’s lawyerly arguments regarding issues on which they conflicted, was able to effectively maneuver his way through the minefields of postwar Reconstruction politics, and ultimately end up as President of the United States.

This book did have its weaknesses. Believing as I do, that Simpson is attempting to give us a more positive view of Grant’s skills, I believe it was a mistake not to include his Presidency as part of his treatment. It is this period for which Grant is most criticized by historians. Second, I believe more attention should have been given to Grant’s military success, That is the period for which Grant is most often praised by historians so perhaps should have been viewed in a little more detail. Finally, although I did enjoy the book, I am one of those that has always had an interest in Grant so I am not overly concerned by the stylistic nature of the work. However, most readers with either no previous interest or only a passing interest in Grant would I believe, find this a dry read.

 

[1]Smith Jean Edward, Grant (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2001), Simpson, Brooks D., Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1863 (New York, Houghton Miflin Company, 2000), Perret, Geoffrey, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (New York, Random House, 1997). Of the three authors the work by Smith comes closest to hagiography. It takes an almost uncritical look at Grant through all phases of his life, often glossing over areas where Grant could legitimately be criticized. Perret’s book makes no secret of its attempt to counteract McFeely’s analysis of Grant. Unfortunately it is plagued with errors, misstating the date of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the date of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the Battle of Chickamauga to name a few, which tend to undermine its credibility. Of the three I found Simpson’s work the most balanced while still giving a largely positive view of grant’s life and career.

[2] Brooks D. Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991), page xiii

[3] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xiv

[4] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xiv

[5] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xv

[6] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xv

[7] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 11

[8] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 11. This of course parallels Lincoln’s famous statement on the question of emancipation made more than a year earlier when he said “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

[9] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 23

[10] Brig. Gen U.S. Grant to Col. R.J. Oglesby, November 3, 1861, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

[11]Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.20

[12] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.54

[13] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 84

[14] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.55

[15] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 108

[16] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 118

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Brookhiser



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.

 

 

 

 

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Mantle of Command



President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the subject of innumerable biographies, in fact I would venture to guess no President save Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more. Yet with so many available there seem to be precious few that take a truly in depth look at his role as Commander in Chief. Happily, renowned historian and biographer Nigel Hamilton has rectified that situation with the publication in 2014 of The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942. A practically flawless work, I was disappointed  it only covered part of FDR’s time as Commander in Chief. I truly wish he would take on the rest of FDR’s tenure, but fear that task will have to be left for another.

The Mantle of Command takes us from FDR’s initial meetings with Winston Churchill in 1941 that resulted in the Atlantic Charter, through to the landings of American and British troops in French northwest Africa (Morocco and Tunisia) as part of operation Torch in November of 1942. Hamilton quotes copiously from letters, diaries and other primary sources to give us a very thorough, chronological look at this period of FDR’s tenure as Commander in Chief. Though detailed, the prose is never boring.

A number of things struck me as I read this; far to many to go through in a short review, though four stood out. First, the overall take away is that this period represented the ascendancy of the United States as the dominant world power, while at the same time it heralded the end of  Great Britain as an empire. Both FDR and Winston Churchill recognized this (though Churchill took a bit longer), and played their roles accordingly. Second, Hamilton is clearly impressed with FDR’s abilities as Commander in Chief. Time after time, whether he was dealing with prima donnas such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur over command responsibilities, or with opposition from his military chiefs and Secretary of War over Operation Torch, FDR, in Hamilton’s view, knew exactly how much pressure to apply and when to apply it. Third, in contrast to his positive view of FDR’s military leadership, Hamilton (a British subject himself), is surprisingly hard on Churchill’s judgement, faulting him for serious British setbacks early in the war, and for his hard headed attitude towards Indian Independence.  And lastly, I was particularly pleased with the extensive use of German and Japanese primary sources, including diaries and letters. It really provided a great juxtaposition to accounts of Allied opinion during this period.

Prior to its entry into WWII the United States was essentially isolationist. After World War I it had drawn down its armed forces to the point where it’s army was approximately the size of Portugal’s. The United States Congress was in many ways  dominated by an isolationist sentiment, and men as prominent as Charles Lindbergh were promoting a xenophobic isolationism even as it became obvious United States entry into the growing conflict was going to be required. FDR, who understood earlier than most that the United States would be drawn into war, recognized and adapted to this reality. As Hamilton portrays it Roosevelt’s political instincts were so spot on he knew exactly how far the country would be willing to go and when. He also knew how to present increased U.S. involvement in a way the public could understand and support. One example of this of course, was the Lend Lease program the U.S. initiated in March 1941 (prior to the events recounted in this book). Roosevelt, recognizing Britain, Free France, and China could not hope to hold out against Germany and Japan without aid, but cognizant of the country’s isolationist mood, devised a way to deliver that aid without it appearing as though it was entering the war. He was able to present it as a defensive measure; by loaning military equipment to those who were fighting our enemies the U.S. could stay out of the fighting. Once the crisis passed, intact equipment would be returned, and the U.S. would be reimbursed for equipment that had been destroyed. He sold this plan in a way every person could understand, by relating it to their own lives. In a December 1940 press conference Roosevelt used the following illustration to demonstrate why the country and Congress should support Lend Lease:

Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15–I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up–holes in it–during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

A February 1941  Gallup poll showed Roosevelt’s campaign for passage had worked, with a Lend Lease proposal receiving the support of 54% of Americans, and it was passed by Congress a month later. Ten months later Lend Lease would would take its place as part of a larger American effort when the empire of Japan declared war on the United States.

augusta

President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, August 9, 1941

On August 7, 1941, four months before American entry into WWII,  a U.S. naval ship, the Northampton class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta slipped into Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Aboard was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt there to meet in secret with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. Though they had met earlier during WWI, this was the first face to face meeting of the two. On August 9th, the H.M.S. Prince of Wales arrived with Churchill aboard. Each had different goals for this first meeting. Great Britain, having been the target of an intense and destructive air campaign  by the German Luftwaffe, was eager for the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. Roosevelt, recognizing the U.S. was not yet ready for this, nevertheless wanted to signal to the country that the United States sympathized with Britain’s plight and opposed Nazi Germany. Given these parameters, Roosevelt suggested development of a set of principles that would guide allied nations after the war. The “Atlantic Charter” agreed to by FDR and Churchill included pledges not to seek territorial gains, to seek lowering of international trade barriers, to work for establishment of global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare, for freedom of the seas, for the right of all nations to self determination, and to work toward a world free from want and fear. This agreement  became the basis for many subsequent agreements including establishment of the United Nations. Like Lend Lease, it was FDR’s way of moving the United States ever closer to a formal wartime alliance with Great Britain without actually crossing that line and incurring the wrath of politically powerful isolationists. For Great Britain it represented a step toward bringing the United States into the war as a full combatant, and for the Axis powers it signaled an escalation of the war; one they would regret encouraging.

On December 7th, 1941 airplanes of the empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Killing or wounding 5,381 Americans, this attack, and the declaration of war four days later by Germany on the United States, signaled the end of America’s role as a mere bit player on the world stage. From this time forward the U.S. would assume it’s position as the dominant economic and military power in the world, a position it has yet to relinquish. Britain on the other hand, would take its place as the junior partner in this alliance.

Due to poor leadership at all levels British forces were defeated in Malaya and Singapore, the latter surrendering without showing much resistance. Japanese Naval sorties into the Indian Ocean panicked the British, forcing them to move their fleet from Ceylon to Kenya, and although they had shown courage and grit during the Battle of Britain, they had not been able to mount any kind of effective counter to German expansion. Meanwhile after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines, the United States achieved a strategic victory over the Japanese Navy at Coral Sea, and completed a decisive one at Midway Island, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers. Domestically, it’s full productive capacity brought to bear, the U.S. was producing war materiel at an astounding rate, and the military services were rapidly adding manpower. Since it was providing the bulk of the men and materiel for the allied war effort (with the exception of the U.S.S.R.), it was understood the U.S. would be the dominant partner in this relationship. And to his credit, Winston Churchill understood and adapted to this reality, eventually. However, as Nigel Hamilton shows, Churchill’s leadership abilities were rightly called into question during this period.

Winston Churchill was an enigmatic man; courageous, stalwart and indefatigable. At the same time he could be stubborn, myopic, and a control freak. As Hamilton describes it, his admirable qualities kept Britain strong and defiant during the Battle of Britain. He was the rock around which the Allied effort eventually grew. But it was his less admirable qualities that were largely responsible for early British setbacks. His stubbornness in not recognizing the futility of trying to restore the British empire, and his poor choice of subordinates resulting in unnecessary tensions between British and American staff officers being two of the most important examples. As British defeats mounted in southeast Asia and North Africa and as the Japanese fleet moved into the Indian ocean fostering fears of an attack on India,  Churchill appeared stubbornly determined to preserve the prewar structure of the British Empire. As Japan moved into the Indian Ocean FDR encouraged Churchill to begin independence negotiations with Indian leaders. Aside from his belief that India deserved independence as a matter of right consistent with the Atlantic Charter, it would also secure a  Indian commitment to fighting off the Japanese. A delegation headed by Sir Stafford Cripps was dispatched to India to negotiate a devolution of power to Indian authorities in exchange for Indian Army support in the war. Churchill subordinates, probably acting with his tacit approval, purposely undermined the negotiations. Fortunately Japanese defeats at Coral Sea and Midway diverted their attention away from the Indian peninsula. Later, after the decision was made to mount the first joint offensive in North Africa rather than attempt a cross channel invasion of France, Churchill, acting on the advice of subordinates, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, mounted an ill conceived raid at Dieppe on the French coast. It was a disaster, with nearly half of  British troops engaged being killed, wounded or captured. With these setbacks, lapses in judgement, stubbornness, and reliance on poorly chosen subordinates, it was only Churchill’s willingness to accede to U.S. leadership, and his position as the face of resistance to Nazi Germany that allowed him to stave off attempts to bring down his government.

Hamilton devotes a significant portion of the book to the decision by Britain and America to make northwest Africa the site of its first offensive. As he presents it, the success of Operation Torch is most attributable to FDR’s political and strategic genius. Pressure on the United States and Britain to mount a cross channel offensive as soon as possible grew as 1941 ended. The U.S. Joint Chiefs including Chief of Staff  George Marshall along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, were pressing for just such an attack. Winston Churchill realized early on this would be a monumental mistake. U.S. troops had yet to experience combat and would be unlikely to stand up to seasoned German troops, the allies had yet to mobilize the men and materiel they would need for such an attack, and the Germans had heavily fortified the most obvious points of attack at Caen and Cherbourg. FDR, after initially appearing to favor such an invasion, came around to Churchill’s view and advocated for French northwest Africa as the site of the first offensive.  Convincing his own staff to go along despite their convictions it would only divert needed materiel from an eventual cross channel attack, and would probably fail on its own merits, was a stellar example of FDR’s ability to know where and when to press an advantage. Allowing his subordinates to make their case freely, he held firm. Eventually, in frustration they advocated moving the primary theater of operations from Europe to the Pacific. Calling their bluff, FDR asked them to provide him the detailed plans they must have been relying on to make such a bold suggestion. Unable to do so since they had impetuously made the suggestion out of frustration, they eventually fell in line with the President. The invasion proceeded and Operation Torch was a success.

Finally, I was very impressed by Hamilton’s use of primary sources from Axis leaders. Most significant of these was the diary of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While many of his entries can be termed whistling past the graveyard, some were very incisive as to the mindset of Allied leaders, the potential success of an Allied invasion of the French coast, and as regards Operation Torch. It provided a very interesting counterpoint to the views of Allied leaders.

Overall I think this is one of the best FDR biographies I have every read. The detail was incredible, the arguments he makes regarding FDR’s skill as a political leader are detailed and very persuasive. The prose is well formed and extremely easy to follow despite the enormous amount of information being thrown at you, Other than my disappointment that it ends with 1942 and that it does not appear Hamilton will be producing another volume, I have nothing but praise for this book.

 

 

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