Category Archives: Politics

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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5.0 rating


As someone who has studied American history almost exclusively, I found Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson to be a refreshing and highly readable look at the cultural origins of, and theoretical explanations for, the rise of nationalism. Though often referencing histories and cultures with which I am unfamiliar, Anderson does a nice job of explaining their relevance to the overall theory he is trying to explain, in a way that doesn’t require extensive, or even passing knowledge of their origins. Perhaps as a result of my relatively limited experience with the histories of cultures outside of the United States, I found some of his conclusions relative to how American historical experience bolstered his arguments, to be somewhat questionable. Most specifically, his rejection of Tom Nairn’s view that nationalist movements have been popular in character and have made an effort to “induct the lower classes into political life,” is contrary to most of what I have read. (Anderson, 48) I also had some difficulty with his description of the American failure to absorb Canada and the existence of an independent Texas Republic, as examples of a comparative failure to form an English-wide-America, and with his simplistic description of the American Civil War as a simple contradiction of economies between North and South. Lastly, though I largely agree with his assertion that nationalism did not arise from “self-consciously held political ideologies,” I would argue that in the case of the United States this might be underestimated.

Anderson divides his book using three broad themes. First, he posits a definition of nationalism in which he introduces his theory of an “imagined community.” Second, he describes the cultural origins of nationalism as the result not of “self-consciously held political ideologies,” but as cultural systems that came earlier, specifically, religious community and the dynastic realm. It was the breakdown of these communities, along with a changed perception of the character of time and space, Anderson argues, that opened the door to the rise of nationalism. Lastly, he describes the confluence of events that gave rise to nationalism, how it became modernized and was replicated, and how it manifested itself at different times and in different regions.

Anderson has developed his theory of the rise of nationalism as an answer to three paradoxes that he describes as having “perplexed” other theorists of nationalism. These are, the “objective” modernity of nations as historians see them versus their antiquity as seen by nationalists, the concept of nationality as a socio-cultural concept versus the surety of its “concrete manifestations,” and the political power of nationalism versus its philosophical incoherence. (Anderson, 5) In part, to explain these paradoxes, Anderson proposes the following definition of nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson, 6) Nations are imagined because its citizens will never know the vast majority of their fellows, it is limited because it exists within finite boundaries, and it is sovereign because it was born “in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” (Anderson, 7) Within time and space the nation’s members view themselves as part of a broad community, moving together through time.

Anderson describes nationalism in relation to its antecedents – religious community and dynastic realm. He argues it is the breakdown of these that provided the opening for nationalism to rise. He also Religious communities were bound together through the use of symbols and sacred texts. A universal understanding of the sacredness of their language as mediated by the intelligentsia gave cohesion to religious communities. Exploration of the non-European world and the loss of confidence in the uniqueness of this sacred language explains, in part, the gradual breakdown of these religious communities. Concomitant with this were changes in the nature of the dynastic realm. These were characterized by centers of power, specifically in the person of a monarch. By definition, these communities were “porous” and indistinct. By the 17th century, the legitimacy of these dynastic monarchies came into question in Western Europe. In addition to this breakdown Anderson also contends the rise in popularity of the novel and newspapers caused conceptions of time and space to change. Rather than time being simultaneous, or as he describes it, in “messianic time,” the idea that everyone in society was moving forward as a community through calendrical time became dominant.

Preceding the rise of nationalism was the interaction between capitalism and communication, specifically the printing press. Anderson argues capitalism was important because the explosion in print distribution abetted the revolution in the use of vernacular languages. This provided a path for the use of language as a way to centralize political and governmental administration. Print languages created a unified way to conduct trade and communicate, thus altering and widening the conception of community.

While extraordinarily important in Anderson’s thesis this confluence of capitalism and print did not in and of itself lead to the rise of nationalism. One must also look at the formation of creole communities in the new world, and why they formed conceptions of their own nation-ness before it took hold in Europe. He defines creole nations as those created and led by people who shared a language with those against whom they fought to gain their independence. He concentrates primarily on those nations formed in opposition to the Spanish empire, with some discussion of the American break with Great Britain. He attributes this rise of nation-ness to a number of factors: the attempts at control by the “metropole” gave rise to an “us vs. them” mentality; the spread of ideas related to the enlightenment; the “willingness of the comfortable classes to sacrifice themselves; the improvement in trans-Atlantic communications; and the rise of the newspaper which “implied [a] refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time.” (Anderson, 52, 63)

Anderson then observes that with the successful formation of nation-states in the new world came the beginning of an era of nationalist expansion in Europe. Specifically, the widespread distribution of print media and the growing strength and particularization of vernacular languages allowed these proto-nations to replicate or “modularize” the example of new world liberation to complete their own nationalist formation.

Anderson takes issue with the views of Tom Nairn, who, in a Marxist critique of nationalism, argues that “nationalist movements have been invariably populist in outlook and sought to induct lower classes into political life.” (Anderson, 48) Rather, Anderson contends, in many proto-nations it was the fear of lower-class mobilization, “to wit, Indian, or Negro-slave uprisings,” that spurred the drive for independence, (Anderson, 48) Most of his examples here involve nations attempting to break away from the domination of Madrid. However, he also uses the United States as an example of this, pointing out “that many of the leaders of the independence movement in the Thirteen Colonies were slave-owning agrarian magnates…who in the 1770s were enraged by the loyalist governor’s proclamation freeing those slaves who broke wi6th their seditious masters.” (Anderson, 49) As I know little of the independence movements in Central and South America I will not dispute Anderson’s contentions with regards those nations, however, as it relates to American independence I do question the definition of the lower-classes as simply Indians and Negro-slaves. Certainly they were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, however, there was an entire class of yeoman farmer and mechanic who I would consider lower class. Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States) would disagree. He views this class as a proto middle class, designed, in part, to buffer the wealthy from the demands of the lower class. While a conventional interpretation of the American Revolution notes the common cause the wealthy and lower classes made to defeat the British – an interpretation I agree with – Anderson and Zinn would likely argue they were making common cause to protect their economic interests on the backs of the poor who ended up doing most of the fighting. There is some truth in this, although studies specifically looking at the motivations of the militia and Continental Army find it tracks very closely to the rhetoric extolling liberty and freedom that is the conventional wisdom.

Ultimately Spain was unable to establish a Spanish-wide community in the new world, largely due to limitations of technology and an inability to control a region so large. Anderson uses the failure of the United States to assimilate Canada, and the temporary existence of an Independent Texas Republic as evidence the United States was unable to create an English-American wide community parallel to the Spanish failure. I question his conclusion here. The failure of America to assimilate Canada was not the result of the backwardness of capitalism or a lack of “technology in relation to the Administrative outreach of the empire.” (Anderson, 63) The American failure to assimilate Canada was a largely a military one, combined with a lack of will. Had Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec in 1775 been successful – as it nearly was – Canada would very likely be part of the United State today. Had the United States had the political will to commit the resources necessary to wage a true war against the British in Canada in 1812 it is not inconceivable at least part of Canada would have been ceded to the United States as part of a peace settlement. The limits of “administrative outreach” are belied by the subsequent expansion to the Pacific, and the successful war against Mexico. Anderson also uses the example of the American Civil War to further support his point regarding the limits of the “bonds of nationalism.” (Anderson, 64) He argues that the combined effects of rapid expansion and economic differences resulted in this conflict. Again, I question this assertion. The issue of slavery was primary. Had it not been there is no evidence this rupture would have occurred. The conflict over slavery had economic aspects certainly, particularly in the debate over the relative merits of a free-labor vs. slave-labor economy. And there were certainly issues related to the rapid expansion of the country, but these were primarily political and related to the expansion of the slave power into western territories. None but the most rabid southern nationalist actually desired the break. It was only the perceived (not actual) inflexibility of those opposed to the expansion of slavery west that induced them to feel otherwise. I really don’t think Anderson made a particularly compelling case for the limits of capitalism and the deleterious effects of “administrative stretch” using the United States as an example of it.

Lastly, while I agree with his rejection of “self-consciously held political ideologies” as a cause for the rise of nationalism, I do think he might have pointed to the experience of the United States as an exception that proves the rule. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the break with Great Britain was cloaked in ideology. Notions of liberty and republicanism were central to involving all classes in the effort. The success of Thomas Paine’s publications and the use of slogans such as “taxation without representation,” show that at least at a popular level, ideology was an important ingredient in the rise of American nationalism. Now, Zinn and Nairn would likely argue these assertions of fealty to liberty and freedom were propaganda designed to lull the masses into compliance. That it was ironic that a country fighting for natural rights would still deny them to most of the population even after independence is not lost on me. However, as an explanation for the rise of nationalism it really does not matter what the reality of these assertions were, it only mattered what people believed they were. And there is ample evidence Americans of all classes internalized them, and still internalize them as the (often shallow) regard American’s have for the popular notion of the founding shows.

Overall this is really compelling reading. Like the work of Gary Gerstle in American Crucible, this really makes you look at nationalism in ways that challenge common conceptions. With the exceptions I noted above I found Anderson’s thesis very persuasive. Once read there is little chance you will read any account of America’s founding and growth in the same light.


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Virtually every issue we deal with as a country is, at its base, influenced by our view of national identity, and the nature of citizenship. Many authors have looked at this topic from a number of different perspectives. Gary Gilroy in Black Atlantic gave us a transnational view of black identity which transcended the borders of the nation-state.  Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism talks about imagined communities bound together by limited borders and a belief in shared experience.  Prasenjit Duara in Historicizing National Identity challenges us to look at nationalism using alternate views of time and space. Lizbeth Cohen in A Consumers’ Republic looks at the evolution of American national identity with consumerism as the central focus.  Aiwha Ong in Flexible Citizenship takes a critical look at the view Americans have of what constitutes good citizenship and how that manifests itself in the way instruments of governmentality interacts with new immigrants, and Gary Gerstle, in the book I will be reviewing here, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, views civic and racial nationalism as the defining paradigm with which to look at the evolution of American citizenship.

Policies aimed at Immigration and social policy, drug and law enforcement, affirmative action, welfare policy, foreign policy and many other issues all can be traced to the ways we view citizenship and the struggle to maintain a uniquely American identity. Gary Gerstle has given us a uniquely valuable tool for looking at American nationalism and the meaning of citizenship, encompassing many of the theories proposed by the above authors, but looking at it through the dual lens of racial and civic nationalism. Gerstle structures his book using well known historical figures to illustrate his point, particularly in the person former president Theodore Roosevelt. In Gerstle’s narrative it is from this point that subsequent events can be referenced.

For Gerstle civic nationalism is ably represented by the views of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who, endorsing Israel Zangwill’s view of America as “God’s Crucible, where all races of Europe are melting and reforming!” (Gerstle, 3), relocated this transformative power not in God, “but in the nations core political ideals, in the American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.” (Gerstle, 4) Since these principles were enshrined in the founding documents Gerstle notes that Schlesinger and others have “argued that they have marked something distinctive about the American people and their polity.” (Gerstle, 4) Mitigating the benefits of civic nationalism in Gerstle’s view is a racial nationalism that “conceives of America in ethno-racial terms, as people held together, as people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.” (Gerstle, 4) Gerstle notes that like civic nationalism, racial nationalism was also inscribed in our founding documents, particularly in the Constitution, which acknowledged the enslavement of Africans through its extension of the transatlantic slave trade, and definition of slaves as less than fully human via the 3/5 clause.

The mixture of these two types of nationalism has driven American governmental policy from 1890 through to the present. By looking at the inherent tensions between these two views in the lives of significant American leaders, from Theodore Roosevelt through to Bill Clinton, Gerstle is able to personalize and focus his analysis of how the intermixture of the two resulted in a surprisingly strong and uniquely American national identity. This identity, in his view, lasted until the 1960s when the civil rights movement and Vietnam War began the disintegration of this “imagined community,” into more granular identities of ethnicity, gender and class. Overlapping this is the effect of immigration policy and war on this mix mixture of racial and civic nationalism.

Gerstle identifies Theodore Roosevelt as the embodiment of this tension between civic and racial nationalism, the mixture of which allowed him to pursue progressive social and economic policies that benefited a significant portion of the population. Throughout the book Gerstle uses TR as the point of reference in his analysis of later developments. This is an effective device that gives the reader an easily understandable base to return to in order to put later events into context. At times he is a little over enthusiastic, as when he offers an opinion as to what Roosevelt would have thought of later developments. I’m not a fan of this kind of hypothetical speculation. While understand the purpose is to personalize the comparison in order to make it more easily accessible to the reader, I think a think a simple comparison to Roosevelt’s views and actions would have been more effective.

Theodore Roosevelt’s views as to what would make the American archetype had two components. First was his idealization of the rugged individualist; he idolized the Indian fighter, the frontiersman, and the cowboy. “The harsh wilderness,” he believed, “stripped people of their Old World ranks and privileges.” (Gerstle, 24) The harsh environment of the frontier produced conditions of rough equality and mutual dependence, and from this “a democratic ethos emerged.” (Gerstle, 24) Echoing Aiwha Ong’s views on the American view of an ideal citizen, Roosevelt believed that “self-reliance was perhaps the most important ingredient of success.” (Gerstle, 24)

The second component of Roosevelt’s idealized American archetype involved his view on racial hybridity. Theodore Roosevelt believed a controlled mixing of races would produce this ideal. “For Roosevelt the explanation for the rise of democracy…rested ultimately on the racial superiority of the English-speaking peoples.” (Gerstle, 24) He excluded non-Europeans from this mixture, believing that certain racial groups – eastern and southern European, Asian, and African – did not have the ability to function in a democratic society. Later on however, he began to soften his objection to the inclusion of eastern and southern Europeans, deciding they were a worthy addition to the mixture Roosevelt also came to respect the Japanese people and believed they too could be included.

In addition to his views on racial mixing and the importance of rugged individualism, Roosevelt was passionately devoted to civic nationalism. Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Gerstle describes Roosevelt as “someone who imagined the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”  (Gerstle, 45) This at times produced contradictions between his actions and statements. Most notable was the way he treated the reputation of black cavalryman who had fought in the Spanish-American War. Immediately after the war he was effusive in his praise for their valor, but as time went by he began to denigrate and downplay their contribution. Thus, for all practical purposes “Roosevelt’s national community was open to anyone would could claim European origins or ancestry.” (Gerstle, 45) It certainly excluded African-Americans. In this and other examples, Roosevelt’s notions of the superiority of European racial stock conflicted with his views on civic nationalism. It was this type of conflict that Gerstle argues, has characterized American national identity since then.

Gerstle’s admiration for Theodore Roosevelt is clear. He concludes his analysis by noting that Roosevelt’s “civic nationalism was capacious and democratic.” (Gerstle, 79) He notes that Roosevelt wanted to open the country to all European immigrants, “even those who had come from the ‘inferior’ peoples of southern and eastern Europe.” (Gerstle, 79) He also notes that Roosevelt’s views on the role of government in the economy changed; abandoning the notion that individuals could, through simple hard work and dedication raise themselves out of poverty, he embraced the need for an activist government that protected the rights of disadvantaged peoples. The only price for this was that immigrants had to “jettison their Old World cultures and assimilate fully into American life.” (Gerstle, 79) Though these views would not carry him to the White House in 1912, Gerstle notes, his “program became the template upon which the twentieth-century liberalism took shape.” (Gerstle, 79)

Chapters four through six in many ways are the most interesting in this book. In them, Gerstle explores how the tensions between racial and civic nationalism manifest themselves in governmental policy. In particular, Gerstle focuses on immigration policy and war as the areas where this tension is seen most clearly. In this view war offers a way for the country to test itself, and to fight for its most important values. It also, as Theodore Roosevelt believed, reinvigorated the racial mixing he believed was necessary to keeping the nation vital. Immigration policy on the other hand, made visible who should and should not be eligible for citizenship. Thus, while Woodrow Wilson’s “peace without victory” policy flowed from civic nationalism, the military was still segregated. After the “war to end all wars,” America went through a period of severe immigration restriction, effectively barring southern and eastern Europeans and Asians, based on the belief that people from those regions were not fit to become American citizens. In the case of the Japanese the fear was the opposite, with many believing they were equal and possibly superior to Americans of strictly European descent. Since they could “be neither assimilated nor made subservient, they had to be excluded altogether from America.” (Gerstle, 112) Gerstle argues these restrictive immigration policies had the effect of stabilizing racial tensions in the country to the point that when Franklin Roosevelt assumed office there was very little attention paid to this aspect of nationalism. It was assumed most immigrants had achieved the desired “American-ness.” It also goes without saying, while racial tensions subsided as a public issue, it did not mean that racism and inequality were no longer a problem. In many ways this calm interim made later conflict more inevitable, and more violent.

More important however, was FDR’s reaction to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Instead of merely restoring the morale of the nation after assuming office, he undertook an “experiment in state building without precedent.” (Gerstle, 128) Gerstle speculates that FDR was able to enact much of what Theodore Roosevelt had attempted because of the lessening of the tensions between civic and racial nationalistic impulses. Most important was the massive government intervention in the economy, which TR believed was necessary to secure the “social rights” of all citizens. Gerstle argues that FDR was successful in this. FDR also shared TR’s views on racial hybridity, though without the animus for supposedly inferior racial groups. And, like TR, Franklin Roosevelt was a “fervent nationalist who conceived of the nation as an entity nobler than any particular class, region, or interest.” (Gerstle, 132) With American entry into World War II civic nationalism reached an acme that has not been repeated since, even during the cold war. In a reaction to racial purity as practiced by the Nazi’s, America reveled in their diversity. But, as with the aftermath of World War I, racial nationalism rose from its pre-war slumber. Restrictions were again placed on immigration allegedly due to the number of refugees entering America, and with the segregation again of African American troops, the conflict between racial and civic nationalism was again on display.

Gerstle sees the cold war years that followed World War II as the last period in which the tension between racial and civic nationalism as maintaining the American “imagined community.” The threat of communism and fear of home-grown radicals served as the pretext for an increase of civic nationalism, even though in this case it served to deny some civil liberties. The U.S. again severely restricted immigration as Italian and Jewish immigrants were particularly discriminated against.

Finally he documents the deconstruction of “Rooseveltian Nationalism” with the start of the civil rights movement, and with America’s humiliation in Vietnam. Gerstle argues that racial groups who had once strived to achieve “whiteness,” were now abandoning an American nationalism in favor of ethnic or class identification. “The nationalist crisis occurred primarily in the realm of ideology, culture, and institutions. Many people who resided in America no longer imagined that they belonged to the same national community of that they shared a common set of ideals. The bonds of nationhood had weakened, and the Rooseveltian program of nation building that had created those bonds in the first place had been repudiated. A nationalist era that had begun in the early decades of the twentieth century had come to a stunning end.” (Gerstle, 345) He ends with speculation on how civic nationalism could be revived without the baggage that racial nationalism brought with it. In this he is skeptical, believing America will either opt for the “resurgence of a strong, solidaristic, and exclusionary national identity of the sort that has existed in the past; or, in the interests of tolerance and diversity, we will continue to opt for a weaker identity.” (Gerstle, 373)

In the end, Gerstle is fearful we will never recapture our civic nationalism without the baggage of racial nationalism, or we will become so tolerant and diverse that our national unity will be permanently weakened. In this I disagree. In my opinion it is not racial nationalism we need fear, but rather a religious one. In my experience racial identity, spawned by discrimination and racism, does not entirely divorce those adopting it from a desire for civic nationalism. The tolerance Gerstle fears, will not permanently result in a country of separate tribal identities, rather, it will reduce the need for division based on them. Tolerance and diversity implies an acceptance of differences that is the opposite of racism. Since it is that racism that spawned this racial tribalism in the first place, as the racism ebbs, so will the perceived need to identify more strongly by race than by nationality. My real fear is we are moving toward a religious nationalism, one that induces people to identify more strongly with a religious identification than a national one. Can anyone see what has been going on in Kentucky the last several weeks and not wonder if this is the case?

Increasingly, we see public policy, and the worth of public officials, being judged based upon their adherence to a religious credo. Over the last twenty years we have seen attempts to modify the constitution to discriminate against gays, to codify a religious view of how women control their bodies, to guarantee prayer in the schools, to codify expressions of religious belief in our national oaths, and to submit scientific curriculums to religious interpretations. All of this testifies to this fear. Our political campaigns have become dominated by this as well. As a presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would not influence public policy. Forty-four years later, in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would influence public policy, particularly in relation to reproductive rights. Things have only accelerated since then with candidates increasingly asserting religious law comes before civil law.

While I disagree with his fear of racial identity, in terms of format and style I have rarely had such a pleasant read. Gerstle’s narrative is lively and flows easily from topic to topic. His use of well-known historical figures (TR, FDR, Wilson etc.) as touchpoints is very effective. He made very good use of his sources, though at times neglected to cite statements made that clearly required it. Also, as I mentioned earlier, projecting what dead people would think about specific modern events was unnecessary.







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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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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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Written in the style of a murder mystery, Suzanne Lebsock in A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial has given us a work which is both entertaining and learned. The way a good mystery leaves something unresolved at the end of each chapter, so does Lebsock, turning what could have been an interesting, but dry, look at race relations in post-reconstruction era Virginia, into a real page turner. More importantly however, she has written a book that gives a real life glimpse into the economic, social, and political lives of both blacks and whites in rural Lunenberg, Virginia following the Civil War. And although not explicitly stated by her, I am of the opinion that in exploring this set of events, Lebsock is reflecting the racial consequences of the new south ideology given voice by C. Vann Woodward, primarily in his works, Origins of the New South and The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

A Murder in Virginia centers on the murder of one Lucy Jane Pollard, wife of farmer Edward S. Pollard. Her body was discovered a few feet from her home, Lucy Pollard had been “murdered with an ax on a sticky June afternoon in 1895”[1] Suspicion immediately and predictably fell on black suspects, and within two days, “though no physical evidence linked them to the crime, six black women had been arrested for her murder.”[2] Later, a black man, Solomon Marable was also arrested. As Lebsock shows us, the arrest of these black suspects was the last predictable thing about this case.

Contradicting earlier looks at the new south which have tended to take an optimistic view of the post reconstruction period, emphasizing north-south reconciliation following the end of military reconstruction, and taking a sympathetic view of the redeemers (the men who helped restore white supremacy), C. Vann Woodward takes a decidedly darker, and less continuous view. Following reconstruction, and as a result of the compromise that put Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House in exchange for southern home rule, northern monied interests combined with southern Democrats to restore white rule in the South. With the failure of southern populism and its initial appeal to racial harmony, southern conservatives used the bogeyman of black domination to frighten poor whites into line. From then on, blacks saw the rights they had gained during and immediately after reconstruction fade away, and eventually saw the installation of Jim Crow throughout the south.

This process was not instantaneous however, leading to one of the more controversial aspects of Woodward’s work; his contention that race relations during this period were in flux, and were much more flexible than was generally thought. A Murder in Virginia reflects this flexibility, where aside from the initial suspicion that the murderers were black, and the worries they would be lynched on the way to trial, nothing about this case seemed to go the way we would expect based on our normal assumptions of the nature of race relations after the Civil War. This is evidenced throughout the book. There is the casual nature of the relationships between blacks and whites; with Lucy Pollard making dinner for one of the accused who worked on her farm. And one is struck by the power of John Mitchell, the black man who led the effort to defend the accused women, who was a member of the Richmond city council, an editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, and who rubbed shoulders with many of the most powerful white men in the city. Also interesting were the number of former confederate lawyers who were willing to help the women with their defense, the impartiality of the Virginia Supreme Court in ordering retrials, the decision of Judge Samuel F. Coleman to order a new trial for the defendants, and the efforts of Governor Charles O’Ferrell who later called out the state militia to protect the defendants against possible lynchings, and pardoned defendant Mary Barnes. Even Lunenberg county officials, who had initially convicted the women and defended that conviction through the appeals process, demonstrated some fairness by protecting the defendants from harm and eventually dropping the charges. The penultimate evidence for the complex nature of race relations reflected in this book is that with the exception of Solomon Marable, who was eventually executed, all of the defendants, through the efforts of both black and white supporters, either had their charges dropped, or were pardoned.

One must be careful not to overstate the level of black-white harmony during this period. As white dominance began to reassert itself one could see the undercurrent of racism that presaged Jim Crow moving closer to the surface. It was this racism that led the women and Marable to be arrested in the first place, and though the county and state took pains to protect them, the very fact they needed protection spoke volumes about the racism of local whites. It was also at this time that we saw the Danville riots take place, and a commensurate rise in Klan violence.

Lebsock’s book is also important for the glimpse it gives us into the lives of blacks during this period. She highlights the changing role of black women, looking at their movement from their prescribed sphere of hearth and home that characterized their lives for much of the nineteenth century, to their entrance into the public. Specifically she tells the story of Rosa Bowser and Marietta Chiles, education pioneers and the founders of the Richmond Women’s League, formed to aid in the defense of the Lunenberg women. She also looks at how blacks adjusted economically during this period, highlighting the importance of the household economy to their survival, characterized by home gardens, the raising of farm animals, and the bartering that was necessary to purchase necessities. On the day of the murder one of those accused, Pokey Barnes, was bartering for chickens. As Lebsock observes, “this was the hidden economy of the poor, a ceaseless exchange among women who struck deals in person and moved goods, one house to another, on bare feet.” [3] She also provides insight into the mutual dependence between white landowners and black tenants, who, in exchange for a piece of land, agreed to work that of the owner. The importance of this arrangement is evidenced in her narrative by the fact that Wilson Abercrombie, the husband of defendant Mary Abernathy, continued to work for Edward Pollard after the murder.

One of the great strengths of this book is the way Lebsock marshals her resources, particularly contemporary newspaper accounts. They provide a significant part of the narrative, as the press played an important role in winning new trials for the Lunenberg women. Particularly important was her use of the Richmond Planet, Richmond’s black newspaper run by John Mitchell. By mining this resource, Lebsock is able to underscore the truly vital role played by this publication.

As a piece of history I am not really sure if this book breaks any new ground; I don’t believe it does. It seems as though the narrative reflects well-known views on the nature of the south during this period. However, I have very few criticisms to make. The book is well organized, especially important given the number of people she was obliged to include in the narrative. Particularly helpful was the “List of Characters” she provided at the beginning. I found myself referencing it a number of times as I read this. Overall then this is an extremely well written book with a style that will appeal to the casual reader as well as those with a deeper interest in the history of the Jazz Age and in race relations.





[1] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), p.13

[2] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia, p. 42

[3] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia p. 140

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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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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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In Washington’ Crossing, David Hackett Fischer has given us a fresh view of the events, motivations and consequences surrounding the New Jersey Campaign of 1776, pitting the British and Hessian army under General William Howe against the Continental Army and attached militia under General George Washington. Extremely well written and extensively documented, using numerous primary and secondary sources as well as many very helpful maps, Fischer has produced a book that, in my opinion, will be definitive on this subject for many, many years. Not only has he given us an extremely detailed and lucid account of the military maneuvers encompassed by this campaign, but he has also elucidated a cogent framework for understanding the motivations of the two armies, the leadership styles of the commanders on each side, particularly Howe and Washington, and the effect of this campaign on the future success of the American army. In addition, and most importantly for the accurate representation of historical events, Fischer has challenged many of the long held beliefs we have about certain aspects of this campaign and its participants.

The driving narrative of this work is the detailed description of the New Jersey Campaign of 1776. Contained in it are numerous corrections of long held beliefs about the campaign and its participants. Fischer begins with a description of the participating armies and their motivations, devoting one chapter each to the Americans, British regulars, and Hessians. Over the years stereotypical notions about the motivations of the British and Hessians have taken root. Our need for a villain in every story has led us to demonize not only the British and Hessian armies , which are thought of alternatively as a tool of a tyrannical dictator, and a brutish mercenary army, but also men such as Charles Cornwallis, William and Richard Howe, and Johann Rall. As Fischer makes clear, though flawed in many ways, these men were honorable and were trying to do their best to serve their countries. In many cases, particularly with the Howes and Cornwallis, British leaders sympathized with the Americans and were working not to defeat them utterly, but to bring them back to their loyalty to the crown.

It has become fashionable to denigrate the motivation of those fighting for American independence. For many, it is a trite cliché to say they were fighting for freedom and liberty, yet as Fischer shows, along with other factors, these notions were the primary motivator for most Americans. Fischer does an excellent job of not only describing the structure of each army, but also in taking an objective look at each of the participants, highlighting the positive and negative attributes of each.

As Fischer describes it, the British Army was not only “one of the finest ever seen,” but was also an army full of paradoxes.(Fischer, 33) As an institution and as its “regimental badges and colors proclaimed, it served the King. (Fischer, 33) Yet, it was actually a creation of Parliament, subject to re-authorization every twelve months. As occurred later in the United States, the British people were very proud of the accomplishments of their military, yet were distrustful of a standing army and “kept it on a short leash.” (Fischer, 33) In organizational terms, it was both bureaucratized and decentralized, more like an army of separate tribes, with their own rules and customs. Most importantly however according to Fischer, is the mistaken notion that the British army was simply the bludgeon by which King George III intended to defeat America. In reality, for the British army, like their American counterparts, the war “was a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” (Fischer, 50) Primary among those beliefs was loyalty to the British monarchy. As Fischer points out British soldiers swore a personal oath “to be true to our Sovereign Lord King George.” (Fischer, 50) For these soldiers, this loyalty and the rituals that celebrated it represented Ideals of loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service…” (Fischer, 50)

The motivation for the Hessian armies in America, though different from those of the British and Americans, was nevertheless quite different than the simpleminded pursuit if money that is ascribed to them by most people. While the army was paid handsomely for their services in America, this was not their prime motivation for agreeing to serve. In reality, the Hessian army was created as part of an enlightened culture that prized “reason and order, fidelity and loyalty, discipline and regularity.” (Fischer, 54) Friedrich Wilhelm II viewed his Hessian army as a school of discipline, and encouraged all able-bodied men to join, even those of aristocratic families. The result was the largest army in proportion to population in the world. And, while the average Hessian underwent far stricter discipline than their British and American counterparts, their motivation, according to Fischer were the values of “order and discipline…service and honor.” (Fischer, 61)

As noted above, it has become almost cliché to say that those fighting for American independence were doing so for freedom and liberty. It has become fashionable to ascribe motivations of greed and selfishness as the primary motivation for these soldiers. As Fischer makes very clear, this is simply not the case. He has marshaled an impressive array of primary evidence that clearly indicates that Americans were primarily fighting for their notions of freedom and liberty, first to regain their rights as Englishman, and later to gain their independence from Britain altogether. Fischer does not discount other inducements. For the soldiers from Marblehead, Massachusetts, for example, profit was most definitely on their mind in their desire to return home and join the privateers plundering British shipping. And, clearly, the depredations committed  by many British and Hessian soldiers during the New Jersey campaign motivated thousands of men to join the militia. In addition to making a persuasive case that these notions of freedom and liberty were the driving motivations for most American soldiers, Fischer does an excellent job of describing how men  from different parts of the country viewed those notions, and then tying that to a description of how George Washington was able to adapt to this and create an American way of fighting.

Notions of freedom and liberty in 1776, for which most Americans fought, was understood differently based largely on where one resided. From “the collective rights of New England, [to] the reciprocal rights of Philadelphia Associators, the individual rights of back country riflemen, and the hegemonic rights of the Fairfax men,” all viewed freedom as their primary motivator. (Fischer, 364)  As Fischer ably demonstrates, George Washington, largely as a result of his experiences in the French and Indian War, was able to accommodate these different views and in so doing create an American way of “war-fighting,” characterized by the notion that all the American army had to do was to survive, by a willingness to take chances with success, with a prudence in risking the lives of the soldiers, a reliance on religion as a motivating factor, and most unique of all, a concern for popular opinion. It is this last, Fischer argues, which characterizes an army subservient to civilian authority.

At the center of this new way of fighting was George Washington. It was his ability to accommodate himself to its realities that made this new way successful in the end. This is evidenced by the way in which he took advantage of the New Jersey militia following the victory at Princeton; by submerging his moral distaste for the lack of discipline among the militia and allowing them to engage in the type of guerrilla war that brought success.This Forage War caused almost as many enemy casualties as did the New York and New Jersey campaigns combined. It was also evidenced, according to Fischer, by the style in which Washington conducted his councils of war. In contrast to Cornwallis’ which were characterized by extreme deference and a pre-ordained outcome dictated by Cornwallis himself, Washington’s reflected a “diversity of cultures…the pluralism of elites…a more open polity…a less stratified society, and especially by expanding ideas of liberty and freedom.” (Fischer, 315) In his councils, Washington encouraged a free exchange of ideas, listened more than he talked, and took freely from the ideas of others. The result was an enthusiastic consensus for the course of action, of which the decision to attack Princeton in an excellent example, and more importantly, a growing respect and admiration among the officers for George Washington as their leader.


Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic painting depicting Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.

The heart of Fischer’s book of course is the detailed narrative of the New Jersey campaign itself. It is often very easy to get lost in the description of battles and maneuvers, especially if one does not have a military background. However, Fischer was able to describe the campaign in a very detailed way that did not leave me totally confused. Important here were some very well placed battle maps which aided in the comprehension of the detailed narrative. In addition, Fischer was able to dispel some well established misconceptions about this campaign, and to illuminate some aspects of it that were overlooked. Most importantly as I described above, are the myths surrounding the motivations of the different participants. However, events such as the Second Battle of Trenton and the Forage War, almost universally ignored in other works, are described in detail here. The myth persists that the Hessians were nursing hangovers when Washington attacked. Fischer clearly demonstrates that this is not true, and in so doing elevates what the Americans accomplished, as well as dispelling the notion that the Hessians were incompetent. He also shows that the Americans did not lack ammunition, and in fact, were better armed in many ways than the Hessians. He also takes issue with those who mock the notion that Washington would be standing in the Durham boat as they crossed the Delaware River as depicted in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting, noting that had he been seated, it would have been in a puddle of frozen water. Finally, is the notion that Washington was more lucky than gifted. As Fischer makes clear, Washington learned from his mistakes in the New York campaign, and clearly out generaled his opposition.

He concludes his book with an excellent summary, along with a description of the importance of this campaign. Disputing the notion that these were symbolic victories, Fischer notes that the New Jersey campaign inflicted severe damage on the British and Hessian armies. It was also of course a shot in the arm for the American cause. As the result of these victories, Washington was able to force the British from New Jersey, cause British leaders to look to the defensive, and most importantly, it allowed Washington to recruit enough men to carry on the fight, It also instilled in the American public a new confidence in heir army and its leaders, particularly Washington, and it gave the army new confidence in themselves.

Fischer also includes an excellent section describing the humanity in which American leaders fought. It was not enough to win, but it was necessary to win “in a way that was consistent with the values of their society.” (Fischer, 375) In contrast to the attitudes of many British and Hessian leaders, this meant quarter would be granted to all who surrendered, and that prisoners would be treated humanely. While there were those who did not agree, Washington set the standard.

There is little to fault in this book. It is extremely well sourced, clearly written, and makes very persuasive, almost unassailable arguments. Fischer includes an exhaustive appendix that includes many details not found in the main narrative, and the index is one of the best I have seen.

Very highly recommended.

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